Thursday, April 28, 2005

It Must've Been Love

You're thinking, more like I must've been outta my mind when I bought this. Pictured is the latest and greatest addition to my apartment. Yes, Valentine's Day was months ago, but this luv seat serves as my year-round desk chair.

While admittedly not anyone's first choice based on style, how about some points for function over form? Ikea Japan opens in autumn 2006. My back and rump can't hold out. That crippling wooden stool is an invitation for scoliosis and hemorrhoids. This is the only chair I've found with any padding, including much needed spinal support.

To ward off physical deformity, I must stoop to the sensation of living in a doll house sitting on a petite heart seat against a backdrop of pink curtains, which fittingly match the color of the closest subway line. Tea party anyone? You're on the stool.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

There’s something taboo in Japan about rubbish. Like it’s not supposed to exist in an unseparated form. I’ve been here for 10 days, and have seen as many open-top bins. I marvel at how streets stay spotless.

In NYC, we indiscriminately chuck any item into receptacles populating street corners and subway platforms (or onto the tracks to avenge MTA fare hikes). Here I fear caning for such an offense, so I am saddled with following stringent garbage protocol.

For example, take my apartment complex. Burnable materials are collected Monday and Thursday while non-burnable pickup occurs Wednesday. Thursday is resources day, and Friday the men wash their hands of the stinky stuff. Hefty Cinch Sack hasn’t caught on here. Instead, plastic grocery bags are piled in a designated area, which prevents putting out bags in advance of the designated day. In fact, the only acceptable time to curb rubbish is between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. the morning of collection.

If you are anything like me, you barely have enough time to rub on the pit stick before dashing off to work. Thus, the narrow window of opportunity slams shut when I'm in the shower, and my trash heap multiplies. To prevent stinking up my 13 sq. meter apartment, I’ve resorted to stuffing banana peels, edamame skins and empty soy sauce packets inside Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) sushi containers. To outfox roaches always on the take, I let my fridge double as a garbage can for these now encased organics. Garbage now occupies more shelf space than does fresh food. Anyone know the Japanese word for “baking soda?”

So what’s preventing me from mastering this advanced art of curbside collection? Well, you could spend half a day making sure your disposal is up to snuff. Garbage must be contained in tied TMG (no idea) semi-transparent bags and placed outside on the correct hour of the correct day. The landlord confirms that disposal “is one of the most important issues in the neighborhood.”

Scare tactics spur compliance: “If the garbage is not properly separated, it will not get picked up and it will be returned to you promptly.” How prompt – 8:05 a.m. prompt? Maybe the Tokyo sanitation men could serve as a backup alarm clock. Since instructions specify all but inking name and apartment number on the bags, these workers had better correlate those addictive Country Ma’am Chocochip Caffe Latte [sic] cookie wrappers as originating from apartment #208B. Each pog-sized cookie is individually wrapped, which defies ecological logic since I devoured the entire box in one sitting.

Fortunately crib sheets exist for clueless gaijin. Metals, ceramics, and rubber are non-burnable as is kitchen garbage, which must be “drained off thoroughly.” Umm, okay. Light bulbs must be wrapped in the packaging of the replacement. What’s next, bundling dental floss? Clothes count as burnable, just not leather ones. Paper diapers are of course burnable with the caveat to “remove excreta in advance.” And put it where? Back where it came from? In the “resources” pile to make fertilizer? Good thing Hicca and I have nine months to figure this one out.

Why can’t Tokyo mimic NYC and export trash to Odaiba, their geographical equivalent of Staten Island, an island built on reclaimed land. Or ship it to neighboring Yokohama, the city across the bay (think NJ).

The point of this post is that last week my garbage reached a critical mass. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Under the cover of darkness, my trash bag and I stole into a nearby park beneath Highway 9 (for some reason many parks are under overpasses).

Locals smoked on benches or walked dogs. Nervously swinging my bag of taboo goods, I approached a rare but overflowing public trashcan gleaming in the moonlight. I had to make it fit; the next can was probably kilometers away.

A naughty school girl stared at me. The dirty magazine was still moist from the afternoon rain. I picked it up, and in one motion pushed my bag down top of the others, setting the mag back on top as a lid. My burden lifted, but cheeks red with shame, I made a beeline for the nearest exit.

This week I’m not going back to the park. So if you’ll excuse me, tomorrow is non-burnable day, and I’ve got some sorting to do.

