Memoirs of a Vending Machine Published by James Pollard at Smashwords Copyright 2011 James Pollard Copyrighted material. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without the express prior written consent of the author. All characters and events in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. Addressing the Queen In Japanese mythology, the youngest pair of deities was ordered to make solid land out of the materials floating in the oceans of the Earth. From the floating bridge linking Heaven and Earth they stirred the primeval ocean with a jewelled spear. Lifting the spear from the ocean, a drop of seawater fell back, forming the first island of Japan. They left Heaven to live on the island of Onogoro, marrying and producing eight children, who became the islands of Japan. "What a load of bullshit," thought Mike as he put down the travel guide he had been reading. He looked out the window of the plane as it descended to Kansai International Airport. He could see tree-covered mountains and ocean through the clouds. The engine noise cut slightly and the plane dropped a few metres, interrupting his concentration. He bravely looked out through the window again as the plane continued its descent, finally gliding over the water, parallel with the coast that was the edge of the city of Osaka. The travel guide had made a big deal of the fact that the airport was built on a completely man-made island in the middle of the bay. It also mentioned that a lot of the fill was local refuse and Mike wondered if any of it had been found floating in the sea. While Mike drew parallels between Onogoro and Kansai Airport, he hoped the latter was made of more than a drop of water off the blade of a spear, as the plane was now no higher than a few metres above the tarmac. The plane landed with a gentle bump and a reassuring roar as the airbrakes slowed the plane's speed as it taxied on to the terminal. Within a short space of time, Mike was lined up waiting to pass in front of a heat-sensing camera before moving on to Immigration. The large arrivals area was split into Japanese passport holders and non-Japanese passport holders. There was no time to consider this arrangement any further as a short, old man in a uniform using broken English, ushered Mike and the other fifty or so obvious foreigners through to the correct line. After waiting for about fifteen minutes, Mike found himself standing behind a thick red line waiting to be called to a counter. A bored looking man, hunched over and sunk low in his seat motioned to Mike to move forward. He walked to the counter and was confronted by a digital camera and a screen displaying two little pads with an animated picture of a person placing their index fingers on the pads. The message was pretty clear. Mike had no criminal record but still felt nervous as he handed over his passport. The man took the passport without smiling and started punching keys on a computer keyboard. He looked up and motioned with his hand for Mike to look at the camera for a full facial shot. Mike thought it might be funny to pull out some spare eyeballs from a plastic bag in his pocket just to try and throw the camera off, but kept this to himself. He started smiling though and caught the attention of the immigration officer. The man held up his extended index fingers motioning for him to place his own pointers on the pads for a scan. Taking the hint, Mike did this with a more serious expression as the man flipped through the pages of the passport and punched a few more keys on the keypad. While he waited, Mike glanced to the left at the counters for Japanese passport holders. Not surprisingly, they were all Japanese in appearance, but he was a little affronted as he realized that they did not have to endure the eyeball scan and the fingerprint check. Before he had time to dwell on this, the man handed back his passport and thanked him in accented English. Mike followed the pack to the baggage collection area. Locating the carousel for his flight, he was soon presenting his passport, this time to the officer at the Customs counter. As if he were back at the immigration counter the officer began an interrogation in well-practiced, contrived English. "What is the purpose of your stay," asked a young uniformed officer abruptly with a heavy accent. "Orm eea ta teach English," Mike replied cheekily, hamming up his Australian accent. The customs officer seemed confused and paused, frowning at Mike. "Teach English?" he repeated with an awkward, rising inflection. "Yup, English." "Anything to declare?" Mike was sure that he had nothing more than some clothes, a few toiletries, an iPod, a cell phone, a wallet full of yen and a travel guide. "Nah, nothing mate." The officer looked back at Mike with a quizzical frown. Mike knew that he hadn't understood. "No, nothing," repeated Mike, only this time over-emphasising every vowel and ending each consonant crisply. He felt like he was addressing the Queen as he adjusted his accent, but realized that he really was out of his comfort zone and needed to lift his game. Without responding further, Mike's passport was checked through more thoroughly, the officer taking his time to consider the details of each page. Finally, he handed it back. Then, with one hand placed behind his back, the officer stood erect and authoritatively waved Mike through. "Thanks mate," said Mike with a slightly irreverent smirk and a sideways nod of the head. The officer smiled politely then ignored him. Pushing the trolley laden with all his luggage through a set of automatic sliding doors, Mike ventured out into the land of the dripping jewelled spear. Vending Machine Crumbs "So this is it, huh? I can do this," Mike kidded himself. He took in the panorama of the landside of the arrival gate. Faces… Japanese faces all smiling in anticipation… then neutral expressions as eyes scanned his physique and features; realizing in a nanosecond that he was not familiar. Mike had travelled before and so was not feeling all that stressed about waiting around the arrivals area in a strange airport in an Asian country. He shuffled around making eye contact with any non-Japanese passport holder who happened to walk past, hoping that each one would be the company employee that he was to meet. Without much luck, he decided that he must be a little early, so he found a seat and pulled out the travel guide from his backpack stacked on the trolley. He flicked through the contents pages until he found a reference for Osaka. OSAKA: Osaka is the working heart of Kansai, famous for its down-to-earth citizens and hearty cuisine. Almost bombed flat in WWII, it appears an endless expanse of concrete boxes punctuated by pachinko parlours and elevated highways. But the city somehow manages to rise above this and exert a peculiar charm. At night the city really comes into its own; this is when those drab streets and alleys come alive with flashing neon, beckoning residents and travellers alike with promises of tasty food and good times. With wide eyes and raised eyebrows, Mike decided to get exploring as soon as he was able when a man wearing a stylish, black leather jacket appeared. He had his hands in his pockets as he approached Mike. He was smiling with a confidence that was reassuring in this unfamiliar environment. Taller than Mike, thin, with a neat appearance the man held out his hand as he announced in an American accent who he was. "Paul, Paul Jackson, ICEE––International Cultural Exchange and English… are you Mike?" "Yeah, cute company name." "I know, it makes for a cute acronym," replied Paul. Mike stared blankly at Paul, waiting for instruction. Paul broke the ice. "Welcome to Japan. I'll take you to your accommodation by taxi. Gotta go now though, I'm kinda busy." With no time for small talk, Paul took Mike's right hand with his right hand shaking it vigorously whilst grabbing Mike's forearm with his left hand, quickly whisking him off through the exit doors then on to the nearest taxi rank. Paul raised his arm politely hailing the first cab in the line. The back door had swung open by itself before Mike had a chance to even attempt to hold the door latch and the boot had already been popped open, ready for someone to load the luggage. Mike wheeled his airport trolley to the back of the taxi and lifted the heaviest suitcase first. Paul just watched, silent, checking his watch every couple of seconds until Mike had loaded his last case and then motioned with a nod of his head for Mike to get in. He shuffled across to the end of the bench seat nearest the unopened door of the taxi and sat nervously, feeling a little out of his depth. Paul followed confidently, getting in to the back seat of the old-model black Toyota Crown taxi then promptly engaged the driver in a conversation that seemed to be fluent Japanese. Mike knew a little of the language but this was all way beyond his level of comprehension. He gave up listening after a while and just stared in awe at Paul as he continued to give instructions. The driver engaged the gear lever in a controlled, almost elegant movement, any mechanical stiffness cushioned by the white gloves that the uniformed driver wore proudly and professionally. The car gently exited the taxi rank into the main car park, eventually entering the main stream of traffic of the road that led to the exit from the airport. They talked only a little as Mike took in his new surroundings. Paul took a few calls on his keitai denwa (mobile phone), again speaking in Japanese. The journey took them onto long freeways then onto huge, longer overpasses that turned into aerial concrete freeways rising high above tinsel-town. Mike felt as if they were gliding around buildings as the urban freeways and overpasses began to compete with the surrounding glass fronted high-rise buildings for height. Eventually, they began their descent via a steep off-ramp that led to a ground-level labyrinth of weaving, narrow roads that existed in the shadows of the very structures constructed to enable quick access. A few turns under the freeway, a quick adventure over and through a railway crossing and it was only a very short time before they arrived at the apartment complex that would be Mike's home for the next few months. After paying the driver without tipping, Paul helped Mike with his luggage by picking the lightest case and leading on the way to the entrance of the apartment block. Paul paused for a moment, taking the time to introduce Mike to the superintendent who occupied a small room to the side of the entrance. Mike smiled at him and felt awkward as Paul bowed to the man, low enough to reveal a balding spot at the top of his scalp that he was possibly not aware of. He said something in Japanese then accepted a small card, presumably with the apartment’s address on it. Paul gave Mike the card, looking him straight in the eye in a way that implied that the card was quite important. He glanced at it quickly but couldn't read anything as it was all written in Japanese characters. He put it in his wallet for safekeeping. Paul escorted Mike to the nearby elevator and they rode to the thirteenth floor. "Jyuu san gai de gozaimasu," (This is the thirteenth floor) the elevator announced in polite but nasal sounding female voice. On opening, the lift revealed a fairly desolate looking corridor of brown-coloured metal doors and small aluminium framed windows with frosted glass panes, a pattern repeated for the length of the corridor. They walked along the corridor briefly before arriving at the door of Mike's apartment. Paul opened it with a key. "I gotta warn you Mike, it's a little small." He stepped back to allow Mike to walk in first. As he did, he was immediately struck by the smell of straw. In front of him was a small area of floor space covered in linoleum with a set of shelves to the side. Mike hesitated. "The area is called a genkan. You take your shoes off here," instructed Paul. "Then you step up to the raised area and leave your shoes." Mike put down his luggage and awkwardly bent down to take off his shoes. Luckily they were not laced shoes so they came off with relative ease as Mike manoeuvred his ankles, shifting from side to side while prizing them off by placing the front of his right shoe on the back rim of the heel of his left shoe. Paul did the same, only with more ease and poise than Mike. They stepped up from the genkan, Paul first, to a slightly elevated floor area made of a tough kind of plastic moulded and coloured to look like wood. Mike walked on while Paul squatted down, picked up his shoes and