The first place I lived in Japan was a small city called Toyohashi.
If you arrive in Toyohashi by shinkansen, this is the first thing you'll see: the platform. I took this photo after buying a disposable camera on a whim. I was waiting for the newest Nova teacher to arrive.
That's one of your Nova duties- to meet new teachers and take them to their apartments. It's a nice system if you get met by a positive person. I was not. The guy who met me was an arrogant jerkass who spent our 10 minute walk together telling me how horrible and boring Toyohashi is, then asking me rude questions and interrupting me before I finished answering him with even more rude questions.
The guy I met was an Aussie, one of the nicest people I met. He always was one of the unluckiest, and that can go a long way in making a person sympathetic. He had a billion questions and I answered them all as honestly as I could, but I gave it a glossy spin to put him at ease and build up his confidence. He's still there, plugging away.
There it is, the shinkansen. This one was bound for Tokyo, stopping at every city along the way. Toyohashi was a pretty small city by Japanese standards, and when the nonstop shinkansen blew through, you felt it. A rush of wind and a tiny earthquake.
Let me tell you- I love the shinkansen. While here in the States we can't run a normal speed train from St. Louis to Chicago without crashing it and spilling deadly nerve agents into the watershed, the shinkansen has been running since 1964 and has only had one derailing. And that was in 2004 during the Niigata earthquake!
A shinkansen ride is smooth, baby! You feel like you're in a groundlevel airplane, and the land scrolls along at a comfortable viewing pace. Not detailed, like the local train, but a good fast scan. A cute girl comes through with a snack cart and you can buy tea or candy or chips right at your seat. I always buy chocolate covered almonds. I can't wait to hop on the shinkansen later this month and glide back to Tokyo, listening to 5678s, Go!Go!7188 and Electric Eel Shock all the way.
Here is Toyohashi's impressive skyline! Downtown is bisected by a massive trainyard, and to get there from my old apartment (Society Hattori, where they store almost all the Toyohashi Nova teachers!), you have to cross over a pedestrian bridge that gives you a fantastic 360-degree view of the whole city.
Which looks like this in all directions.
See the building with the red crane on top? In this photo, it's under construction, covered with this gray tarp to protect the workers from the wind and also passersby from things dropped.
That was nothing but a skeleton frame when I arrived in April, 2004, but by September of that year it was an upscale highrise apartment building, open for business!
This is another example of the Toyohashi skyline. Gorgeous, isn't it? It's like something off a romantic picture postcard of the exotic Far East! I have chills just looking at that unique architecture...
That's the elevated shinkansen track that ran just a few feet from my bedroom. I could've thrown a football over it. If I'd so desired.
Every 30 minutes, a rush of wind and my futon would shiver. Some of the guys living upstairs complained, but for me it was like living at the beach with roaring breakers. You either enjoy it or just get used to it.
Okay, this is back downtown. Kalmia. This is the new Toyohashi Station. It's got a luxury hotel- Toyohashi Associa- lots of modern shops and boutiques and the main Toyohashi Nova branch right inside. In the basement there's an anime-goods shop called Animate where I bought art supplies, and tons of restaurants. This one cool dude showed me a nice soba place where I tried cold buckweat noodles for the first time and loved them.
If you want to know where the Nova branch (Toyohashi Honko) is, look to the left of Kalmia, about halfway up the side. There! That's it. There's a little bookstore next door, and ABC Cooking School (no guys allowed dammit!) and a Nova all together on the same floor. Cozy.
Unfortunately, when I started working there the a/c was dead and conditions were ripe for rebellion. And the people were just plain ripe.
The front area, under the arch, is where bands play and people meet. We used to stand up there after the branch closed on Monday nights and drink beer. And also dodge giant cockroaches and homeless bums.
This is the Lawson near the station. We're looking down on it from the elevated station plaza. That's where we bought our Kirin tall boys.
The larger street is Hirokoji-dori. That's Hirokoji Street to you and me, Russ. We're standing in front of a small shopping street. To the right is the Seibunkan building, with a nice cd store on the first floor, then books, books, books all the way up. There's a great music shop there where I bought my Epiphone Gibson SG knockoff. On the top floor are English language books and magazines, the best selection before you get to Tokyo. Better than any of the bookstores in Hamamatsu, which is twice the size of Toyohashi.
Another crazy thing- there are 3 really well-stocked art stores right there around the station in Toyohashi. One is the Animate shop, and the other two are at Seibunkan. And one of those is massive. It's full of pens and stationary that the girls love, but then shelves of paints and papers and art supplies.
And this is that little shopping street up close. Cheerful music plays over the loudspeakers there, enticing you to buy things. I found an Atlanta Braves jersey with Chipper Jones' name and number on it at a secondhand shop about halfway down this street.
This is one of my favorite places in Toyohashi, Hanamaru Udon. I never failed to get a laugh out of the students when I told them that. Hanamaru Udon is a chain of super-cheap udon shops. You can get a full meal for about 3 bucks! It'll be a couple of pieces of fried chicken and steaming bowl of noodles, but it's delicious and filling when you can't afford anything else.
And this is my absolute favorite place in Toyohashi. Pizza Patio. Italian decor, Italian pop songs, cute Japanese girls in Italian peasant garb. Authentic pizza. Plus a sign that read, "Pizza is traditional eaten with the hands. Cutlery is available on request."
We were looking at the sign and the waiter gave us a wry smile and nodded, as if to say, "Screw you jokers." Evidentally people were constantly pointing out the grammatical mistake.
Speaking of nods, I went there so many times one of the girls would always pass my table with a smile and pleasant nod of acknowledgement, and the guy waiter would seat me then say, "Pepperoni salami... esse sizu?"
