Friday, April 8th 1988
We set off on the 23:20 train from Tokyo. We were heading first to Nagoya. As we were trying to save money, we had decided to forgo a three-hour trip on the shinkansen and catch the local train instead. The only direct local train to Nagoya ran overnight and this had seemed like a bonus as we would save on a night’s accommodation.
It had all seemed like a good idea but, as we sat on a train crowded with university students, we soon realised that we would get no sleep at all in the “sit up and beg” seats.
The train stopped at every station between Tokyo and Nagoya. I didn’t count them but there were a lot. It finally deposited us at Nagoya, tired as hell, at 6am.
Saturday, April 9th 1988
The next stage of the journey was to get a JR train to Kuwana and then a Kintetsu train on to Nara. We arrived in Nara at about 10am, but the condition we were in made it feel like 10pm at night.
We had a little look around and bought some bread and cakes to have later in Nara park. We decided to have a little nap in the park. When we awoke we found that the deer in the park had stolen most of the bread. They had even got them out of the bag somehow.
In the afternoon, feeling a bit more refreshed, we did a lot of the tourist circuit of Nara. It was wonderful and, despite the tiredness, it was a really enjoyable experience walking around looking at everywhere covered in the beautiful cherry blossoms. It wasn’t just the cherry blossoms themselves, it was the sheer number of them coupled with the backdrop of the temples and shrines.
We went to Todaiji with its beautiful Daibutsu, we visited the Silk Road 88 exhibition and then Tamikeyna Jinja and finally to the Pagodas near the station. There were a lot of school children and a lot of foreign tourists around and it felt really great to be out of Tokyo.
After we had satisfied ourselves that we had seen enough of Nara, we headed to Osaka, the third largest city in Japan, about 40 minutes to the west. We arrived at Namba station and had a good walk around the city at dusk. We walked all the way through the centre and down to the brightly lit Dotonburi canal area. It wasn’t too dissimilar to Tokyo of course, but in some way, and I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, it had a different atmosphere.
We dined in a Chinese restaurant and then headed to Akenobashi, a very interesting area where the so-called burakumin people were. Japan had the remnants of a caste system and these people were the underclass or the untouchables. It was supposed to be a taboo subject in Japan but, as I had found teaching, younger people were interested and often wanted to discuss it. I had had English classes where older people would almost threaten to walk out when a younger person brought the subject of the burakumin up. Aiko was fascinated by it too and wanted us to see the area.
We walked around for a few hours and then waited until 11pm before finding a love hotel to stay at. Love hotels were different from regular hotels; they were specially for people to rent by the hour to have sex in. Their largest group of customers were actually married couples who couldn’t get privacy in their small homes with their thin walls.
Love hotels rented rooms by the hour all day until about 11pm. This hourly rate was called “Rest”. After 11pm the demand slackened off and so they offered a cheap overnight rate called “Stay”. It was a great way to get a cheap room. The only drawback was the need to wait in a coffee shop until 11pm.
Checking into a love hotel was interesting. The emphasis was on privacy. You entered the hotel and paid either by automatic machine or through a ticket window like a station ticket office, but covered so the person you were paying couldn’t see you. Flashing arrows along corridors would then guide you to the room. The fancier hotels had beautifully decorated rooms with all manner of sexual toys, camera recorders and large screen TVs.
I knew that we were not like the regular clientele that evening. We simply found the room, collapsed onto the bed and fell fast asleep. Having said that, I actually think a lot of other people used the hotels in this way too. I had even heard of stories of two western men using these hotels and sleeping “top-to-tail” just to save money.
Sunday, April 10th 1988
The next morning we made a tour of Osaka castle. The castle was a concrete replica of the original destroyed in the war. It was well done and looked authentic on the outside. The inside was quite modern and we took elevators to the top for a great view out of Osaka. Afterwards, we walked through a park and watched a marathon. We felt sorry for the runners as it was getting rather hot.
We walked through an underground shopping centre to Osaka station and then climbed onto one of the maroon trains of the Hankyu private railway to make our way to Kyoto.
It was raining by the time we reached Kyoto. The city had a really relaxed feel to it. It felt totally different from Tokyo or Osaka. We crossed the beautiful Kamo river and walked quite a way up a hill to the spectacular Kiyomizudera temple.