* * *

Update: I wasn't kidding. This article is on the money about the obsessive Japanese mentality: Waste Watchers

Monday, April 25, 2005

Top 10 Signs That You are in Japan:

1) You can't locate a garbage can, but also can't find a piece of litter.
2) You choose a restaurant based on plastic food models in the window (see photo; I always get the bottom left meal for $8.85).
3) Trucks talk or bark when backing up.
4) Subway workers wield hockey sticks to herd commuters into carriages stuffed with sweating "salarymen."
5) Taxi drivers don suits and white gloves, not turbans. Doors open and close automatically.
6) Construction crews look like a living Lego set.
7) Gas station attendants bow upon filling up your cube-sized car.
8) Lap dogs are outfitted in barrettes and jump suits.
9) People, without exception, wait for the walk signal.
10) Your car, cell phone, refrigerator, television, and bank are Mitsubishi.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Dinner with the Fam

It’s 9 p.m. Friday night. I need fuel before going out for three hours before the subway stops. With my neighborhood sushi joint packed, I tried a family-run place without menus in any language. With plates of adjacent customers picked clean, the “I’ll have what he’s having” lifeline was severed. Then I spotted a familiar sight: a cooler filled with 22 oz. Asahi beers. “Biiru!” I pointed.

An older daughter floated behind the counter, stabbing blocks of ice with a pick and refilling the glasses of “salarymen” with jagged chunks, shochu, and a splash of water. The mother said something in Japanese about rice, so I just nodded. Whatever they cooked up I would consume. This was an anything goes kind of night. Four salty rice balls (triangles, actually) appeared. Chow time, I said to myself, piercing the grains with my chopstick. Laughter from all sides. Nervously I looked up for an explanation of my faux pas. Sure a plate of rice seemed austere for a meal, but I was just playing along, right? I set down my utensils and reached for the safety of the beer glass.

“Would you like something with your rice balls?” the older daughter asked. Lost without a safety net of plastic models to pick from, I simply expressed satisfaction. “Miso!” mom suddenly chimed in. That much I understood, but when she pulled a water bottle filled with pale yellow fluid from the fridge, concern crossed my face.

Waiting for my soup concoction to arrive, dad chirped at me in Japanese. I replied in a few rehearsed phrases: my name is Jeff. I am from New York. I am 25. I am single – sometimes. Ha, ha. Please be careful, the coral is dangerous!

Mother caught her breath from cooking, and had a swig of beer - from a customer's glass. The father cupped his lips around the water bottle used to refill guests’ glasses, and hummed along to Tony Bennett singing in the background. Then his youngest daughter entered and tied on an apron.

“Hello, my name is Hicca,” she said in perfect English. “Like hiccup.” Thank God, I thought to myself, grateful for a translator. To plan future dinners, I asked what days she helped out and their hours of operation. “We open at 4 and close when the last customer goes home.”

With the youngest daughter now at work, mom mingled by bellying up to the regulars at the counter. She inevitably wound up next to me, remarking how I looked like Tom Cruise while stroking my back. This compliment is commonly directed at any tall, dark-haired, young Westerner, as I learned from my resort days in Guam. Any boost in ego quickly vanished when she grabbed my Jewish nose, eliciting laughs.

Poking fun was a house rule. Hicca’s father made a scene about something, which she demurred to decode. I got the picture when dad inserted a soup bowl under his shirt to emphasize the flatness of his youngest.

The man next to me was filled with his fair share of whisky, and upon rising to the restroom, bowled over two stools. Hicca’s father cut him off, but slipped me another Asahi on the house.

This is how family restaurants should be. A loving couple with supportive daughters in a homey setting that hasn’t changed in decades, serving up cuisine that hasn’t changed in centuries, and frequented by loyal locals who have assimilated into extended family.
Price for four rice balls, two miso soups, two large Asahis, and a plate of chicken bits: $9.37 (equivalent to a pint of Asahi at Legends sports bar). Highly entertained with local culture, I had no motivation to trade Monzen-nakacho for the neon lights of central Tokyo.

Friday, April 22, 2005

2 for 2 on Interviews

Today was my best yet. Although in Tokyo for just shy of a week, I am making serious employment progress. I met with an agency that places teachers in public schools. I probably will accept this year-long position because:
(1) visa sponsorship – legalizes income for any job
(2) daytime hours 8am-3:30pm enable moonlighting
(3) frequent public school holidays enhance schedule freedom
(4) location just 40-50 minutes north of my apt.
(5) opportunity to expose rambunctious middle schoolers to their first English
(6) wear jeans to work
(7) free Japanese lessons
(8) transportation cost reimbursed

The negative is that the pay is mediocre (~$2,155/mo.), and I don’t get dough for days the tikes aren’t in English class. That creates Yenless months. The opportunity to experience authentic Japanese public school life should prove interesting yet boring. These kids don’t know any English, but it will be amusing to be the center of attention while they try to learn…New York slang.

My role is assistant teacher. Remember the young teacher lady who sat in on your elementary school class? I’m going to be her. Teaching just 3 or 4 50-minute classes/day will leave me ample room to hone my newly acquired cigarette skills in the teacher’s lounge. Pufffff. Mr. Oura, my interviewer, actually advised “bringing a book.” Maybe I’ll lug my laptop and catch up on travel writing and journaling in between teaching ABCs.