Sometimes I'd crack him up by saying, "Emma sizu, kudasai. To... nama biiru, onegaishimasu."
Pizza Patio closed for good not long after I transferred to Hamamatsu. Broke my heart.
This was my bike. My baby. I loved this bike, went everywhere on it, and it was the first one I'd owned since my mountain bike in Athens, way back in 1996. Almost 10 years of no bike riding, followed by a year and a half of constant riding. I had to abandon it in Toyohashi when I moved.
My next bike was a kid's mountain bike that was actually terrible on hills. My current one is a third-hand, run-down specimen with two flat tires.
At sunset, in the summer, even Toyohashi could become beautiful. This picture doesn't do justice to the reds and pinks, oranges and yellows of this particular sunset. And we had them frequently... when we weren't drowning from torrential downpours from all the typhoons.
Sunkus, another convenience store. Convenience stores... or "combini" in Japanese... are a major feature of modern Japanese life. They're more full service than our American ones. You can even buy business shirts and ties in some of the more fully stocked combini. You know, in case of emergency.
Some popular combini include Lawson, Sunkus, 7-11, MiniStop, AM/PM and Family Mart. If you need something and you're not sure where to get it, try a combini first.
Another tip- try some of the ice cream sandwiches and treats they have at these places. The prices are reasonable, and the variety is mindboggling. I got addicted to these chocolate waffle sandwiches with chocolate ice cream in them... which I bought at this Sunkus, hence the photo. Then they quit making them!
Another tip- if you're starving and you don't have much money, buy onegiri. Look for the one with the blue label- it has tuna and mayo in the center. They're 105 yen and two will keep you going until you can hit an ATM or beg a meal. I prefer 7-11's onegiri, but both Family Mart and MiniStop have decent versions.
It's Satoko! I snapped this on our second date and wow she was pissed! It was worth it to hear the stream of angry Japanese she uttered half a second after the flash went off.
We had a fun time that night- a garlic restaurant in Kakegawa, then a visit to Kakegawa Castle, a driving tour of her childhood spots, followed by bowling. I wasn't enjoying my life at that time, but getting out of Toyohashi and spending a day with Satoko cheered me up and made it all seem worth it after all. Of course, she moved to Vietnam without telling me about a week later, but by then I'd already decided to transfer to Hamamatsu, and that turned everything around.
My room in Toyohashi. Our apartment was a nice place, smaller than the one in Hamamatsu. The biggest problem was I couldn't stand my roommates. One guy was a complete asshole with severe personality problems, and the other guy was a fun-loving dude with too much drama going on all the time. I actually liked him, but he looked like a younger version of Jude Law and took full advantage of it, while simultaneously having a serious relationship with another Nova teacher.
What you can't see is that the left wall of my room isn't a wall at all, but instead is a sliding panel door with massive gaps in it. Which meant my roommate on that side and I had zero privacy.
But no one had privacy in Toyohashi. Because the town is fairly small and working class, it has few outlets for culture or entertainment beyond getting drunk in the same three bars with the other Nova teachers. Which meant existing in a fishbowl. Lots of gossip.
Plus, when I got there, the Nova contingent consisted mainly of a lot of very miserable, unhappy people who did nothing but complain all the time. Our boss was a tyrant and a weirdo, most of the female teachers were outspokenly racist and the male teachers were creepy, overly competitive socially and antagonistic. One guy was actually a fat, slobby, drunk bully, like something out of a junior high schoolyard.
Just down the tracks about half an hour lay Hamamatsu, where the atmosphere couldn't have been more different. A bunch of laid-back, fun-loving teachers intent on enjoying their time in Japan and with each other. They also tended to socialize in a fishbowl but with a more family atmosphere where you could drink a few beers, laugh and tell jokes and not end up in a nonsensical, Catch-22 style argument based on oneupmanship.
It also goes to show there's not one representative Nova experience. Many things are similar, but if you're at a fun branch you'll find way to enjoy your time even when it's tiring or boring. If you're at a hardship branch, you'll hate it. Unless you're one of those rise above people in which case I say- lucky you!
Right after I got my transfer approved, newer batches of teachers began arriving in Toyohashi and the most negative ones resigned or otherwise moved along. Things lightened up a great deal after that.
And this? This is a train platform in a smaller, rural city just down from Toyohashi. I'd gone back to my old apartment there to pick up some stuff I'd left almost a year before. On my way back to Hamamatsu, I jumped the wrong train and ended up here, alone on a train platform.
If you've seen Spirited Away, you know this feeling. Towards the end, the main character, Chihiro, has to make a lonely journey to a distant place and she goes by train. Sometimes, when you're travelling alone, there's a sort of melancholy quality about it. Others may be laughing or talking together, but you're by yourself and you can only observe... like a ghost or spirit. It's amplified when you're travelling alone in another country.
I sat there, feeling stupid, waiting for the correct train to take me home and decided to see what was in my suitcase. I found a disposable camera with all these pictures on it, and a couple of frames still to shoot. So I decided to document this sort of banal place, so very common but still alien.
What can I say, I was in a strange frame of mind. My dad had just passed away, a girl had just punched me right in the heart at the same time, and I'd revisited Toyohashi for which I still felt some strong nostalgic connections. So there I was, feeling out of place like Chihiro.
I miss Toyohashi. It wasn't my choice of places to live and teach, but it had its charms. While I didn't get along with my fellow teachers, I did have a rapport with the students. They, as always, made it worthwhile to me. And I managed to find fun things to do. Seibunkan, AMC, Pizza Patio...
Toyohashi is one of those Charlie Brown towns. It's like his Christmas tree... ungainly, unattractive, it needs someone to love it. I'm always attracted to people and places and things like that, the underdogs, the unloved.