December 15, 1998
Hey there, y'all. This will be my last update for a month or so, because I am embarking on a seven-city, three-continent, two-ocean-crossing whirlwind tour of a bunch of places that my friends live. I am going, in this order, to Tokyo, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York, Rome (the one in Italy), Chicago, South Bend, and back to Tokyo on my way home to Kiryu. I'll have more frequent flyer miles over the next three weeks than most migratory birds accrue in a lifetime. I'll also be one tired puppy, but I'll get over it.
You know, it's funny what you miss the most living in a foreign country. Simple things, really, that you wouldn't necessarily think about. Things like, say, heat. When it gets cold here, you are cold. Period (.). There is no such thing as central heat. Also, people don't like to run even small heaters in their homes because electricity is so expensive. Of course, the reason it is so expensive to heat homes is that they haven't yet discovered insulation in this country. I am lucky in that I live in a fairly modern apartment building with concrete block walls, but I have some friends whose walls are barely thicker than their windows. Literally. And there is no such thing as two-ply windows which actually pretend to insulate. Standard window glass here is either one or two millimeters thick (that is an actual figure, not a joke). So, of course itís expensive to heat anything -- as soon as you turn the heater on, you are trying to heat the entire atmosphere.
So, I miss heat. Also, I miss clean clothes. It's not like I don't do laundry, it's just that "doing laundry" is a fairly loose term in Japan. My washing machine, for instance, is one room away from the nearest hot water, so I either wash in cold or spend 15 minutes lugging pots of water before each cycle. This wouldn't seem too bad, except that each load of laundry requires three cycles. First, you wash the clothes with water. Then, you spin them "dry." Then, you rinse them in clean water. Then, you spin them "dry" again. Then, you rinse them again, because there's still soap in 'em. Then, that's right, you spin them "dry" again. Then you hang them up so that they actually become dry. That makes for one damn long load of laundry. I mean, I got bidness to attend to!
Fortunately (?!?) I don't have to worry about how long the dryer takes. They don't have dryers in Japan (or rather, they do, but they are so small and preposterously expensive, they might as well not exist). My washing machine has a separate little compartment that spins real fast, though. I mean, granted, it spins REAL fast, but it doesn't actually dry the clothes, it just stretches them out and wrinkles them (in its defense, I think this is what it is supposed to do).
And before all of you say a) "well, that's how it was done in the old days" or b) "that's how I used to do it" or c) "when I was young, we used ROCKS in RIVERS and we were happy for that much," let me just say this: a) it is no longer the old days, so that's no excuse, b) that's nice for you, but I have been spoiled by automatic washers and dryers in the States, and besides the key word there is "used to" and c) I don't believe you. Come to think of it, I don't really believe in a world before electricity. Kind of makes my history degree ironic, don't you think?
What else do I miss? Well, I also miss understanding what the hell is going on around me on a day-to-day basis, but that is secondary. I can put up with a lot as long as my underwear smells good. Of course, that can probably be said for most people.
And it's also kind of funny that people seem concerned with electricity usage, considering that on any night of the week the local pachinko (machine gambling) parlors light up the sky for blocks in every direction. I haven't seen more light emanating from anything but the sun. And another thing about environmental conservation: sure, they recycle glass and paper, but they burn everything else, including plastic. So, the split between burnable/non-burnable rubbish is not what you should burn, but rather what will burn. And what really makes matters worse is the amount of packaging materials used in Japan. Almost anything you buy is individually wrapped (cookies, crackers, candies, socks). And in live-action performances, it is even worse. I went into a Mr. Donut in Takasaki, the local "big city," and watched in fascination and then growing perturbation rising through levels of impatience, disbelief, disgust, and finally horror as a woman ordered a dozen donuts.
First, each donut was wrapped individually in paper
and fastened with tape. Then, in groups of two, they were placed
in plastic bags which were then meticulously taped shut. These six
plastic bags were then placed in two paper bags, each of which was perfectly
folded three times and taped at the top. Finally, these two paper
bags were placed in a big plastic bag with handles. The whole process
took nearly ten minutes. Each donut had a total of four layers of
taped packaging. You could die of starvation before getting through
to the donuts. These things could provide the cockroaches with food
after the nuclear wars are over. And what made it worse was that
there were about a half-dozen people in front of me waiting placidly for
their turn. I wanted to march up to the counter and wring the young
lady's neck. I though 15 minutes would be enough to buy one donut.
It was enough for exactly two customers, the one who ordered a dozen and
the second whose order I missed due to the amount of steam emanating from
Anyway, I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanza, etc. I personally can't wait for the New Year. I'll finally be able to party like it's 1999.