Coming out of a long underground tunnel, I tried to get my bearings. We were about five minutes away from Umeda Station in central Osaka, and we appeared to be lost. Where was the beer festival? The Umeda Sky Building. Where was the Umeda Sky Building? I couldn’t see it anywhere. We turned a corner around the large building next to us, I tilted my head up and saw this:
Under the arch formed by the enormous building were tents selling beers and food from all over the world. I turned to the three people with me – Scarlett, a French guy called Ben, and a Japanese girl called Asumi – and grinned. This was looking good already.
For a society stereotyped as stait-laced and organised, the Japanese do outdoor revelry very well. There was a fun atmosphere in the crowd, which was largely divided between what looked like wholesome family outings of Japanese and gaijin who were obviously there to either get drunk or chase girls. (Our group being composed of two white guys and two Asian girls, we were prime targets for both sets of foreigners.) I charged in right away, grabbing a Corona first off as a little private tribute to absent friends (here’s to you, Matt…) and leading our intrepid party through the throng.
Within about ten minutes, Ben found some more French guys (I swear they must have some Gallic radar or something), some of whom fitted the “dirty expat” stereotype a little too well. One was in his early thirties but dressed like one of those oh-so-fashionable freshers that clog up the Leeds campus; tight T-shirt, earrings, gelled hair. They were good fun though, and didn’t confirm the stereotype by hitting on the two girls present. I talked to Asumi, and found out she was funny, clever, and best of all, doesn’t conform to the high-pitched, giggly stereotype of the Japanese girl. Even in a country that values kawaii, or cuteness, very highly, it’s strange to see young women in their early twenties act like pliant, squeaky-voiced anime characters whenever they see a foreigner. What’s more depressing is that a lot of the international students at Gaidai seem to lap it up. (Jo from Leeds summed up the situation succinctly, if none too tactfully, when he said “Most of the guys at the CIE have yellow fever and most of the Japanese girls are gaijin hunters”.) So when you come across a girl who’s the exception to the rule, it’s such a relief you want to thank her for just being normal.
It was a fun night. I wonder now how I must have looked to the Japanese people on the last train back, sprawled by the full seats cradling an empty bottle of Grolsch (bought for me by a lonely Danish-Canadian expat) as a souvenir. Hey, you’re only young and stupid once. I was back at the Sky Building at 1 o’clock the next day for the British Council Education Fair. Jo and I had volunteered to help out at the Leeds University stall, talking to prospective Japanese students about living in Leeds. We met some cool people, including a Kansai Gaidai graduate who’d done her year abroad at Leeds.
As often happens with things like this, I did’t really think about the possibilities on offer to me. While Jo was talking about asking the British Council for an internship, I was grabbing free coffee and reading through this year’s Leeds accommodation guide. At one point I had the initiative to ask what organisation the Japanese woman at our stall worked for. She told me about the British Education Office, in effect an agency which helped students apply for British universities in exchange for a commission on tuition fees. I’d just finished taking in this interesting information when Jo strode back to our table and announced that he’s talked to the head of the British Education Office at this event, and it was possible he’d be working for them over the winter. I bristled. Why didn’t I think of that? I hated him at that moment. He turned to me with a supremely gracious smile and said I could have the contact information if I wanted.
A small voice in my head said, Why bother? People like him have all the luck. A smaller and more truthful voice said, Yeah, right. You don’t hate him for having these chances. You hate yourself for having the same chances and not taking them.
Sunday dawned bright and early, which after a second night at the beer festival really wasn’t what I wanted. Okaasan had arranged for me to go and stay with a fellow host mum and friend of hers today. Her foreign student was a genial American, who wears an eyepatch at the moment as a result of an eye infection picked up while volunteering in Africa. That evening, both of us went out with his host dad to an onsen, or hot spring, near their house. I knew about the whole “going round naked” aspect of the thing, and I’d been prepared to feel awkward, but actually it’s not embarassing at all. I always knew I’d end up naked in a room full of disinterested-looking strangers. I just thought I’d be more drunk when it happened.
Everything there is wonderfully relaxing, from the hot pools to the sauna and steam rooms to the ice-cold pool, handily coloured blue. You come out of there feeling brilliant and ready to sleep like a log, even without the few late nights I’d had. The following morning we got up early to set off on a journey of some kind. I found out what sort when, up in the mountains, we unexpectedly pulled into a car park, got out and started walking. Thousands of identical graves stood in perfect rows all the way up the mountainside. We were going to see the family grave. We stood by it, host mum and dad poured water on it and we chanted together, then we went to a “rest area” and had sandwiches. Then we set back off.
If the day taught me one thing, it was that while my host family may not be perfect, they’re a lot better than some others. This host mum was completely insane. She would ask her student odd questions, based on no discernable train of thought or outside stimulus, most of which she already knew the answers to. I asked the guy at one point how this kind of treatment didn’t drive him insane. He fixed me with his one good eye and said “It does.” Maybe being constantly tired despite sleeping decent hours was getting to me. All I knew was after spending all day in the car listening to host mum’s bizarre non-conversation, along with constant exposure to the Eagles and Jimmy Buffet, I was either going to go mad, kill myself or become a born-again Christian.
Fortunately, I was delivered back to the Ogawas late on Monday night, unharmed in body or mind. I got into bed and closed my eyes at 9:30, and didn’t open my eyes until 7 the next morning. It seems to have done the trick. Now all I have to deal with are the Japanese language midterms this week.