placed them together neatly with the toes pointing towards the door. "You’re a pretty neat bloke," remarked Mike. From his squatting position Paul looked up at Mike. "It's what you do in Japan, Mike. When you leave the room you don't have to rearrange your shoes. You just slip them on and leave." "Fair enough," replied Mike, feeling a little patronized. Paul took the lead, showing Mike around the apartment. The genkan area led immediately right. Straight ahead was the bathroom and toilet—to the right, the kitchen. Next to the kitchen was a room that could be separated by sliding doors, making it either a part of the kitchen or a separate room. At the end of the kitchen and to each side, were two rooms one larger than the other, the larger with a small balcony. The floors of these rooms were covered with tatami mats, rectangular square mats made of straw. "Ya know this whole apartment would fit into my living room back home." "Yeah, small isn't it," replied Paul in a perfunctory manner. “Might get even cosier in a couple of weeks when two more teachers arrive.” “You’re joking, aren’t you?” “Look Mike, I've got another group of new teachers to meet and I'm running late so I gotta get to the nearest train station. You’ve got all the information you need in that file next to the kitchen sink over there so if you’re good to go, I think I’ll get moving" Feeling a sense of urgency in Paul’s tone, Mike agreed with a compliant nod of the head and a country dumb smile. A little overwhelmed, he scratched the top of his head, took a deep breath and looked around the room with a vacant expression. “The room Mike… which one, I need to get going.” "Yep, no worries, I’ll just get me stuff in there. Won’t be a tick." While Paul flicked through the file next to the kitchen sink, Mike quickly chose the room with the balcony, put his suitcase in the cupboard in the bedroom and put the rest of his things in a corner of the room on the tatami mat floor. Not looking forward to spending time alone, though, he considered taking a walk around the neighbourhood to get his bearings. He yelled out to Paul from the room. "I'm feeling a little stiff after a twelve-hour trip on the plane, Paul, so if you don't mind… how 'bout I come with you to the train station for a look around?" "Ya, sure," replied Paul. "We gotta get going though—just to the station right?" “I shouldn’t need much should I?” “No Mike, just your valuables. Oh and your key––very important.” “Yeah, I’d hate to be locked out.” Planning a brisk thirty-minute tour before coming home to a shower, Mike decided to leave everything but his wallet and key in the room. They left the apartment block and made their way to the nearby train station. “So how far is it Paul?” “ Not far.” “Yeah, but I haven’t got a clue where I am.” “Ya, you better make sure you take a look around so you can get back to the apartment Mike. I’d hate for you to get lost.” Remembering that he would have to make his own way home, Mike made a point of finding some things that might provide him with clues as to how to do this. Although the station wasn’t far, the roads twisted and turned and were not at all logically organized. This would make it difficult to just count left and right turns, for example. It struck Mike however that the roads that they took were lined with vending machine after vending machine. In a classic 'Hansel and Gretel' moment, he decided that a trail of vending machine crumbs might help him to find his way home. He remembered the street, confident that the vending machines would lead him home. They quickly arrived at the train station. Paul was polite but offered no more information. He shook Mike's hand, turned abruptly then disappeared through the Kaisatsuguichi (ticket gate) without looking back. From in front of the station, Mike could see that there were more vending machines lining the bare concrete walls of the station building. He walked over to them out of interest, noting that they sold everything from soft drinks, beer and cigarettes to hot noodles and magazines. Across the road, in the surrounding streets, there were quaint little cafes next to traditional steamy noodle bars full of men standing, staring and slurping. Every nook and cranny seemed to be occupied by small bars not yet open, with odd names such as the ‘Gay Time Snack’ or the ‘Joy Bar’. He crossed the road, drawn by curiosity and walked around, immersing himself in the visual cacophony and savouring the aromas. Although a little uncomfortable, he was overtaken by the vibrant energy in the air and decided that after a little more exploration, he would come back in a few hours to see how the evening would transform this area. He walked on further, exploring for about half and hour then decided to go back to his apartment to collect his thoughts, centre his mind and freshen up. His limbs were starting to ache from all the walking and he needed a shower and a change of clothes, as he was still wearing the same clothes in which he had boarded the plane about twelve hours earlier. He had criss-crossed the area at least a dozen times already and found it easy to get back to the station and paused for a while in front of the entrance. People streamed past him, one after the other, staring momentarily but obviously in a great hurry to get somewhere. He searched in the distance from the station for the street with the vending machines that would lead him home. There were a number of streets leading to the station, all visible from where he was standing but one stood out from the others, as there was a huge collection of vending machines on the corner. The street was on the opposite side of the spot where he was standing, so he walked over to what was obviously a crossing area where people were milling around a red sign flashing an icon of a walker in a circle with a line struck through it. He joined the crowd and stared ahead, pretending that he knew where he was and what he was doing. Suddenly there was a loud and rapid tick-a-tick-a-tick sound; like a machine gun, only one-sixteenth the volume. This immediately gave way to a traditional Japanese-sounding melody in an oppressive minor key amplified to an unnecessary volume that was synchronized to the flashing sign changing to green. The people walked off in one mass movement. Caught up in the eddy of this movement, so did Mike. Spirited away to the other side of the road, he immediately made his way towards the vending machines, presuming that he would be home in about ten minutes. The machines looked familiar and so did the street, so he continued on down it in search of his apartment. Although lined with vending machines, a few more seconds of walking revealed a street lined with not only vending machines but glass walled buildings, stones arranged in miniature Zen gardens, fake wood poles made of concrete that lined what seemed to be a park built on a sand pit, side streets no wider than driveways and an overhanging vineyard of ugly electricity wires supported by uniform concrete poles extending to the horizon. None of this was familiar at all. More than a little confused, he quickly backed out of the street to where he had entered it, happy at the familiar sight of the train station but confused as to where he was and how he was going to get home. He stood on the corner for some reason, pretending to be confident but howling inside with loneliness and fear at the prospect of being lost in Japan with no friends, no address, no possessions and no way home. "THINK," his inner voice demanded. "You dickhead," it added. Quietly conversing with his inner self, he caught himself whispering the word dickhead aloud as he shook himself back into the moment. People stared at him as they veered out of their way to avoid bumping into him. He was standing in a stream of traffic of people who knew where they were going and were determined to get there no matter that a strange foreigner, mumbling to himself, was standing in the way. Anxiety began to rise through his legs, settling somewhere in his lower torso, readying itself to rush towards the primal centre of fear in his brain. He was suddenly acutely aware of the moment as the world moved in slow motion around him, adding further impact to an anxiety that was rapidly moving towards panic. The fear began to diminish slightly as his reacquainted himself with his logical brain. He reasoned that home must be by way of one of the other streets that fed the entrance to the station. They all led to the station, so it was only logical that he had travelled along one of these streets to get from the apartment to the station. A smile formed and the whispering ceased, while a feeling of warmth and satisfaction welled up from his aching feet, settling in his chest as his heart rate slowed and his composure normalized. A smug smile appeared. He chose to explore the street next to the one that he had just been down and resolved to explore each of the streets that he could see from the station in a logical and systematic fashion until he had found the right one. Walking along the front of the station area and entering the first street along, he immediately noticed that it was lined with vending machines. Again the appearance was familiar until he had walked a little further along the street. He noticed a restaurant and a small train bridge and a river, none of which he seen on the way to the station. He turned back again, this time crossing the road to the opposite side of the station entrance before choosing another of the streets. He checked the streets to the right, the left, a bit further over, a bit further back, a bit out of the way and a bit further out of the way. All of them were lined with vending machines, none of them looking in any way familiar. Each time, he returned to his reference point, the station, the only place at all that was starting to look familiar. There he stood staring at the traffic light flashing the 'don’t walk' light and mused that the sign must be a message. "SHIT, SHIT, SHIT," yelled his inner voice. "SHIT," he said out loud. Passers-by stared fleetingly but quickly turned and ignored him. He began to pine and whimper inside, too embarrassed and uncomfortable in this unfamiliar social environment to show these emotions publicly. Stoically, he watched person after person after person walk by. He tried not to stare but it was difficult. A few people stared back and he managed a nanosecond smile from them. Quickly reverting to neutral faces, however, they all continued on in a rush, showing no more than a fleeting interest in a foreigner standing at the base of a stairway leading to a train station. Mike remembered the cell phone in his jacket pocket and wondered if he would be able to find a network to call someone. He fished around in his pocket for the phone he had purchased before coming over. Pressing the 'on' button at the top of the phone, he checked the coverage to find there were no bars showing. A subsequent scan of the available networks revealed a network called 'Doco Demo'. He selected then waited for the thing to set itself up and smiled with childish glee when all the bits came together and five golden bars of coverage appeared. He felt a little isolated when he checked to find no messages and realised he had no one to call in Japan. Since he had left the file that Paul had given him with the company details on it at the apartment, there really was no one to call. He put the phone back in his pocket. Mike noticed that passers by had started staring at him a little longer than before. He realized that he was again verbalizing parts of his inner dialogue and that to strangers he must have appeared to be a frantic, babbling lunatic. He was also involuntarily nodding his head and staring at one spot, the crosswalk light. He needed to leave this spot, as he was now feeling a little uncomfortable with his behaviour and needed to release some of the nervous energy that was swirling in his veins. "WALK," interrupted his inner voice. He snapped to attention and walked! Without looking, Mike walked straight, perpendicularly across the pavement and on to the road. Luckily, the traffic was stopped already, the crosswalk sign was flashing green, the machine gun was whirling and the melody of misery was playing. He paced the streets, thinking and humming as he walked but not knowing at all where he was headed. All he could think of to do was to walk. He turned into a street that split into two, leaving a triangular section between them. There was a triple story building built between the two streets with a large red sign out front