The second interview with a foreign staffing company was an ego boost. I hit it off with the expat company president, Jesse, and Abby, his cheerful 25-year old assistant from Pennsylvania. While Abby is fluent, I can piece together better Japanese than Jesse, despite his having a J-wife.

I felt like a celebrity during the interview because when Jesse wasn’t complimenting my resume, he was emphasizing the potential I had to be a model in Japan. (Truth be told: tall, white & American does the trick over here). At first he wanted to staff me in Dean & Deluca’s first overseas and upscale restaurant, but then admitted that would be wasting my talents. In between sincere advice and humorous anecdotes about Japan, we discussed a game plan for me to test the market where apparently I’ll be seen as “fresh meat.” Lovely. Once I get a valid visa and a “book” of glamour poses, I can solicit print gigs that could pay $200-$400 a pop. Billboards go for 10 times that. Well, first things first. But it was easy to dream with the way we were talking; the chemistry bubbled and my ego soared.

The most exciting part came when Jesse, a former Disney honcho of 15 years, offered to put me in touch with his good friend who runs the foreign staffing position at Tokyo Disneyland. Jesse pegged me as a “substitute” character for none other than…well, I don’t want to jinx myself, but I left the meeting grinning ear to ear.

As if this weren’t enough excitement for one day, my “Lost in Translation” dinner will be the subject of the next post and a short story submission somewhere.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Dignity Retained

I opted out of Optia Partners' round two interview. As Miell and my family not so subtly hinted, I didn't come to Japan to be cooped up in a corporate office. Belch. Who was I fooling? Back to the classifieds I go.

So far they seem to be working well. In addition to the modeling agency interview tomorrow, I am also meeting with a public school teacher placement service (the only Japan Times classified ad I responded to). Funny enough, the guy is familiar with Dartmouth College because the college he graduated from in Chiba (east of Tokyo) has an exchange program during the summer, and he used to hang out with Dartmouth students after school!

This position is an Assistant Language Teacher in junior high schools [shudder]. I don't know much about ALT work, but it beats the alphabet soup of for-profit corporate companies (Nova, Geos, Aeon) because these hours are normal school hours: 8-3:30, giving me time to moonlight. The pay, however, is peanuts and here's why: public school holidays are long and frequent, so I'd only end up working about 120 days/year. Yet this enables me freedom to pursue other interesting and non-career oriented jobs like modeling, acting, voice-overs, bar work, and whatever else needs a friendly Western face.

Okay, it's dawn for you folks but I'm hankering for some dinner. No more sushi or ramen though! I'll write more when I get back...
It's now past midnight. Felt lonely so sought out Roppongi, an expat party enclave. Tired of pointing to pictures to order meals consisting of mystery meats and fish (lunch tasted like liver, species unknown), I went Mexican. Dios, mio - mistake! My margarita tasted like bathwater with equivalent alcohol content. I splurged on garlic-laden fajitas because for once I wanted to feel sated after leaving a restaurant. My breath still reeks of onion.

Meandering along bustling streets lined with glitz, sleaze, businessmen and tourists, I attracted attention from sketchy black men suited up in front of gentlemen's clubs. "Join da party, mon," one hollered after me. Not tricked by a "free dance," I floated along with moth-like attraction to the neon signs and flash bulbs glowing overhead. Space limitations necessitate bars, restaurants, and parlors to do business from above street level. Would you ever climb a flight of stairs to enter a Mexican restaurant on NYC's UES? Especially not with bathwater margaritas.

Finished up the evening at Legends, a sports bar with baseball cards from the 1970s framed along its walls. My pint of Japanese beer set me back $9.37. Gulp. Made acquaintances with Effi, an Israeli bartender who called me "brave." In addition, she gave me tips on searching for bar jobs and donated English magazines with good classifieds sections. She waitresses and bartends on an expired tourist visa and lives in a cheaper, more central apartment. Hmmm.

Daily dilemma: this wooden chair (read: stool; see previous post for pictures) may be suit a preschooler's buns, but I'm developing back pains. Sitting on the bed with my laptop doesn't offer much relief. Maybe I should be a salesman after all. I could introduce the wonders of TempurPedic one door at a time.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Corporate Shock

Posted by: marmotny
Corporate Shock
A tie slithered around my neck for the first time in 2005. No dress code required in India, Oman, the U.A.E., or my living room. But now I'm fending for myself in the land of the rising sun, which means it's time to re-enter the land of the working.

Yesterday's interview with an executive recruiting (head hunting) firm was startling. I met two Australian partners of this small company located near the American embassy. Their office overlooks a small temple and, ironically enough, shares the same building as the embassy of the Federated States of Micronesia. Visions of Guam swirled in my mind on my way to the 5th floor.