The temple sat on stilts overlooking part of the city. It was spectacular to look around but it looked even better when you looked back on it after a little walk away from it into the woods.
We carried on walking around Kyoto and eventually we caught a bus back to the centre. We had takoyaki (octopus balls) and beer for dinner.
We walked around again in the evening. We knew it would be hopelessly expensive to get a regular hotel in cherry blossom season so we repeated our plan from the previous night. We found another coffee shop to sit in and then another love hotel in the Kawaramachi district.
Monday, April 11th 1988
The next morning I phoned work and called in sick. I told Peter that the food poisoning had mysteriously returned. I got the impression that he possibly didn’t believe me, but he mentioned that they were not short of teachers that day and not to worry. I felt better.
We had “morning service” back in the same coffee shop we had waited in the night before. “Morning service” was a cheap set meal consisting of coffee, a thick piece of toast and bowl of salad that many coffee shops offered before 10am.
We made our way to the Chonin temple and walked down the way of philosophers. It all looked absolutely magnificent covered by the cherry blossoms. We then went to the Ginkakuji temple and after a meal of curry udon near there, we went back to the centre for a walk around the Imperial Palace.
We repeated the routine of the two previous nights, finding a coffee shop and sitting there for 3 hours or so until 11pm.
The love hotel we found was cheaper than the other two, so we were surprised to see it better equipped. It had a jacquizzi and a back massager. Sadly, we were too tired to make use of either.
Tuesday, April 12th 1988
The next morning we went to the temple of 1000 Buddhas, and whilst we were there Aiko began to feel quite ill.
I had intended to call in sick again as we had planned to try to hitch back to Tokyo in the late afternoon. We now decided to return on the shinkansen instead. We hurried to Kyoto station and bought two 12,000 yen tickets to Tokyo and boarded the next Hikari express heading east.
My second Shinkansen experience wasn’t any better than my first. In fact, it was worse. Aiko felt a little better once we got on the train but she clearly wasn’t well. The train stopped only in Nagoya. It was impressively fast but it was really crowded as well.
We found the last two seats in the free seating carriage and sat separately in two aisle seats. The only highlight was seeing the famous view Mount Fuji race past in the window. When I got to Tokyo station I put Aiko on her train home and phoned Peter to tell him I had finally recovered and would be able to teach that evening.
Friday, April 15th 1988
Aiko had fully recovered and we went for coffee in Nakano together.
We now began to hatch a plot for the future.
Aiko wanted to study English in an English-speaking country and wanted to go and live for a year in the USA or the the UK. It now seemed natural for her to head for London.
I was ready to go home for a visit and I had enough status and tenure at ACA to be able to take up to a month off and return to a safe job in Tokyo.
Aiko had wanted to visit China and I had long wanted to travel home on the train via Russia, so we began to plan a trip that would take us from Tokyo to Beijing and then on the Trans-Mongolian train to Moscow and London.
It would be a long journey of about 3 weeks. It would give me just a week in the UK before I needed to return.
We fixed an approximate date.
Aiko started to make her preparations to leave her school and wrote to language schools in London. I began exchanging letters with a travel agent in Hong Kong who I knew could reserve the train tickets.
Monday, 18th April 1988
My Japanese was getting much better. I was now attending 4 group lessons and extra private classes in the mornings. I had upped the private classes from 2 to 3 mornings a week.
Saturday, April 22rd 1988
Aiko and I took the Keio line out to Takao. Takao was the highest mountain in Tokyo. We ascended it by funicular and descended by cable car. it was snowing at the top but we managed to find one cherry blossom tree amongst all the snow.
Sunday, April 23rd 1988
We did a tour of Ueno park with all the cherry blossoms in full bloom. People came out and put plastic tarpaulins on the ground, sat on them and got drunk and sang in groups. It was the thing to do. We saw it in the day and then returned at night to see it all over again. At night it was all lit up and the people were even more drunk.
Monday, April 25th 1988
The school broke up for the golden week holidays but I volunteered once again for the intensive lessons. I got two weeks of teaching nine hours a day. It was hard work but I was grateful for the money.
For the first week I was given 3 “pink” ladies from 9am to 12. They were easy and it was just like a coffee club. They were housewives and their English was good enough to make it quite enjoyable.