that made it easily identifiable as a fast food store. The electric sign read ‘MOZ BURGER’ and flashed orange. The sign triggered the emergence of a new influence on Mike's inner dialogue: his stomach. "EAT FOOD QUICKLY," it ordered in a low, masculine voice. The stomach quickly took control of the situation, forcing Mike to gather the courage to enter the building and attempt ordering some food. He walked in bravely, and immediately noticed that everything was somehow familiar, yet very strange and unfamiliar. The layout was very much typical of any fast food hamburger outlet that he had encountered to date, but it was much neater. As soon as he walked in, the staff stood to attention, standing very alert and erect, politely bowing and smiling very cheesy smiles. They called out what seemed to be a welcome while motioning to Mike to move towards the counter. He walked towards the counter but stopped about two metres away, realizing that he hadn't yet worked out the language he needed to order. Looking around for some clues as to how to go about ordering, he had the foresight to look up, noticing a collection of photographs of the set menus and individual orders that were on offer. The photographs were all labelled in Japanese Katakana. Mike had studied a little Japanese before coming here but he was as rusty as hell and hadn’t spent as much time studying Katakana as he had on Hiragana. Nevertheless, while staring at the photos, he managed to make sense of what was on offer and decided to order the ‘Moz Burger Set’. This included a beef burger wrapped in a rice pocket, a cola and fries. He walked up to the counter and was greeted by a shy, petite and fragile young girl who, although obviously not wanting to talk to him, summoned the courage to smile a genuine-looking smile and ask him something in Japanese "Kyou koko de nani o omeshi agarimasu ka?" (What would you like to eat here today?) Mike remembered that to eat in Japanese was taberu, a word that just didn’t appear in what had just been said, so he just gave up, smiled and pointed to the picture of the 'Moz Burger Set' on the counter. The girl at the counter smiled, relieved that they had communicated effectively, and then placed the order by punching the appropriate buttons on the cash machine. She smiled radiantly—probably just a few degrees too radiantly—then rang up the price on the cash register, announcing the total price in a high-pitched whine, as if someone was holding her nose for her as she talked. Although her mouth was moving, her words seemed to exit from her nose in a long, but thin stream of sound that rose up, spiralling above his head and level of comprehension. "Ryopyaku go jyu en ni narimasu,"(That'll be 650 yen). Mike was gobsmacked. Sensing confusion in Mike's expression, she motioned politely while bowing rigidly, buttocks clenched, for him to look at the figure displayed on the register. It was easy for Mike to read 650 yen, as clear as daylight in Hindu Arabic numerals, and it made him wonder why he had bothered to try communicating in Japanese. He took out his wallet and fished around for some money. He had changed some before coming over and managed to find a 1000-yen note amongst the others. Quickly yanking it out of the wallet, the card he had received from the superintendent fell out and floated to the floor. He gave the money to the girl then picked up the card. A flash of insight sliced through his thoughts as he lent down. Why hadn’t he thought of it already? The card––the card that the superintendent had given him back at the apartment––it had the name of the apartment complex on it. Feeling clever and sensing resolution, he held the card in his right hand and repetitively tapped the open palm of his left hand with it while he waited for change. Taking the three, one- hundred yen coins and single fifty-yen coin in his left hand, he glanced again at the card, noticing that it was all written in Japanese. The girl at the counter smiled again. "Shou shou o machi kudasai," (Please wait a moment) she said. Without understanding a word, Mike responded with a cheeky smile. Sensing his ignorance, she resorted to simple body language. She raised her hand, showing him the flat of the palm of her hand and pushed gently through the air in his direction, hesitantly poking the space in front of her. "WAIT… Yes, wait, that’s what she means," Mike waited. His order arrived and he picked up the tray, smiled at the girl one more time then walked over to a nearby available table. Devouring his snack quickly, he sat contented for a few minutes thinking. "Lost… but I've got the address… a pretty girl smiled at me. Maybe she could read this card for me?" He finished his meal and still feeling acutely foreign, looked around to see if other people had left their rubbish on the table or had thrown it away. As no one was leaving he just stood up and took his rubbish and tray to the bin. The girl at the counter looked at him and smiled, bowing at him in anticipation of him leaving. The smile turned to a look of terror, however as he changed direction and walked towards the counter. There were other customers lined up so he had to wait his turn. While he waited, he did some mental Japanese practice and tried to work out how to ask what he needed to ask in Japanese. "Where, in Japanese is… doko. Yes, that’s it. Doko ni arimasuka? Yeah, yeah that’s it." He took the card out of his wallet and stared at it, trying hard to make sense of what was written, but couldn't understand a thing. He had begun to study kanji, the writing system imported from China and used mainly to express content words but wasn’t familiar with any of the characters on the card. "No problem," he thought. "I’ll show her the card, ask the question and point. She should understand that." The people in front had been served and had moved on, so Mike walked forward, stood at the counter and smiled at the girl. She already knew that his Japanese was crap, so she just stared and smiled back nervously, waiting for him to take the lead. He showed her the card and pointed at it. She laughed loudly but nervously and seemed embarrassed. "Nani kore?" (What's this?) she exclaimed. "Dou iiu koto?" (What are you up to?) She cupped her hands over her face while tears of disbelief and embarrassment welled in her eyes. Mike couldn't help but sense that there was something on the card that wasn't quite right. Nevertheless, he had her attention so he decided to go ahead with the question. "Doko ni arimasu ka?" (Where is this?) he asked hesitantly. She just stared at him. Mike looked around noticing that some other staff did the same, while one of the male staff members was shaking his head in disbelief. Mike was alarmed. He felt like a bull in a china shop—albeit a Japanese China shop —clumsily knocking down and smashing the surrounding social conventions. He glanced around. Everyone was staring at him. Embarrassed, he turned and raced out of the store, feeling the sting of the imagined laughter on the back of his neck as he exited. When he was sure that he was out of sight he pounded his forehead with his open hand as he walked. "DICKHEAD," said his inner monologue. "DICKHEAD," he said out loud. Passers-by stared at him fleetingly in terror then promptly ignored him. Ebisu The day was flying by and it was now late afternoon. The shadows were cool and long and the sun warm and low in the sky. Evening was not far away. Mike noticed that the people walking around—both men and women—were wearing suits and were walking in groups. The atmosphere of the area was beginning to change. The light from the many restaurants and bars was beginning to illuminate the streets while the sun began to take its leave, deferring to the evening. Neon lights began flashing and swirling, advertising products in animated characters that seemed to have a life and meaning separate to the advertised products. Mike had walked back towards the train station and was standing again at the now familiar entrance where he could see the vending machines he had mistakenly relied upon. To the left was a taxi rank and about six black Toyota taxis were parked, one behind the other, waiting for customers. He decided to walk up to the first taxi and ask for directions. Given that his last try at speaking Japanese was particularly unsuccessful he decided to make sure that he was well prepared for the next attempt; practicing, he formed the sentences in his mind. "To be polite I should start with sumimasen. (Excuse me) … And then maybe an anno (Ummm) to make me seem fluent. Then show him the card and ask, Koko wa doko desu ka? (Where is this?) He made his way over to the first taxi in line. The taxi driver was sitting and staring blankly into the distance when he noticed Mike out of the corner of his eye. He turned his face towards him through the open front passenger door window and smiled nervously. The driver quickly regained his composure, his face turning stony cold. He bowed his head slowly and then raised it again, defiantly staring Mike straight in the eye. Mike fumbled his first words. "Sumimummummm…Shit!" exclaimed Mike in frustration. The taxi driver cocked his head slightly left, as if positioning himself to hear more clearly. "Ee… sheeto?" (What did you say? Seat?) It seemed that he had interpreted Mike's expletive 'shit' as 'seat'. Mike quickly realized that he was already in trouble and hadn’t even managed to ask what he had come to ask. In desperation, he just flashed the card at the driver through the window and asked him, "Doko ni arimasu ka?" (Where is this?) The taxi driver laughed heartily right in Mike's face. Mike blushed red. "Nan de? Nan de?" (What the hell?) the taxi driver repeated over and over. A Japanese man appearing to be in his early thirties walked up to the rear door of the taxi. Catching the taxi driver’s eye he waved and nodded, signalling to the taxi driver that he wished to hail this cab. The rear door flung open automatically, the driver engaged the passenger in a quick and trite exchange that Mike didn’t understand then the door slammed shut. The driver, with his face pointed about three degrees shy of Mike's direction but with his eyes looking straight ahead, smiled forcedly. He slowly bowed his head. "Sumimasen," he mumbled. Then, without flinching or changing expression he slowly drove off leaving Mike abandoned on the sidewalk. He had never been snubbed so politely. The next taxi did not advance and none of the drivers would make eye contact with him. Mike shoved the card back in his wallet, giving up on the idea. He decided to pace the streets a little more, firstly to leave behind another particularly embarrassing situation and secondly to work off the energy and rising stress levels. Late afternoon had given way to early evening by this stage and the streets now seemed to be spilling over with different kinds of people. With time on his hands, Mike started looking at the people. He found himself peering deeply into the many Asian faces, noticing a degree of variation he was surprised to have not yet seen. As he continued on he began seeing patterns of variation in bone structure, head shapes and sizes, walking styles, physiques and expressions. His focus soon narrowed, however, due to the abundance of elegant, skinny, shapely, fashionable and sexy women. Mike reasoned that at least, for the time being he was distracted and able to focus on something other than the dire situation he was in. It had now been about eight hours since he had left his new apartment. He hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours and was in a strange country with no useful language or literacy skills. "At least the girls are pretty," he thought. Allowing time for a little chuckle, he felt the layers of stress begin to peel off his shoulders as he laughed. A small, old, frail woman shuffled along the street at a snail's pace. She was bent over almost horizontal with the pavement, supporting herself with a thin walking stick. She saw Mike chuckle and frowned at him. A feeling of hopelessness again took hold of him. He walked and walked, filling his time by staring at people, ogling girls, counting vending machines, mumbling to himself, laughing at his predicament and thinking. He wanted to talk to people but was obviously not competent enough to communicate even the simplest of messages. "Hang on," he thought, suddenly realising that there must be people here who could speak at least some English. "That’s why I came here, to teach English. There must be someone!" Excited by this revelation and with no better plan, he decided