Living Alone By Yourself In Another Country Is Terrifying, And Other Stories

Lauren Fellows
July 19, 2013

I don’t think I realized quite how much I took my host mom for granted until I moved out of her apartment and into the dorms for a few days.

The program officially ended on the 14th, and I’d planned to travel with my parents afterwards. Due to a mishap and some confusion with when the program actually ended, they wouldn’t be arriving for another five days. And my host mother had already made plans to travel after the program ended. The absolutely fantastic IES Tokyo staff helped me get set up in the dorms for $25 a night, including internet and two meals a day, so I was all set to spend a couple days on my own. I even shipped off my two largest bags to be stored while my family and I travel around.

Now, the dorms are pretty great, and I don’t mean to deter anyone from staying in them if that’s what they wanna do. In the Baraki-Nakayama ladies’ dorm, there’s all sorts of neat amenities: you get a sink in your room, ample closet, shelf, and drawer space, an air conditioner with a remote, two meals a day, internet is included, free unlimited washing machine use, and the shower rooms are open 24 hours a day. For a night owl like me, that all sounded great–plus the dorm managers are a really sweet old couple.

I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be all sunshine and daisies, and not just the fact that they stop serving breakfast at 8:30 am. My MacBook Air can’t connect to the dorm’s wired internet without a special adapter, and the showers must be activated via a special control panel if you want any hope of having hot water. I didn’t find this out for several days; and someone had left the panel on the first night so I had no idea what I was doing wrong.

The first realization, however, was that until now I had been borrowing my host mother’s towels. I suddenly needed to go find one, and after exploring the area around the station for an hour in the rain (going in and out of convenience stores and supermarkets, probably looking like a lost sheep to anyone who saw me), I went back to check the map that the dorm manager had printed out for me. The map indicated a huge shopping center a 10 minute walk away, and there I found a large “household items” kind of store, and was able to find a towel. I made it back barely as the sun set and had cup ramen for dinner–the cafeteria isn’t open on sundays or holidays, which applied to the first two days of my stay. That cup ramen was delicious though seriously they don’t make it like that in the states.

On the second day I had a paper to write, so I spent most of the day doing that–aside from naps and trips to the convenience store down the street to grab breakfast and lunch. With my paper finished I decided to see what I could do about the internet; my mother (via phone email) had suggested I go find a special LAN adapter for MacBook air. I trekked back to the shopping center, where I remembered seeing a giant electronics store. After some mulling around I found the adapter for 1800 yen, while mom’s price quote had been around $24. Gotta love Japan. I proceeded to get lost in the store looking for the register.

After purchasing the adapter I went to the Yoshinoya across the street, knowing that the dorm wouldn’t be serving food that night. I thought it’d just be like all the other times I’d eaten at a beef bowl place, but walking in the door I felt a wave of anxiety. Aside from a mother with kids at the take-out counter, I was the only girl in the tiny restaurant, and definitely the only foreigner. There were some empty seats; all of them next to strangers. It took me about five or six minutes before I sat down, and only because a really nice old man indicated to an empty seat. I considered the menu carefully, knowing I just wanted a normal, small-size beef bowl, but mostly trying to work up the courage to get the waiter’s attention. For whatever reason I felt incredibly small–it was the first time I’d eaten at a restaurant in Japan by myself.

Eventually I waved the guy over, and ordered my beef bowl in surprisingly coherent Japanese considering my completely unnecessary anxiety. The meal was delicious but it was more rice and less beef than I would have liked. I went home with a full stomach even though I couldn’t finish all the rice. Then I watched some Uta no Prince-sama to get my mind off things.

The third day was slightly less stress-inducing; I went back to school (whose classes were still in session for everyone not in IES) and hung out in the English language lounge. For a while I felt a lot less isolated. I had a long conversation with some girls looking to practice their English; we talked about everything from the pros and cons of study abroad to what Japanese television shows we liked. When I told them I liked the drama “Galileo”, all three of them struck the main character’s trademark pose and said his catchphrase.

After that I went to the Book-Off in Minamifunabashi for lack of anything else to do; I got a Fukuyama Masaharu CD (that my MacBook Air doesn’t have the drive to play…) and some Pokémon toys. I am going to miss that place even though I can never stay out of trouble when I go there.