For lunch, I would nip out to the gyudon restaurant around the corner, put my Yen in the automatic machine and get a ticket to hand to the guy behind the counter. He would then quickly serve me with a bowl of rice topped with sukiyaki-flavoured beef and a lovely bowl of miso soup on the side. I became quite addicted to it. It was easy and quick too.
From 1pm until 4pm I had two “white” ladies. They were really nervous, but we made progress over the week.
From 4pm to 7pm I had a three-hour break. I always spent it in and around the school with the other teachers. Just as with the Christmas intensives, the camaraderie of the teachers was even stronger than normal.
In the evenings, from 7pm to 10pm, I had three more white students.
Friday, April 29th 1988
I trudged around Roppongi with Aiko trying to find a camera shop that would rent a VCR camera to a gaijin. Eventually, after 3 tries, we found one and we rented the camera for a week.
The intention was to repeat my idea from Sydney and make a film of Tokyo to send to the folks back home. Andrew had agreed to collaborate and we had then decided to make one film to share. We would take turns presenting scenes from Tokyo and filming each other as we did so.
Saturday, April 30th 1988
With Andrew I set off around Tokyo filming scenes of the city. It was a hell of a lot of fun and we managed to cover quite a lot in a day.
Sunday, May 1st 1988
We continued filming and ended up in Shibuya doing a segment were Andrew interviewed passersby. We asked them what they liked about Shibuya. We were assisted in this by Shige, Andrew’s student, who played the role of interpreter. We told the interviewees that we were from Vancouver television. It was a little white lie that seemed to make them a bit more nervous. Shige was a great sport and we got some lovely footage.
Monday, May 2nd 1988
For the second week of intensives I had a group of 3 “purple” students in the morning, a pair of “basic purples” in the afternoon and a trio of “pinks” in the evening.
The purples in the afternoon were great; a really cheerful 71 year-old man and a 59 year-old koto player. The lady was learning English as she was having to do a concert in Brisbane. She turned up every day in a beautiful series of kimono outfits and he fawned over her a bit. We had a lot of fun together, but at the end I doubted she would be doing too much communicating in Australia.
Wednesday, May 4th 1988
At Marui house things had been changing yet again.
Lesley, April, Bob, Shaun and Paul and Valerie were still there.
We had been joined by Steve, a politics graduate from Pennsylvania, and by Jean, a Chinese Canadian who was recovering from appendicitis.
Saturday, May 7th 1988
Andrew’s friend Dave was due to arrive from Canada. We made some room for him on our floor and Andrew went off to meet him at the airport.
When they arrived back together they walked into quite an unusual scene at Marui house.
A guy called Kozo, who must have been a local right wing nutter, was standing outside the house dressed in quasi-military gear complete with a red bandana on his head. He was holding a six-foot-long pole and he was shouting various threats including saying that he wanted to kill us all.
The neighbours called the police and they eventually took him away. We thought it was something to do with the Israelis selling paintings because they seemed to know him.
It was quite an unusual introduction to Japan for poor old Dave.
Monday, May 9th 1988
Regular teaching commenced again. By now I was an old hand. The turnover of teachers was incredible. We were forever having leaving parties for teachers that had been at ACA for less than a year. Some of the ones that I had observed in my first few days were leaving too. I counted that there had been 100 teachers hired since me.
Some of the new ones were great fun. There was Rick from London who became the first person to ever observe me, and there was Alistair from Scotland. Alistair had studied Russian at university and had lived for a year in Moscow. He was a lovely guy and I spent a lot of time with him learning about Russia in time for my own impending trip.
I had also become a specialist at the teaching the “purple” students. The less they could speak English the more I liked it. The “pink” students were getting quite boring and I had ended up having the same conversation every night with them. But the “purples” were incapable of speaking so it was much easier. I copied my Japanese teacher’s methods of teaching; strict drill and no conversation. Most of the students loved it.
I used to sit there going over and over “it is a pen”, “is it a pen?”, until the students got it. I sometimes watched in horror as some of the other teachers spent the whole lesson talking in fast and fluent English to beginner students who obviously understood nothing but were too shy not to say “Yes” at the end of all the sentences.
Eventually, I became the most requested teacher at “purple” level.