to solicit strangers as they walked past and ask them for directions in English. He stopped walking and stood by a low chain barrier next to the pavement of the long busy street he was in. The first person to stray past was a man, tall with a rather stoic appearance. Mike moved towards him, smiling a pathetic, nervous smile. He looked him in the eye as he approached and said in as friendly a voice as possible, "Excuse me." The man veered around him, ignoring him entirely and not even turning to look back as he continued on down the sidewalk. Mike gathered his composure and picked out another man to ask, but the same thing happened. He tried again and yet again, each time being skilfully avoided. It became obvious that, from a distance, the people he was approaching had seen the actions of the person preceding them. "Group mentality and social conformity is obviously alive and well in Japan," Mike thought, as he gave up asking. There was not a lot he could do about human nature, he realized, and it seemed he had a lot to learn about Japan. His ego bruised but now feeling much wiser, Mike walked on a little, finding himself standing in front of one of those snack bars he had encountered so many times on his random rounds of the area over the last couple of hours. The OSAKA BIG LUCK SNACK seemed to beckon. Mike was tired, depressed and alone. In need of a diversion, alcohol now seemed a reasonable option given the circumstances. He stood and pondered his predicament for a while as hundreds of people streamed past him with out so much as a bump, a nudge or a stare. At this stage a bump or a nudge would have restored his faith in human nature as he stood on the pavement, alone and craving human contact and communication. Next to the snack bar was a vending machine that sold cigarettes. It caught Mike's attention. "Bloody vending machine," he cursed out loud. "If it wasn't for you I'd be home now." Mike realized that he was talking to a machine but at this stage it was all that he had. None of the passers-by paid him any attention. Next to the vending machine was a rock. Not a small one that he could throw at the vending machine but a large one that he could sit on. Mike fished out all of the change from his pocket, walked up to the vending machine saw that a price of 250 yen was printed below an image of an attractive looking box of Mild Seven Light cigarettes. He put in the 250 yen, a light lit up and he pushed it. With an echoing bang followed by a dull thud, the pack of cigarettes was ejected from the shelf to the collection tray at the bottom of the machine. Fascinated by the machine, Mike marvelled at the design and faultless function. He took the pack of cigarettes from the tray then sat on the rock breathing a sigh of relief, staring at his new friend the vending machine, before realizing that he had no matches. "You fucking Indian giver!" he yelled at the machine. "Who the hell do you think you are, you fucking vending machine?" This time he didn't even bother to see if people had noticed him talking to a machine. The vending machine did not respond. Mike stared and considered his position a little further. "I bet you've seen it all," he said to the vending machine. "Standing here, day after day, watching and waiting, day and night." Mike knew he was getting a little weird but he was used to disappointment and just didn't care that people might see him 'lose it'. With no help or communication so far, he had nothing to lose by relying on a vending machine for companionship. Mike sat there and imagined all of the action that had passed by this vending machine over the years. In his mind, he saw young people with pink and blue hair on the way to, or back from, night venues; businessmen in cheap but comfortable, perfectly-cut grey and black suits on their way to an important meeting or to a tachiguisoba (Stand and eat noodle bar); university students on the way to buy some ramen (Japanese noodles in a soup) heading off to their arubaito (part-time job). "You should publish your memoirs some time," Mike suggested. The vending machine gave him a wink as a red lamp backlit some important looking kanji characters and flashed on and off. Temporarily snapping back to reality, Mike stretched him arms and back. Yawning, he looked around. Next to the rock was a small statue of a rotund and happy looking man with a tall hat and big ears. There was plaque at the bottom that was first written in Japanese and then in English. With nothing better to do, Mike read the plaque. EBISU: Ebisu was originally named Hiruko, meaning "leech child". He was the first child of Izanagi and Izanami, born without bones due to his mother's transgression during the marriage ritual. Hiruko struggled to survive but, as he could not stand, he was cast to the sea in a boat of reeds before his third birthday. He eventually washed ashore and was cared for by the Ainu Ebisu Saburo. The weak child overcame many hardships, grew legs and the rest of his skeletal structure at the age of three and became the god Ebisu. He remains slightly crippled and deaf, but mirthful and auspicious nonetheless, hence the title, "The Laughing God". Mike laughed. The god Ebisu, the 'leech child' could do it. Despite adversity, he was happy, mirthful and auspicious. He loved this little guy. The bones though… pretty much a jellyfish for three years before he grew a backbone! He reflected on his predicament. "This is all nothing more than a test of character," Mike reasoned. His mood lifted significantly as did his posture, as his backbone seemed to become more rigid. "Hang on," he thought, as he sat on his little rock with his new friend and mentor. "The snack bar, there’s got to be some matches or a lighter or something in there… A beer! Perfect!" Mike stood up, giving his left ear a scratch as it had suddenly become unusually itchy. Projecting the god Ebisu, he opened the reinforced, brown aluminium door of the snack bar and walked in. Daichi Heights A young, skinny man stood leaning at the service side of a bar with his arms spread on either side of his body supporting his weight. He was holding a cloth, scrunched up in his right hand and had another draped over his left shoulder. He smiled a nervous smile at first but quickly swung into public service mode, bowing as he bellowed in Japanese. "Irashaimase." (Welcome). Mike almost felt comfortable as the young man motioned to a bar-stool for him to sit down on. "Dozo, dozo", (Go ahead) repeated the barman with a reassuring smile. Mike had long since lost any confidence in his ability to speak Japanese, so he just smiled and in his most polite accent said “thank you," in English, as he took a seat. The next problem was how to order. "Nihongo ga dekimasu ka?" (Can you speak Japanese?) asked the man. Not understanding him, Mike used one of the few Japanese words that he could remember. "Wakarimasen," (I don’t understand) he muttered in Japanese, with a shrug of his shoulders. The man seemed perplexed. Without speaking, he smiled again and pointed in an elegant fashion to a page with photographs of alcoholic drinks with Japanese written all over it that had been placed on the bar. Mike immediately recognized a bottle of beer and pointed to it. "Kore kudasai," (This please) he said hesitantly. The man smiled again, wondering why Mike had said that he couldn't understand Japanese, in Japanese, and was now ordering his drink—also in Japanese. Without dwelling on this conundrum, he gave a quick bow and replied with a short, sharp and compliant reply. "Hai."(OK then.) He retreated from the bar a little, leaned down and pulled a bottle of beer from a magic space behind the bar. Flipping the lid, he expertly placed a glass immediately in front of Mike and poured the beer leaving a perfect head. He then placed the beer bottle next to the glass on Mike’s left with the label facing towards Mike. Mike looked at the label out of interest and nearly fell backwards as he read it. YE-BI-SU. "The goddamn beer's name is YEBISU! How close can you get?" He smiled and shook his head in disbelief, marvelling at this auspicious coincidence. The barman just stared at the counter. Mike felt warm and welcome as the first sip of beer washed away all of the previous stress and confusion. He looked around the bar and noticed that he was the only one there. The bartender had retreated to a corner of the bar and was preparing some kind of snack. Mike deduced that it must be early and looked at his watch. It was 6:30 but he quickly remembered that he had forgotten to wind his watch forward from Singapore time where he had been in transit for a couple of hours. It was actually 7:30 pm. He took the time to wind his watch forward. Mike sat silently yet content, temporarily forgetting about his predicament as he finished the glass. He put it down and reached for the bottle to pour his next drink, but the bartender raced over and took the bottle from Mike's hands. "Iee, iee," (No, no) he insisted. He poured Mike's next glass while smiling a most hospitable smile while concurrently summoning courage and silently miming words. He made a few odd movements of his mouth before spitting out what appeared to be some words in English. "Whhhear aru eeyu foorommu," he mumbled. Mike just stared. He didn’t understand one word of what he had just been said. There was a rather long moment of embarrassing silence. After applying a little logic to the situation, Mike managed to come to the realization that the bartender was trying to communicate with him in English and that he had just asked, “Where are you from?" Mike jumped at the chance to speak in English. "Australia," he answered gleefully. The man nodded and smiled signalling that he understood. He then proceeded to list all that he knew that was Australian. "Koala, kangaroo, Shidonee," (Sydney) he reeled off in a succession of unconnected single utterances. Mike nodded and replied using the other Japanese word that he knew. "Hai, wakarimashita." (Yes, I understand) The two continued on in this manner for quite some time and a few more beers. Over a series of mispronounced and sometimes irrelevant English and Japanese words and phrases, both men's stories emerged. The bartender had visited Australia on his honeymoon and had had the time of his life. He had been well looked after and loved by the Australians he had met. He had not studied English very hard at school but he kept it up as a hobby. Mike was enjoying the beer and the conversation and had almost forgotten the predicament he was in when it flashed violently back to the forefront of his memory. Tsuyoshi, the bartender, asked Mike where in Japan he lived. Mike couldn't say, so he took out the address card from his wallet that he had shown to the girl at 'Moz Burger' and to the taxi driver. He showed it to Tsuyoshi. "Nan de? Nan de?" (Why? Why?) he exclaimed. "What…why?" Mike pleaded desperately. "Why is this strange?" Tsuyoshi could see the genuine concern in Mike's face. It was obvious that he was a foreigner in a strange country and way out of his depth. He seemed to take pity on Mike as he mentally prepared the vocabulary he would need to explain the situation. "This is a girl," he began. "A sex girl," he added punctuating this with raised eyebrows while leaning forward into Mike's personal space to add effect. Things began to fit in to place. Tsuyoshi slowly and painfully explained to Mike that the card was for advertising sex services and that the address was for a company in the middle of the city, far from where they now were. He pointed out though, that on the back, written in pen using katakana characters was the name of Mike's apartment block, Daichi Heights. Mike laughed loudly then almost cried with relief. At least he knew how to explain where he lived now. "But why on the back of a card like this?" Tsuyoshi explained to him that this whole area was a nightlife hot-spot and that a part of it was a lively and vibrant sex industry. It was likely that the old superintendent did a sideline job distributing these cards and taking bookings as well as other more salacious activities. Mike was happy for this resolution but now more that just a little worried about where he was and were he lived. "Where is Daichi Heights?" he asked Tsuyoshi. "Don’t you know?" Mike had no response. He didn’t know. He thought about how stupid he must have looked and started to feel like a country bumpkin on his first trip to a big city. "I'm lost," he admitted sheepishly to Tsuyoshi. Tsuyoshi was concerned for Mike and his face radiated empathy for him. Mike was surprised, but welcomed his