Thursday, January 9, 2014

Memories of Japan: Can of Coke

Today is Thursday, January 9, 2014.

I separated from my husband in late August 1981, and moved by myself to Tokyo, taking with me just half of all the money we had in the bank, which wasn't much.  I also took everything I could stuff in one borrowed van and had someone drive me from Osaka to Tokyo.  I couldn't take everything with me, so I remember packing a couple of big boxes, which I stored for a while with my friend Mitsuko, whose brother-in-law picked them up in his truck.  I took  my clothes, a few dishes, and my futon and bedding, my pole lamp that I still have (from my paternal grandmother) and that's about all.  I think most of the things in the boxes Mitsuko kept were books.  I had to leave all kinds of stuff behind. 

In Tokyo I was taken to a Realtor's office in Japan, where one of the guys said, "Why don't you show her the Hakusan place?"  My Realtor did just that, and that's where I lived for the next five years.  Hakusan (literally, "White Mountain") is a district in central Tokyo in Bunkyo-ku (Bunkyo Ward), home of the University of Tokyo.

It was an apartment (actually a condo that I sublet from a lady) in a brand-new building. The white ceramic brick building was incredibly narrow, but it was nicely kept up and very close to one of the main streets in Tokyo, which made it easy to catch taxis.  It was also pretty close to the subway. 

The tatami mat was fresh and new, and it was really a nice little place.  Unlike most apartments, it did have a Western-style bathtub and shower in a bathroom so small that I kept bumping into the doorknob with my hip, resulting in a more-or-less permanent bruise.   It also had light fixtures in the ceiling  and a hanging clothes dryer, but no washing machine – only a space for one. (I bought one later, when I got tired of hauling clothes several blocks to a laundromat without a car.)  There was a gas water heater machine installed in the kitchen, and a small stove with a minuscule broiler, but no oven.  Unfortunately, the kitchen not have a refrigerator.  And I did not have a phone.  I had no table and chairs for the kitchen, nor did I have a shelf for my dishes.  All that came later.  

My place was called 1-DK, meaning it had 1 all-purpose room that functioned as a bedroom and living room, a dining-kitchen area, and a bathroom/tub unit.  The place for the dryer was essentially right at the front entrance to the apartment.  There was a "shoe box" (actually a cabinet with a sliding door) built into the genkan (entryway) area.  The phone, when I finally got one, was hooked up in the front entrance, and I had to get a long phone cord to be able to use it in my "living area."

The all-purpose room had one closet.  The room was so narrow that if I lay down on the floor, pointed my feet, and raised my hands over my head, I could easily touch both opposite walls. I'm five-feet three inches tall and my arms are fairly short.  Length-wise, I think the all-purpose room was maybe 8 feet long, if that.  Imagine two of these rooms , end-to-end and you have the size of my 1DK, plus the tiny bathroom and tiny entryway.  I paid ¥120,000 per month for this.  At the current exchange rate, that's just under $1143 per month.  My current apartment is small, too, only  550 square feet, but I'm sure that my entire Tokyo apartment could fit neatly into my current living/dining/kitchen area.

In Japan, when you rent a place (whether you are subletting it or not) you have to pay a fee to the Realtor, plus you have to pay a non-refundable deposit called "key money."  This is considered a "gift" to the landlord, and it is anywhere from 3 to 6 months' rent, so you see where most of my money went when I moved.  I bought some curtains for privacy and that was about all I could afford.  

I had a job waiting in Tokyo with Berlitz Schools of Languages, since I had worked for them before, in Osaka.  They told me that their materials had been updated and that I needed to attend a week-long training in order to be familiar with the new teaching materials.  My first paycheck would not be paid for six weeks, however.  

I had already spent most of my money to get the apartment.  I bought a three-month train pass right away so I would never run out of funds for my commute for work, and I bought one dress to beef up my very skimpy office wardrobe.  Including my new dress, I had five dresses to wear to work, one for each day of the week, and I wore them in sequence for weeks until I could afford some decent work clothes. (My wardrobe up to that time had been "housewife at home" clothes.)  At the end of all that, I had very little money left for food, and remember that I had no refrigerator!

There was coffee at work that I could drink, which kind of kept my stomach warm, and I bought packets of "cup of soup" for meals, one packet per day, three packets in one box for maybe 100 or 200 yen.  My stomach rumbled all the time, and I lost a bunch of weight, as you can imagine.  My Japanese friend, Amano, who had been best-man at my wedding, and his lovely wife were my only friends in Tokyo.  Amano's wife was pregnant with their first child, so she didn't want to go out much, but Amano came and got me every Friday night after work to have something to eat.  Often, it was my only full meal of the week.  I remember one meal that I ate, at an "American" style restaurant, with baked ham, potatoes and vegetables.  It was wonderful, and I remember thinking how good it tasted.  However, I vomited it up that night – my stomach just wasn't able to accept that much food at one time anymore.