This is a money hungry sales position. You collect names of those in your assigned field (in this case, pharmaceuticals) and cold-call executives to convince them to meet with you so you can sell them a job opportunity with a company (Pfizer, GSK, etc.) that is your client. If successful, I skim 10% of the person's salary as a finder's fee. Working on 100% commission means I get paid only when I place a candidate with our client company. The potential for first-year income is $60,000-$120,000, but requires I-banking hours and a confluence of external factors aligning favorably. Payout is like a lunar eclipse. Successful placements could occur once a month, or once every three months. Now, where did I put that tide chart?

Red flags during the interview included comments like "it's all about the money," the question "where do you see yourself at 28, and at what income level?" and encouragement to interview with their competitors, as if I might be getting a raw deal here.

Selling out is the day’s dilemma. Trade my youth for Yen? My gut cringed a few times during the interview. This position is antithetical to my creative and intellectual impulses...but isn't most corporate life? My other alternative to obtain work visa sponsorship is teaching English, which has its own drawbacks of dull, repetitive work at odd hours, including nights and weekends (unless in public schools, where I have applied).

I’m supposed to return to the money hunting office tomorrow for a round two interview. Cancel? On Friday I'm meeting with an event staffing/modeling agency about part-time opportunities. Like everything else, you need a work visa, but it will be helpful to see what exists in this industry here and how it works. I think a Playboy sounds more fun than a Payboy.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Smallness Redefined

Konichiwa from TOKYO! This past weekend I settled into my closet of an apartment within striking distance of central Tokyo. I'm a 7 minute walk to the subway where I get a choice of two lines. The neighborhood is quiet, as seems to be most of Japan.

Inside my pad, the approx. 150 sq. foot studio is built for an elf. My head almost grazes against the ceiling if I stand on my toes. My knees rub against the wall when I'm sitting on the toilet. The cupboard closet is so shallow that hangers jut out and prevent the cabinet door from closing. Drawers or hanging space there are not. My "chair" is a glorified stool. I've smacked my head into the overhead lampshade two dozen times in two days. My window overlooks outside hallways of the building next door, but this is common in an Asian city starved for space. The previous occupant bequested ramen remnants of his last meal in the sink strainer. BUT, after a thorough sprucing up (I just dumped bleach onto everything) and redecorating regimen (note: I did NOT choose the curtains or duvet), I'm proud to report Monzen-Nakacho B #208 is fit for living. iTunes thump non-stop. Come on over for a cup of sake and surf my free internet!

For an insider's view of my new digs, click here.

While initially nervous about finding my way in a country where I am rendered illiterate, the transition has been smooth. I figured out the subway within a day, and am getting used to un-New Yorker customs of waiting for the walk signal before crossing and not eating/drinking while walking, which is rude. What then to make of the man shaving with an electric razor on the run?

Yesterday my only friend Michelle (met her at a Japan job interview one year ago and have kept in touch) and I walked around the trendy shopping and dining Ginza district. All the ritzy international retailers are represented. I was comforted to see Brooks Brothers flanked by American flags. We stopped in the new Dior store that is acclaimed for its innovative architecture as well as the Sony showroom with its cutting-edge gadgetry. Their hi-definition plasma screens deliver unsurpassed clarity. Enthralled with a National Geographic animal program, Michelle and I braced for a herd of water buffalo to jump off the screen and stomp into Sony's living room.

Things are going well so far. I've only been stopped by the police once, and they didn't know enough English to ask me my business so they let me go. "USA!," I retorted.

The subject of my next post will be first job interview on Tuesday afternoon. This is a corporate position I had lined up while in the States. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Sayonara Fiesta, NYC

Posted by: marmotny
Sayonara Fiesta, NYC
On Saturday 4/9/05, friends joined me at Fuelray, a packed lounge in the West Village. We reserved a table while Marta, our spunky and attractive Spanish waitress, kept us well watered all evening. Here I'm grinding with my friend Miell. She knows how to shake it. She also knows how to party, but after 6 Long Island Iced Teas, she drooped from over-saturation. Being the caring friends that we are, we stuffed her into a cab with barely enough bills to cover her $21 ride and kept on partying. I didn't sleep one wink that night, and hopped from After Party #3 to Sunday morning brunch. I will need to get used to pulling all nighters because in Tokyo the subway closes between 12-5 a.m. and cabs are prohibitively expensive.

For more party pictures, check out

Monday, April 04, 2005

Jetting to Japan with JAL

Posted by: marmotny
Jetting to Japan with JAL

Be sure to check back here for amusing updates on my new life abroad, which is scheduled to begin when rubber wheels meet Narita tarmac at 00:00 EST on 4/16/05.

Friday, April 01, 2005


Fish Face: Trying on costumes at Tokyo Hands department store. Not pictured: elephant man-thong.