sympathy. His level of concern exceeded his level of responsibility towards Mike, his customer. He could sense that Tsuyoshi was looking at him through the eyes of a responsible Japanese citizen and he was concerned that Mike was not enjoying his first experience of Japan as he had done in Australia. Although Tsuyoshi had said nothing, it made sense, as it was the only way to explain what he did in response. Tsuyoshi put down his towel, put on a coat, then took a set of keys from a hook on the wall next to the snack preparation area. "Ikou," (Let’s go) he said as he offered to drive Mike home. He closed up shop and led Mike to his car. Gobsmacked but tired and humiliated enough to accept the offer unconditionally, Mike agreed. Tsuyoshi's car was a new model, square-shaped Nissan Cube sedan. The backs of the seats were covered in fluffy fake fur and there was a dice dangling down from the rear-vision mirror. There was a state-of-the-art sound system, navigation system, cell phone interface and a non–standard, glowing plastic extension indicator arm with bubbles at its centre. The car smelled like a pine forest and was immaculately clean and tidy. Mike's bum made a squeaky noise, just a few Hertz higher in frequency than a high-pitched fart, as he settled into the shiny leather passenger seat. "Nice car," Mike said as Tsuyoshi fired up the engine, barged onto the road in reverse and slipped into the stream of traffic. They didn't speak much as Tsuyoshi pushed a few buttons on his Nabi (navigation system), presumably looking for Daichi Heights.The traffic was a blur of red, green and yellow light. Everywhere it was light. There was no dark. It was a surreal contrast to the low-lit snack bar where Mike had spent the last hour sitting. Negotiating the traffic skilfully, Tsuyoshi turned off the main road onto a side street that was just wide enough for the car to enter without getting the wheels stuck in the open drains on either side. "God help us if a car comes the other way," Mike thought as a car came the other way. Tsuyoshi found a space to veer over, next to a sidewalk that Mike was sure wasn’t there when they had entered, and the other car passed—the driver smiling, nodding his head and waving his hand in gratitude for their deference. A little further up the road, past a group of vending machines stocked with beer, Tsuyoshi turned into a small alcove in front of the street entrance to an apartment block. Although Mike had spent all of thirty minutes at the apartment block when Paul showed him the way, he could tell immediately that this apartment block was not the right one. Tsuyoshi stopped the car and gave Mike an inquisitive look. He felt like he was imposing now, as he knew that Tsuyoshi had to get back to the snack bar, but Mike couldn’t lie. He wasn’t going to get out and become even more lost. Mike shook his head and smiled. "Hai, Hai," said Tsuyoshi with a hint of resignation in his voice. He put the car into gear roared off to another location. They weaved in and out of little side-alleys flanked by rickety old houses made of corrugated iron that contrasted with state-of-the-art Japanese two-storey apartments. Mike was a little surprised to find that in amongst all of this big city hustle and bustle, they were actually at one stage travelling on a road that ran straight down the middle of a series of rice fields. It was a serene experience and a welcome break. A left turn at the end of the rice field and serenity succumbed to opulence. They were back into the action hot spot again––lights, traffic flashing neon lights and people. They came to another apartment block and Tsuyoshi pulled over at the front entrance again. It was not Mike's apartment. He began to get the feeling that for all his good intentions, Tsuyoshi was guessing. After the third, then the fourth apartment, Tsuyoshi seemed also to lose heart. He looked at his watch, said 'sorry' in English then drove directly to the snack bar, arriving within minutes. Without another word, they walked in to the bar. Mike paid his bill and said ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’. Tsuyoshi just silently bowed a few times. Both of them were a little too embarrassed to say or do much more. Kinki Karaoke It was now about 9.00 pm. Although Mike's situation was hopeless, he didn’t feel at all the pressure that he had felt earlier. At this stage, there really was no imperative to get home. As much as he hadn’t planned any of this, it was an education and he felt that he was experiencing a lot very quickly. He didn’t need to contact the English conversation company for two days, as the training began on Monday and it was now Friday night. He walked on from the car park of the snack bar to a corner where a small stairway led to the glass-door entrance of a building that was closed for the night. Next to it were a group of vending machines that sold cigarettes. He had inadvertently left his cigarettes at the snack bar so he decided to buy a new pack. They were so cheap it didn’t really matter. He purchased the smokes and using a packet of matches that he had kept from the snack bar, lit one up. Smoking slowly, he stared for what seemed to be a number of hours, sitting on the steps, looking very much out of place and yet attracting nothing more that the most fleeting of stares. He watched people come and go. At one stage, a group of forty-something men, many of them balding and a little chubby, accompanied by several young and attractive twenty-something women, all slim, pretty and wearing office attire, left the restaurant on the opposite corner and gathered in a group outside its entrance. They stood in a circle and led by the oldest-looking of the group, loudly chanted, "Banzai, banzai, banzai," (Hoorah, hoorah, hoorah) raising their arms and then letting them drop to their sides between ‘banzais’. A pair of young girls wearing fluffy, clip-on bunny ears was giving out what appeared to be small individual tissue packets to passers-by. Girls in skirts that left nothing to the imagination and shoes that doubled their height paraded about inelegantly yet exuding a certain exotic form of cuteness. They were holding mobile phones with little blue lights and fluffy little bunny shaped things dangling down from the phones. Young men looking and walking 'just so' in fashionable suits moved in and out of the multitude of restaurants and bars lining the streets. Mike sat there mesmerized, as if he were watching a movie. He snapped out of it, though, when he saw three happy western-looking faces in the distance, coming towards him. He squinted a little as he looked again to confirm that walking his way were three people of western appearance. Sure enough, a man in his late twenties and two women, possibly in their early twenties, were walking amongst the crowds in Mike's direction. He jumped up and startled a young woman walking along the footpath, who promptly frowned at him. Weaving in an out of the constant stream of people, he gradually made his way closer and closer until he was a little less than three metres in front of them. They stopped and they stared at each other for a moment. "Thank god I’ve found you guys," Mike said with a smile and a sigh. With puzzled expressions on their faces, they stared at him momentarily. One of the girls launched into a lightning-fast series of questions and comments in what appeared to be fluent German. Stunned, Mike stared back at them with a forlorn and hopeless expression. The three of them shrugged, the girls giggled, the man smiled and they continued on their way, leading off ahead of Mike and leaving him standing where he was. Pouting and slouching, Mike swaggered back to his stairway, sat down and took out another cigarette, realising just after he had put it in his mouth that he had dropped the matches in his haste when he had raced to meet the three Germans. He imagined his little mate the Ebisu God laughing and the thought made him feel a little better. "It must be getting late," thought Mike. He looked at his watch—it was 10.30 pm. He returned to his steps and resumed his new pastime of people watching for a while, until the happy, engaged faces of the crowds started to make him feel a little lonely and sad. He switched to staring at objects for a while and became fixated on, of all things, a public telephone booth. He could see it from the front as it was fairly close to him on the sidewalk. Stuck on the wall next to the booth was a series of cards with pictures on them. Bored, with nothing better to do, he decided to investigate things a little further. He stood up and walked over to the booth and was surprised at what he saw. The photographs were of young girls presumably for sale. The pictures were not particularly provocative but the fact that there were no other products in the pictures encircled by pink love hearts made it fairly obvious. He marvelled at the beauty of the girls and wondered if the woman advertised could possibly be the same as the woman available. He decided in the negative. Just at that moment, Mike heard a magical, musical, sweet sound that immediately arrested his interest in the photographs and forced his mind back on task. ENGLISH! It was a Manchester accent and quite loud but it was nevertheless music to Mike's ears. He glanced from the booth to his right and immediately recognized that there were three tall, western-looking young men walking towards the booth. He quickly turned away and focused on what his situation must have looked like to a passing expatriate Englishman and his two friends. A man in his early thirties, on his own in Japan in an established nightlife area ogling pictures of young girls for sale in a public telephone booth! "Not a pretty picture," thought Mike. He had been hoping all evening for such a moment of salvation and now that it was here… Mike became terrified at the thought of missing this chance. He formed a plan where he would just wait until they had walked past and then call them from behind as if he had been chasing them. He turned with his back to the street and waited and listened intently for the right moment. Unfortunately, time must have warped under the strain of the imperative to seize the opportunity. Miscalculating, Mike turned around and walked out of the telephone booth and straight in front of the three guys. They stopped abruptly in front of him, a little startled but nowhere near as startled as Mike. He smiled and feigned surprise. No one said anything. It felt like hours. Mike reasoned that it was minutes but in all probability it wouldn’t have been much more than a second of awkward silence before he managed to utter a monosyllabic, "Oh!" In a reserved manner, the English man that he had heard talking from a distance greeted him, saying nothing about the telephone or the cards. "Good evening, I’m Jon," he said politely breaking the ice. Mike managed a quick, "Hi" before spewing out the story of his entire ordeal in what must have seemed like one continuous sentence. He must have breathed on the way, but he certainly had no recollection of it. "Well," said Jon, pausing and smiling briefly, the others just staring, "Where is it that you said you were staying?" "A place called Daichi," Mike began. "Heights," interrupted Jon. "Yes, yes," Mike repeated excitedly. "That’s it. How did you know?” he asked. "Well my dear man," said Jon patronizingly, "That’s where we’re staying, we arrived today." "Paul, Paul Jackson!" Mike exclaimed. "Yes, that American chap," scoffed Jon. "We had the pleasure earlier; he escorted us from the airport to the apartments." Jon introduced Mike to Mark, a Canadian of roughly the same age. He was quite tall, handsome and muscular. Dressed in fashionable dark coloured jeans and wearing a black leather jacket, he exuded an air of confidence and a sense of unrealised sophistication––a rough diamond. And then there was Jeff, a thin and awfully polite English man from London with the same middle-class mannerisms as Hugh Grant, but without the looks. Jon himself was an interesting chap. Self-confident yet nerd-like in appearance, he wore what could only be described as ‘specs’ and wore jeans that hung too high and clung too tight. Jon continued to explain that the three of them had arrived in Japan on the same day as Mike, only a little later. They had eaten already and were walking around looking for something to do. "Amazing…same company… same apartments…I can't believe my luck." "How 'bout we head off somewhere for a drink?" Mike suggested." "Well", remarked Jeff. I'm sure that would be fine, if only we knew of some place