Being an old hand also had another benefit. They began to put me on “level checks” for the prospective students. This effectively meant being paid to do almost nothing.
ACA offered free English level checks to any prospective student as part of its sales strategy. The prospective student would walk in off the street and the salesmen would pounce, give them a spiel about the school and then send them into another room for a level check.
The level check teacher would be sent in to do a trial lesson of 20 minutes and at the end would make a judgement on whether the student would be starting life at ACA as a “purple one” or a “pink three”. The level would then be indicated to the salesman who would go back in to try to close the deal.
Although it sometimes happened that you could have 3 or 4 level checks literally one after the other, most of the time there was just 1 or maybe 2 an evening. It was basically like getting paid for 6 hours for just 20 or 40 minutes work. The rest of the time was supposed to be given over to marking homework, but as only a few students completed homework I spent the time studying Japanese.
I soon found that the secret to being put on level checks was to be close to the salesmen as they got a say in who the level check teachers were. I made extra efforts to be nice to them and tried my best to give them the level they thought it easiest to sell the student at. Thus I soon found myself with quite a few evenings where I was being paid mostly to study Japanese.
Friday, May 13th 1988
After spending 6 days on our floor, Dave moved out with Andrew to a new flat in the east of Tokyo the other side of Asakusa.
Andrew himself had about 6 weeks left in Japan and intended to leave for India whilst I was back in the UK.
I got the address of their place and made plans to visit them before I left.
Saturday, May 14th 1988
I gave 2 weeks notice to Chieko to leave. Living up to her reputation for meanness, she gave me the choice of paying a full month or paying the daily rate for two weeks. The second was only slightly cheaper. I protested and offered to pay more than half the monthly rate, but she wasn’t having it. After being a loyal tenant for more than 7 months I would have thought she would have cut me more slack.
In the end I decided to pay double the monthly room rate and enjoy my privacy for the last two weeks at Marui House. Aiko could come over and I would have space to myself.
Tuesday, May 24th 1988
Aiko left for Hong Kong via Seoul.
We made plans to meet up in Hong Kong at the YMCA on Sunday evening.
Friday, May 27th 1988
I had my final Japanese lesson for a while in the morning.
I went to buy traveller’s cheques for the journey.
I taught 3 hours on “pinks” and 2 hours on “purples”. I was almost falling asleep by the end of the last lesson.
I perked up enough to go around the corner to the Showya bar and have a few drinks with Michael, Rick and Alistair.
Alistair gave me some final coaching in Russian. As we consumed more and more alcohol I felt confident I would be able to order a beer in Moscow. By the time we went for the last Yamanote train I was sure I would be able to address the Politburo.
Saturday, May 28th 1988
I checked out of Marui House for the last time.
I made two trips with my stuff. The first was on the Odakyu line to Shimokitazawa to leave most of it with Tim, a teacher colleague whose apartment I would be flat sitting when I returned.
Tim was embarking on a 2 month trip of Asia. After a few cups of tea with him talking about his trip I returned to Ikebukuro.
I then collected the rest of my stuff, the items I would be taking with me on my journey, and headed over to Andrew and Dave’s place in Oshiage near Asakusa.
I left my stuff there and then headed back again to Ikebukuro with Andrew to start the final “Farewell Marui House” party.
We started drinking in the house around 6pm. There was Bob, who was in a very genki mood, leading us, Steve, Paul, Shaun, Valerie and Lynette, and then Shige and Tomoko turned up as well. We got drunk quite fast and then about 8pm we marched out onto the streets of Ikebukuro.
To the amusement of a bunch of salarymen we clapped each other into the Adam’s Apple Disco. We stayed dancing until midnight and then Andrew and I said good bye to everyone and got the last train back to Oshiage.
As I lay on the sofa at Andrews place, I reflected not just on the evening itself but on the past nine months of being in Japan. It had been mostly fun. In many ways it had been much more enjoyable than my time in Australia.
I knew I was returning to Japan but I also knew it wouldn’t quite be the same: I wouldn’t be in Ikebukuro; Aiko would be gone and Andrew would be gone too. This was definitely an ending of some sort and it felt a little sad.
As I drifted off to sleep I began to think less about Tokyo and more about the next part of my journey. I was finally going back to Blackpool and I was going there by a series of trains direct from Beijing.