Other than going to work in the morning and coming home at night, I went nowhere and did nothing.  I had no furniture and nothing on the walls.  I had a futon to sleep on and one zabuton cushion to sit on.  I had no TV, but a private student of mine in Osaka had given me a Sony Walkman as a midsummer gift.  Before leaving Osaka, I had recorded as many of my record albums as I could on tape.  Every day after work I would lie down on my futon, close my eyes, and listen to my Walkman. I daydreamed a lot.

I allowed myself one treat: a small can of Coke once a week on Saturday.  I bought it from a certain vending machine in the little shopping street near my apartment.  At the time, Coke was sold in 150 ml. cans like the one pictured at the beginning of this post.  For comparison, a standard 12-oz can of Coke is 355 ml.  So one can of Coke in Japan was only about a third of the size of one in the U.S.  It cost only ¥100, which was all I could afford to spend on treats at the time. 

I could have bought that can of Coke anywhere, but there was one particular machine that I enjoyed using.  It had little lights that went around in a circuit, like a arcade game, and if you pushed the button when the light reached a certain part of the circuit, you got a free can of coke.  The third or fourth time I used the machine, I got the prize, an extra can of Coke, and I was so thrilled.  The following week, a fellow who lived in the neighborhood, a merchant whose home was above his shop, saw me patronizing my favorite machine.  He stopped and laughed at me, saying, "I know you buy Coke every Saturday at this machine, and I know you won last week, but that was a fluke. You won't win again." 

When you're a foreigner living in Tokyo, until someone says something like that to you, it's almost possible to forget that you're being watched... closely.  It wasn't like Osaka - they watch foreigners right out in the open, and they don't mind commenting out loud.  In Tokyo, they were much more secretive about watching me, but they were definitely watching.  Everything I did and everything I didn't do was watched and commented on behind closed doors.  Over the years, other neighbors commented on my activities in such a way that I knew they'd been watching my every move. 

Eventually, I got my first paycheck, and I was able to eat again, but by this time I think I must have lost at least 30 pounds.  My ribs and pelvic bones stuck out, sharply, and I never did gain that much weight back until I returned to the United States.  I enjoyed being thin and I enjoyed dressing up in lovely clothes, but I wasn't happy. 

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Soft drink machines.  Photo: Brian Ashcraft
You can buy a lot of things in vending machines in Japan.  The vast majority of vending machines sell cigarettes, soda pop or beer.  Coca-Cola has 980,000 vending machines in Japan, and 20% of their profits worldwide are from sales in Japan, alone.  That's about $1 billion, before taxes.  

Here are some edible and potable things you can buy from vending machines in Japan:  ramen noodles, soba noodles, and udon noodles, bottled beer and draft beer ($12 a pint), locally brewed sake in a glass, sliced apples, sushi, yakiniku sauce (for grilling meat), lettuce, bananas, fresh eggs, uncooked rice and canned bread. (I don't care how refrigerated the machine might be, I would never buy raw fish from a vending machine.)

Amulets for sale.  Photo: Brian Ashcraft
Online, I saw a picture of a vending machine installed in a commuter train and another picture of a vending machine at the top of Mt. Fuji.  Neither photo surprised me.

Here is what else you can buy from vending machines:  condoms, amulets (sold at a Buddhist temple), fishing bait, flowers arranged in a vase (Western-style), batteries, comic books (manga), reading glasses, porn magazines, toys, reconditioned mobile phones, and umbrellas.  The stories about being able to find machines that sell underwear are grossly exaggerated.  The Japanese will try anything once, and I'm sure there might have been one or two lingerie machines, but I'll bet only one or two, and they weren't in a reputable place, I can tell you that.  

Hope you enjoy the photos.  :-)

Canned bread.  Each can costs US$4.
Flavors include chocolate chip, coffee, and fruit.  Photo: BuzzFeed
Locally brewed sake in glasses.  Photo: Brian Ashcraft

Uncooked rice.  A 22-lb. bag goes for US$30-40.  Eight different kinds are sold.
Photo: BuzzFeed.
Lettuce, grown right in the machine itself using fluorescent light bulbs!
This machine can grow 60 heads of lettuce a day  Photo: BuzzFeed.

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