good." "Hell yeah," added Mark. "A couple of beers sounds good—but where?" Mike interrupted. He suggested that they all head on to the snack bar that he had been to earlier. It seemed like the right thing to do for Tsuyoshi, the barman, as a way of returning the kindness he had shown him earlier. No one else had a better idea, so with Mike at the lead, off they went. On the way, they chatted about England, Canada, Australia and Japan—their plans for the next few days and impressions of Japan so far. There was no shortage of conversation, as they all seemed to get on pretty well. When they arrived at the snack bar, Tsuyoshi was a little overwhelmed at first, not knowing exactly where to sit such a loud and rowdy bunch of foreigners. The bar had become more crowded since Mike had been there earlier and Tsuyoshi seemed a little preoccupied with all his other customers. Two young, attractive Japanese women in their early twenties were now also working the bar in addition to Tsuyoshi and there were another two working as waitress for the folk sitting at tables. Smiling politely, Tsuyoshi sat the boys in a corner, off to the side, at first paying them little attention. One of the waitresses came over to take their orders. Happy to be in each other’s company, their mood was lively and flippant. Jon was the first to speak. "I love you," he blurted in his most refined Manchester accent. Not expecting this, they all smiled, embarrassed, then waited to see how the waitress would react. She stood silently poised, smiling, pencil in hand held a couple of millimetres above the order book but obviously confused. Jon, sensing that his brazen remark was not being taken in context, tried for some attention again, this time ordering a drink in Japanese. He had studied a little Japanese while at university in England and felt reasonably confident that he could negotiate this simple task. He remembered that big in Japanese was ookii and that beer was beeru. He strung the two together and, adding a little Samurai theatrics to his accent demanded, "Ooki beeru arimasu" The waitress maintained her silence. The other three glanced at each other, while Jon smiled. Embarrassed, he tried to pretend that everything was still okay. Smiling, the waitress didn’t flinch. Mark, the mysterious Canadian, who had told the others stories of a previous trip to Japan while they walked towards the bar, took on an air of confidence as he motioned to the waitress and smiled. The others watched on, jaws agape, intrigued by this development. He immediately caught her attention and she turned to him, cocking her head ever so slightly to the side while changing her expression to one of polite anticipation. "Ano ne," (Umm) he began. Her expression quickly changed to one of relief. "Dai jocky yotsu onegaishimasu," (Four large beers please) continued Mark. "Dai jocky yotsu," (That's four large beers) she repeated. "Hai," (Yes) said Mark as she smiled at each man in turn, twirled elegantly in the opposite direction then walked off to the bar. "Well, that was impressive!" exclaimed Jeff in a toffy English accent. Jon, obviously outdone, sat silently stewing, while Mark sat beaming, explaining to the others that Jon had confused the waitress by simply stating that there was a big beer somewhere. Imagining how ridiculous this must have sounded to her, all of them except for Jon burst out laughing, while Jon retained his composure. The waitress quickly returned holding two huge jugs of beer in each hand. With a gentle and attention- getting curtsey, she placed them on the table, smiled again, bowed, twirled then elegantly moved on to another group of customers. The four just watched her continuing on with her orders, stunned by her cuteness, the measure of which none of them had obviously ever experienced before. They downed the beers in a matter of minutes without much dialogue. Feeling the need for more effect with less effort, they next decided to order an expensive whiskey, ostensibly with the intention of becoming even drunker—yet each of them imagining another brief encounter with the waitress. However, after the third and then the fourth drink, the novelty of the waitress started to wear off as it became obvious that being cute was just a part of the job and she was just as cute at every table she attended. Their attention soon turned to the karaoke in progress at the bar, as a rather dramatic, strings–dominated, traditional-sounding melody floated over to their table. It was being sung by a rather old-looking man, who appeared to be drunk and was warbling with his eyes closed in short, mono–melodic, arbitrarily musical phrases, in a low voice. "What the hell is that?" exclaimed Mike. Mark jumped in and explained that it was a style popular with the older generations, called Enka and involved warbling slowly and nasally to a banal, yet ubiquitous, melody with string sounds and a set, dynamic structure. "The subject matter always changes but it's usually just a matter of splitting hairs between a tragic love story or a very tragic love story," he added. With no reason to contest this, the other three just nodded in agreement, leaving Mark yet again to retain the intellectual high ground. "So how is it that you really know so much about this country, Mark?" asked Mike. "Oh, I don't know…you know…you kinda pick things up." The others just stared, urging Mark to divulge just a little more. "Well… I've been around Kansai before, you know." "Yeah, what is that?" interrupted Mike. "What?" asked Mark. "You know…Kansai…the airport…Kansai airport… just Kansai?" continued Mike. "Oh, I see…well they split Japan into a few different regions. The two big ones are Kanto, the Tokyo area and Kansai, the Osaka area." Mark explained authoritatively. "Just Google, Mark," mocked Jon, more than a little annoyed with Mark's emerging position of intellectual alpha male. Mark waved Jon down with his left hand and leaned forward as something came to mind. "You know there is another name for the greater Kansai area," he said with a hint of mischief in his voice. The others just waited in anticipation. "Yeah?" urged Mike. "It's the Kinki region!" "What?" exclaimed Mike. Jeff seemed a little embarrassed for some reason and stayed silent. "So this is Kinki?" mused Jon. "I've had better. "Hey… so that sad old man is singing ‘Kinki Karaoke’ then," he added. They all laughed. It must have become obvious that they were going to spend some serious time and money at the bar, as Tsuyoshi seemed to relax a bit, showing his approval of the way they were conducting themselves by inviting them to the bar, handing out tambourines all round and reorganising the seating to allow them a place to sit. The four of them were drunk enough to assume that being handed tambourines at a bar then being told to sit and perform was quite a normal thing. Willingly they agreed to participate as Kinki choristers. Kinki Kanji Jon was seated at the end of the bar, next to a young, attractive girl and her date for the evening. Mark was next to Jon; Mike next to Mark and Jeff next to Mike. The old drunken man was next to the girl's date and was still singing passionately, but without melody, in Enka style. He finished his song and several people sitting to the right of the boys clapped for a moment, seemingly pandering to his ego. He looked at the boys one by one as if seeking some validation of his talent, expecting them to motion their approval—but all they could do was politely smile. The man quickly turned to Tsuyoshi and muttered a word in a mocking tone. “Gaijin.” (Foreigner.) Mark looked at Mike, Jon, then Jeff confirming a shared acknowledgment of comprehension. None of them liked the old man's tone. Tsuyoshi seemed to notice the tension. He quickly put out an open invitation to all of them to sing a song, possibly to diffuse a potentially difficult situation. As had become the pattern, Jon put up his hand first and a songbook emerged from behind the bar and was placed in from of him. It contained a list of various outdated songs in English, which included many hits of the Beatles and the Carpenters, with a smattering of obscure hits by Deep Purple and Bon Jovi. Jon flicked through, picking out a Beatles song, then put his index finger on a code printed next to the selection, so as not to lose his place. "So how do I get it to come up on the screen then?" None of the others were listening. The pretty girl, sitting between Jon and the drunken old guy, understanding the situation but not the language, motioned to Jon, suggesting with a reassuring smile that she help him select the song. Without hesitation, Jon smiled back reassuringly and possibly a little lustfully, nodding enthusiastically in agreement. She leaned over, using Jon's forearm that was resting on the bar to stabilize herself with her right hand as she stretched over to pick up a remote control that was on the other side of the bar, slightly to the left of him. Her loose fitting top flopped to one side, revealing her petite breasts cupped by an elegant bra. This caught the immediate attention of not only Jon, but of all the other Gaijin at the bar. The whole action seemed to roll out in slow motion, angled to perfection to achieve the maximum possible effect of seduction, eroticism, and nubile playfulness —all innocently performed in the name of retrieving the remote. No one else, including her date, seemed to notice a thing! She elegantly retracted her body, at one stage being within millimetres of brushing her breasts against Jon’s face. She proceeded to punch some numbers into the remote with the thumb on her left hand. The next song title came up on the screen, but it was in Japanese, so no one was sure if it was Jon’s song. The four looked at each other in confusion, shrugging shoulders and gesturing ignorance. The pretty girl picked up a radio microphone, flicked the switch and handed it to Jon just as the music-in-a-box style introduction to Yesterday by the Beatles began. Jon took a breath and then, out of time, appeared to bray like a sheep, the sound enhanced with some expensive-sounding reverb and echo. The remaining three laughed in unison as he continued on in monotone sheep voice, dismembering what would otherwise have been a very beautiful song. Expecting everyone to be in stitches, Jeff glanced around only to be amazed that most of the patrons continued private conversations. The pretty girl, her date and the drunk man were singing together to the tune while others at the bar swayed in time to the music, apparently captured by the mood, despite the out of context farmyard sounds. Stunned, the other three stopped laughing, falling silent as they each took a humbled sip from their glasses. The song ended with a ritardando section, decreasing in tempo and throwing Jon’s timing out completely, turning the ending of the song in to a cat-and-mouse style, catch-the-appropriate-beat game that neither the karaoke box nor Jon could ever hope to win. The song finished with a quick drum roll and a sizzling cymbal crash. There was a round of polite clapping and the room returned to the familiar sounds of polite chatter and laughter. Jon, obviously unaware of just how poor a singer he actually was, looked at Mike with a cheeky, childish grin. "That was alright then," he uttered rhetorically. Mike said nothing and just nodded with a strained controlled grin. Mark just jumped in. "That was absolute shit." "Why?" protested Jon. "Well, for a start you sing like a sheep," retorted Mark. He looked around with a confident grin, searching for agreement in the faces of both Mike and Jeff, but neither of them was willing to take a side in this. Mark turned away from the two and, with a taut smile that bordered on aggressive, tried to take the microphone from Jon. Skilfully, Jon manoeuvred the microphone in such a way that Mark was unable to grab it. He continued to taunt him until, on the fourth attempt Mark managed to snatch it away from him. Others at the bar noticed and began to smile, albeit nervously, for fear that the apparent playfulness might develop into a physical altercation. With this on her mind, the pretty girl at the bar picked up the book of songs, turned to Mark and, speaking across Jon, said in the most disarming of voices, "Nani ga ii? Eigo no uta utaimashyou ka?" (What song would you like to sing? Would you like to sing a song in English?) Mark became mesmerized, quickly forgetting the game he was playing, falling under the alluring spell of the Kinki karaoke bar-girl. It would not be true to say that Mark was entirely sober, nor that he had honourable intentions—but none of that mattered. What he did next trumped Jon’s efforts tenfold, as he answered her in Japanese. "Iie, nihongo no uta ga ii desu yo. Urufuruzu no uta ga aru no.?" (No thanks; I'll sing a Japanese song. Is there a song by Urufuzu?) The girl leapt back in surprise, holding her hands to her mouth while enunciating a sound of surprise that rose in pitch to a glissando of astonishment. Other people at the bar stopped talking, cocked their heads and stared at Mark. The drunken man at her side was making sounds with the intention of them being words, but seemed to be mismanaging the interface between thought and production, with the net effect being a muffled sort of drone with the hint of social function as evidenced by appropriate body gestures. Notwithstanding this spectacle, the focus, however, had well and truly moved to Mark. It was an unavoidable challenge to Mark who, sensing the moment, took a quick pause to contemplate his next move. "Eto," (Umm) he mumbled. The crowd collectively appeared to twitch in unison in anticipation of Mark’s next utterance. "Banzai to iu uta o utaimasu," (I'll sing a song called Banzai) he stated with confidence as the girl frantically and compliantly flicked through the pages at the speed of a ‘category five’ typhoon until, punctuated by a maniacal and childish repetition of the word "Mitsuketta" (Found it) she punched in the number and the first chord was struck. To everyone’s surprise, Mark seemed to be unfazed by the situation. He waited patiently until cued by the drum roll and the beginning of the cadence. In the penultimate bar of the introduction, he raised the microphone to his lips. "Yeah," he roared melodically, in a rough but rounded male rock growl, absolutely appropriate for the melody and the style. There was an electric guitar introduction to a basic rock beat that highlighted the vocals. Then, with a spectacular rock and roll drum–roll, ending with a splash of cymbals, the beat was laid down with drums, bass and guitar in preparation for the body of the song. Jeff quickly jumped in, while there was a quick melodic pause, to try and spoil Mark’s moment. "That was in fact an English word that Mark has just sung," he blurted sarcastically. Without time for others to comment, Mark continued on like a rock legend, neutralizing Jeff’s comments in an instant. "Kimi o suki de yokatta," (I'm so glad I like you) he waxed lyrically. Everyone in the place, except Jon and Jeff, spontaneously cheered as he continued on and crooned his way through some of the most convincing Japanese any of them had ever heard a non-Japanese passport holder produce. Mike was captured and watched, jaw agape at something that he had never imagined he would ever see live. The young girl was simultaneously swaying, singing and smiling and the drunken man was still trying to finish what he was saying earlier, only the disparity between his thoughts and the sounds he produced seemed to have widened. With a final, suspended fourth chord Mark sang the last of the lyrics. "Ra, ra ra, futari de." (La, la, la, the two of us together) Mike finished his song to cheers and claps. The girl clapped, childishly repeatied in Japanese, "Sugoi, sugoi." (Fantastic) She repeated this over and over until the atmosphere in the room normalized. Her date stared at an ashtray with a neutral expression and the drunken man had finally connected thought with speech. "Ee, gaijin san da kedo, nihongo de hanaseru," he stated in gruff, gravel like voice.(Wow, despite being a foreigner, he can speak Japanese.) No one responded to him. Next up, Jeff had a go at Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer, mauling every note and every lyric as the rest of the bar tapped on tambourines giving shouts of encouragement as he dug himself deeper into a melodically vacuous hole. Finally, it was Mike's turn. He chose a song that would allow him to skilfully shout his way through the melody, hiding his lack of control and quality of voice. The Beatles song She Loves You seemed an appropriate vehicle for his level of talent. Mike also received some cheers of support as he launched into the rock and roll ‘shouty-bits’. The night, however, was definitely Mark’s—and they all knew it. They sang on to their heart's content, congratulated each other on their vocal skills, bought another round of drinks, then turned their attention to the pretty girl at the bar that some of them had impressed. She was glancing over in anticipation of a conversation that none of them, bar Mark, was able to effect. Jeff, in a deflated but drunkenly honest tone, decided to give them all a realistic summary of their predicament. "There’s a lovely girl here but how do you talk to her if you can’t speak a word of Japanese?" "I guess that puts you ahead of the rest of us," Mike said directly to Mark. The others looked on silently, waiting for a reply, anticipating some pearls of wisdom from Mark to enable them to bring to reality some of the thoughts that seemed to be preoccupying them with regards to the fairer sex. “Fuck it,” said an obviously drunk Mark, "Just try." "Look," he said in the most authoritative of tones and gestures, as he slipped comfortably into his newly adopted role of gaijin group Kinki love guru. "To tell you the truth, the less Japanese you can speak, the better off you are." "So… what the hell does that mean?" questioned Mike. "It’s a bit of fun," lectured Mark. "You know, it puts you, the guy, at a disadvantage to her. She gets to call the shots…to be in control. It makes you seem cute and vulnerable to them." "Whoa, whoa, slow down there," demanded Jon in his peculiar Manchester accent. He pulled out a pocket dictionary that he had picked up at the airport when he boarded the plane at Heathrow. "So let me get this straight," he continued, waving the dictionary centimetres from Mark’s face. "If I try out a conversation with her and I use this dictionary, I’m in with a chance?" Jon paused in anticipation of a response, with the book held motionless in his hand, mid-gesture. Mark was quite drunk and was struggling to keep up with what he had said in the previous sentence. What it looked like to everybody else was that he was calculating his response and was carefully considering the consequences for both Jon and the girl in question, if Jon were in fact to act on his advice. He drew breath, ready to speak. Everybody leaned forward just a little; Jon, in particular, was captivated. Mark exhaled, speechless, staring at the counter. No one uttered a word nor dropped their stare. "Fuck it," he slurred. "Fuck it," he repeated. "Just try." And with that, he sculled the remainder of the scotch and soda he had been swilling and slammed it on the counter. With a shrug of his shoulders, Jon immediately turned his determined attention to the girl who was still playing innocent stares. The drunken man had apparently managed to further interface thought with action by this stage and was talking to the girl across her date but she was not looking at him nor replying. The drunken man was apparently not aware of this. Jon leaned across to the girl and uttered in staccato Japanese, "Sumimasen," (Excuse me) within earshot of the girl. He was holding a notebook that he taken from his top pocket with various lists of handwritten Japanese Kanji characters with explanations in English of each written beside them. He looked like an amateur anthropologist as he tried to communicate with the girl using the redundant and repetitive Japanese phrase, "Ano" (Umm) while smiling and pointing at a character with a pencil that he had extracted from the spine of the notebook. Mike and Jeff just cringed as they watched this play unfold, wondering if they should nominate Jon for a BAFTA award for his performance, while secretly hoping that this was actually a miscalculated drunken seduction routine and not the real Jon. Mark just continued to drink, staring at the karaoke screen miming to the Japanese words, oblivious to Jon’s antics. She looked at the notebook then motioned backwards on her seat while holding the side of her face with her hands. She looked somewhat like a bad mimic of the famous Munch painting The Scream, although her face was put together in a much more aesthetically pleasing way. "Kanji ga yomeru no? Sugoi!" (So you can read Japanese characters? Amazing!) Not understanding a word of this, Jon pointed, mimed and smiled his way through some embarrassing moments of what appeared to range from stop-start random and monosyllabic Japanese utterances, to purely Jabberwocky-inspired moments of irrelevant and contextually inappropriate lexical aberrations that inspired laughter and joy in the Japanese girl. She seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience, captured by Jon's disarming incompetence with a second language. Helping Jon with explanations in a mix of Japanese that Jon couldn’t hope to understand and punctuated with English and Japanese, she lost all fear of proximity and moved closer to Jon. He seemed to be floating in heaven as he conversed, engaging her in an exclusive and unique linguistic experience that involved the notebook, the pencil and many, many grammatical errors. It appeared to Jon that the Japanese girl was showing what seemed to be signs of attachment as she laughed, joked and slapped Jon playfully on the shoulder. Her date sat smiling uncomfortably and silently staring at the ashtray and ignoring the drunken man sitting next to him. Bored with what could only be described as an intercultural mating ritual that didn’t involve them, Mike and Jeff stuck up a conversation, while Mark became disturbingly silent and contemplative. "So where have you been posted to?" Mike asked Jeff. "Not sure yet, we’ll be told after training is finished at the head office next week." "I didn’t know that we had to wait," said Mike with a hint of surprise in his voice. "Why, do you already know?" enquired Jeff. "Not really," replied Mike with a guarded tone. “But I thought I might be posted to Senri Chuo in the north. When I was being interviewed for this job back in Melbourne, the guy…the recruitment guy said something about if we got the job, we’d probably be posted to the ritzy end of town." "I know Senri Chuo said Jeff. I've a friend posted there: Marley. That's how I came to find this job. She has a boyfriend, an Australian guy? Umm, Josh something. So you know this city then?" "No…no…I just thought it through and worked it out…you know…after a look at my travel guide on the way over." "You're so lucky you ran into us tonight then," Jeff reminded Mike. "Yeah, it must be auspicious." "What do you mean?" enquired Jeff. "Oh, you know, the big ears…me getting lost…walking around with the card and everything…meeting you guys." "I'm not sure of exactly what you mean, but did you realize that we all got one of the cards from the superintendent?" asked Jeff. "That superintendent really does the hard sell. I'm looking forward to getting out of there as soon as I can. So dodgy, don’t you think?" "Nup, I did not know that," remarked Mike. "You know, you better not flash it around. Nothin' but trouble, that card." "Yes, I'd imagine so," Jeff replied politely. The night started to wind down as Mark sank lower towards the bar and Jeff and Mike began flicking through the songbook without selecting a number. Mike decided to order one last drink and motioned with a short, sharp wave of the hand to Tsuyoshi. A beer magically appeared, poured into a glass with a perfect head of awa (foam) by the ever-attentive bartender. People began to pay their tabs, grab their coats and with a quick, short bow and a smile, leave. Jon’s fledgling romance was also winding down, as the young Japanese girl started to organize her immediate environment, starting with her scarf. She began wrapping it around her neck, making sure that her long, shiny, silky black hair was not caught between the scarf and the collar of her blouse. Jon hadn’t seemed to notice that she was readying herself to leave until she leant down to pick up her bag that had been placed at her feet. He was visibly affected by alcohol and was finding it hard to conceal his disappointment at her imminent departure. Jon’s expression became suddenly aggressive. "No, no, no," he repeated and began pointing to kanji characters again. The novelty of the linguistic exchange had obviously worn thin, as she smiled, shaking her head and waving her hand politely in front of her chest to signal in the negative. Her date was already standing and had wrapped a scarf around his neck in readiness. It was obvious to everyone that she wanted to leave after having had an enjoyable and interesting experience of international social intercourse. Like all busy and vibrant, attractive young city girls however, time had elapsed and she needed to get moving to the next appointed place with her date. Jon kept pointing the pencil that he was still holding, striking the notebook and eventually snapping the lead. Mark seemed to take notice, turning his head and looking a lot less drunk than the thirty seconds before Jon had started with the pencil and the notebook. The girl moved to position herself ready to stand from the bar stool but Jon put his hand on her right shoulder and began to push down. The girl gently shook her shoulders from side to side in order to shake off Jon’s grip. Jon, apparently not perceiving the reality of the moment due to excessive alcohol consumption, kept his grip firm causing the girl to show an awkward, fearful, forced smile. Mark awoke! "Jon," he barked loudly and authoritatively. “Put your fucking Kinki kanji away and stand down.” Those left in the room immediately turned towards the aggressive sound. The old drunken man sat upright and stared at Jon’s eyes. The date gave an evil yet introspective stare. Tsuyoshi also became transfixed, smiling a superficial smile, paused in anticipation of Jon’s next move. No one in the room moved or spoke. A moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. Jon, finally noticing the tension, slowly moved his hand away from the girl. She quickly gathered her bag, moving from the stool, alighting without a word. Jon said nothing as the girl, escorted by her date, walked behind him on to the front of the bar near the door. One of the female staff quietly stepped towards the register, picking up a small clipboard as the girl fished around in her bag, presumably looking for her purse. People began to turn their attention away from Jon and the girl as the icy mood of the snack bar began to thaw a little. Jon looked to Mark, shrugging his shoulders. Mark shook his head and frowned at Jon, motioning to him to stay quiet. Mike and Jeff just looked around slowly to try and get an idea of what was going on and what to do. The girl at the register rang up the girl’s bill, glancing at her every now and then while the Kinki karaoke bar-girl kept bobbing her head apologetically. "Sumimasen," she repeated several times. "Ichiman nisen san byaku en ni narimasu," (12,300 yen please) chimed the register attendant in a perfunctory tone that only comes after repeating the same action a million times. The girl quickly counted out the exact amount. She neatly placed the bill in her bag, clipped it shut, then turned and without looking behind, walked out the door, her date in tow. "What the hell were you thinkin’? Don’t touch the locals in public like that," lectured Mark. The old drunken man was still staring at Jon. He started waving his finger at him like a school headmaster scolding a misbehaving child. Jon, Mark, Mike and Jeff were transfixed. The drunken man had begun nodding his head and intermittently shaking it while mumbling something unintelligible. After a short time the noises seemed to take form as he managed a word in English. "No," he managed––then again. "No… no…touchy," he continued––and again. "No touchy Jap…panesu garu." He punctuated his final utterance by slapping his hand on the counter and turning his back on Jon. He picked up his glass of beer, sculled the remainder, then stood, paid his bill and left without turning back to look. All four watched as this defiant exit played out. Welcome to Japan The bar was beginning to look like a Japanese ghost town occupied by four foreigners. Mike was the first to speak. "Makin’ friends and influencing people in Osaka. What a great start, hey?" He lifted his glass of beer, sculled it and placed it on the counter heavily with a thud. Jon apologized. "Sorry about that." "You fucking twat," said Jeff aggressively. "What were you thinking?" Mark was keeping out of it for the time being, but was shaking his head in judgement as the others spoke. "I just love these girls. I don’t know, she just seemed so into it," Jon said by way of excuse. "Good lesson, I suppose," he added. "I think we’ve all got a lot to learn," pontificated Mike. "Except maybe Mark," added Jeff. Jon went quiet and just stared at the bottles of whiskey on the shelf behind the bar. "They’re called keep bottles," Mark said, while placing his hand reassuringly on Jon's in a friendly gesture aimed at breaking the tension. "They’re what?" "Keep bottles," Mark repeated. "Guys who come here a lot buy a bottle and pay the snack bar owner to keep the bottle here. That way, they don’t have to pay each time they want a drink and it looks cool when they are chatting up a girl. It’s kakkoi…you know…cool, sharp." Mark now seemed to have changed his cap to that of a communication coach, the way he was voluntarily lecturing the others on social etiquette and linguistics. "Is there anything that you don’t know?" mocked Jon. "Well you don’t seem to be doing that well without my help," retorted Mark. "Enough for tonight," Jon declared. "Are you guys ready to go?" He nodded at Mike and Jeff while ignoring Mark. All three nodded. "Right then," said Jon, "I’ll just get the bill." With a slight grin, Mark nodded in agreement while Mike and Jeff just stared in anticipation. Jon seemed to hesitate, nodding oddly while whispering a couple of words, obviously practicing the sentence needed to effect the desired action. Mark offered to help but Jon brushed his offer aside. After an awkward silence, however, Jon had still said nothing. He looked to Mark and in a forced, conciliatory tone asked for a little help. "Well, I’ve got most of it but I’m not sure how to say ‘the bill’…you know, the receipt." "Easy," replied Mark. "Just say Kanjo. Kanjo," he repeated. "Right," said Jon, obviously not afraid to rise to the challenge. He motioned to Tsuyoshi, who hesitantly moved towards the general vicinity of the end of the bar where Jon and the others were sitting. "Sumimasen," Jon said proudly followed by a conversational "Anno ne," (Umm), a trick he had picked up from Mark during the first linguistic exchange in Japanese with the waitress a little earlier. All three were watching in an excruciating sort of anticipation. Jon seemed unaware of this as he launched in to the next and most important bit—asking for the actual bill. "Kanojo ga hoshi," he demanded. It was a bit fast and heavily accented, so Tsuyoshi needed to check, as he hadn’t understood. Mark, however, had understood perfectly because he was holding his mouth with his left hand in order to stop himself from laughing as he began to turn red in the face. Jon quickly turned to Mark but instantly dismissed this as a childish attempt to throw him off. Tsuyoshi looked confused. "Eh?" (What) Jon took a deep breath and repeated slowly, taking care to mouth each syllable with perfect inflection. "Kanojo ga hoshi," he repeated slowly. An instant expression of confusion then surprise appeared on his face. Mark, however, was beyond this. He had begun to laugh uncontrollably and appeared to be choking. He released air simultaneously though his nose and from the sides of the hands at great pressure, making audible snorting and farting sounds. He was falling apart. Jon’s eyes darted from Tsuyoshi to Mark in confusion. "What," he asked Mark nervously. Mark couldn’t take it any longer. "Kanjo, you dick, not kanojo. Kanojo means girl. You just told Tsuyoshi that you want a girl." Mike and Jeff burst into laughter spontaneously and uncontrollably. Tsuyoshi, who had been watching Mark’s reaction had worked things out by now and was beaming. Milking the moment at Jon’s expense he asked, "Nani ga hoshi desho ka? (What is it you think you want?) Kanjo desu ka? Kanojo desuka?"(A receipt or a girl?) Other staff who had overheard the exchange, smiled broadly at the innocent but hilarious mistake, erasing any of the previous tension and restoring the equilibrium. Without any further discussion, Tsuyoshi presented the bill. Mark picked it up and did a quick mental calculation. Not too surprisingly, Jon left him to it, sitting quietly flicking through his notebook, defeated. "That's twelve thousand yen apiece," announced Mark. Mike did a quick mental calculation himself. "That's about a hundred and thirty bucks each!" he exclaimed. "Fucking expensive lesson tonight, then," complained Jeff. "Some big money to be made in Japan, then," chimed in Jon. "Come on fellas, just cough up and let's get out of here," ordered Mark. They all handed over the cash to Mark and stood up. Mark walked ahead and waited for Tsuyoshi at the register while the others exited the snack bar and waited outside next to the vending machine and the god Ebisu. Mike glanced over at the statue and gave silent thanks for the help. Exhausted, Mike checked his watch and wasn't too surprised to find that it was 4:30 am. "My god it's late!" he exclaimed. "Or is it early?" mused Jeff. Mike looked at the god Ebisu again. "You know, I think it's early…just the beginning…an auspicious beginning." Mark was listening as he walked out of the snack bar. "You're right, Mike," he said, slapping Mike affectionately on the shoulder. "Welcome to Japan." They all nodded and laughed. Together they walked back to the apartment block. It was past the station, then on to the second road that Mike had ventured down. Past the vending machines, they moved on to a small train bridge. Following a small path under it, the apartment was about ten metres on to the left. Mike realized that he hadn't recognized the bridge, as this was the view of the other side of the bridge, the side he hadn't seen when walking to the station. They walked in through the well-lit entrance past the unoccupied superintendent’s office and paused in front of an even more brightly lit vending machine in front of the elevator. Feeling thirsty, Mike fished around in his right trouser pocket for some change and pulled out a handful. Picking out the required one hundred and twenty yen he rolled the coins into the slot then stalled as every row of buttons lit up. "Try this one," suggested Mark as he pushed the button for cold Oolong tea. In no mood to complain to Mark for denying him any choice, he took the bottle out of the bottom tray just as the elevator door opened. A smiling man in his late fifties walked out, together with a woman in her early twenties dressed in similar fashion to the women in the picture of the card that Mike had received from the superintendent. They bowed politely as they continued on and out a door to the right of the superintendent’s office. Stunned, all four entered the elevator together and collectively wondered where the hell they were shacked up and how quickly they could get out of here. Mike pushed the button for the thirteenth floor. "Oh, just below us," remarked Jeff as he pushed the button for the fifteenth floor. They rode silently, exhausted and drunk. "Jyusangai de gozaimasu," announced the elevator as the door opened. Mike walked out and turned to say goodbye. The door began to close but Mark quickly held it open with his foot. "See you guys then." "Ya, maybe late tomorrow," replied Mark. "What's your apartment number?" "1503… later," said Mark as he removed his foot, allowing the doors to shut. Back at his apartment and on his own, Mike finally got a shower. Although it was like taking a shower in a kitchen sink, at that time of the morning, size didn't matter. Mike dried off, put on some pyjamas then prepared his bed. He pulled a futon (Japanese mattress) from the oshiire (bedroom closet), placing it on the tatami mat floor. Then, he laid the Kakebutton (Japanese quilt) on top and climbed underneath. With his mind racing and the light still on, he stretched over to the travel guide for a quick read to help him sleep. Still fascinated by the god Ebisu he went straight for the index, finding it listed under the alternate spelling, Yebisu. Ebisu (Yebisu): Origin Japan - In a nation fond of fish, Ebisu is not surprisingly one of the most popular of the seven lucky gods. Ebisu is also the only deity among the seven to originate in Japan. Today he symbolizes not only safe sailing and plentiful fishing, but business prosperity for merchants in all trades and success to people in any occupation. Mike smiled, placed the book on his chest and exhaled. He was asleep in a matter of seconds. ### Keep an eye out for 'Kujira' the sequel to Memoirs of a Vending Machine available at Smashwords.
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