Dinner that night was curry at the dorm, and I was the only western person in the cafeteria. Several girls from China chattered amongst themselves, while some Japanese girls sat another table. The TV in the corner had been turned to Sanma Palace, a variety show I used to watch with my host mom. It was somewhat comforting to hear Sanma laughing and shouting among an ocean of unfamiliar sounds.

I intended to shower, but was met with a torrent of cold water in every open stall. Baffled that I was in the most high-tech city in the world and couldn’t even get any hot water, I returned defeated to my room.

On the fourth day I’d planned to go to Akihabara to get some last minute, irresponsible, and possibly embarrassing anime shopping done so I won’t have to worry about it when I go there with my brother and parents. But first, I attempted to shower–and was again met with cold water in every available stall. Still baffled, but figured that someone else was showering at the same time and probably using up all the hot water. Was the building really that old? Anyway, once I got myself dry again I set out for Akihabara with as few things in my bag as possible. In addition to the usual wallet, phone, and camera, I also had one of my Uta no Prince-sama Nendoroid Petits with me as a good luck charm.

The thing that no one (especially not Google) tells you about Akihabara is that it has two stations: one for the metro, one for the above-ground JR trains. Both of these are called Akihabara station. Up till now, it had been easier for me to take JR trains to the big station, so that is how I’d learned to orient myself in what can only be described as one of Japan’s craziest districts. But Baraki-Nakayama is a stop on a subway line, and it’s pretty easy to get to Akihabara from there via subway–or so I thought. Needless to say I nearly flipped when I couldn’t find any signs pointing to the “Akihabara electric town exit”, which is how I usually get out to the main road. I traversed the entire inside of the station before picking an exit almost at random.

Unable to make heads or tails of the map outside, I went into the closest store (a bookstore) to ask how to get to the JR station. The young man at the desk listened to me calmly even though I got tongue-tied on “Akihabara-eki”. “Go right through that park, and you’ll be there,” he assured me, pointing out the window towards a group of trees and benches that could barely pass as a park. After thanking him I left, I turned the corner, crossed the street, and saw the sign for the Book-Off here. And in that moment, I knew exactly where I was.

As much as I love shopping there (it’s a veritable paradise for a figure-lover like me), Akihabara is incredibly anxiety-inducing even with friends around. It’s usually crowded and noisy, with girls in maid outfits on every corner calling out to you in squeaky maid voices and fast-paced anime music blasting from every storefront. Even on a Wednesday there was a surprising number of people there. Going there alone was probably not the greatest thing for my nerves, but I was on a mission. I had a shopping list and everything.

I struck out at the first two places: the rather male-oriented bookstore didn’t have the manga volume I was looking for, and the GoodSmile Cafe’s next open reservation time was at 7 that evening. Oh well. I walked down the street crossing my fingers that things would get better, and as soon as I found my favorite figure store, they did–I was able to find the figures I came there for, as well as one I hadn’t expected to find. And even though going to Akihabara alone is stressful, it means you can spend as much time as you want shopping for anime toys and no one will whine at you. The man at the cashier didn’t even seem to mind that I went back in to purchase something I saw on the rack outside on my way out.

By that time I decided a little lunch was in order, it was nearly two PM. I started the long trek back to the burger joint my friends and I would always eat at when we came here. On the way, a handsome crossplayer (a girl cosplaying as a guy) in an orange wig and yukata handed me a maid cafe coupon, and I thanked her politely.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, “Your Japanese is really good!”

I know you’re not supposed to smile and giggle when someone compliments you in Japan but I couldn’t help it.

“So why’re you carrying an umbrella if it’s sunny out?” she continued, indicating to the (broken) clear umbrella hanging off my arm. I laughed in embarrassment before responding, “The weather forecast said rain, so…”

“But it sure is sunny now!” she said with a laugh, “What brings you to Akihabara?”

“Shopping,” I replied, indicating to my bags.

“Ohhh, so you must be an otaku!” she said.

“Yep, that’s me…”

Interestingly enough, although the term “otaku” has acquired negative connotations in Japan, she didn’t use the term that way at all. She seemed really excited, actually.

“You like Pokémon too, right?” she said, indicating to my Pikachu-patterned bag.

“I sure do!”

“So what kinds of things did you buy?”

“Figures,” I said.

“Oh, what kinds?”

The only non-gift figure I’d bought was the last Uta no Prince-sama nendoroid petit I was looking for, so I replied “Utapuri”–without thinking, because “Utapuri” is an abbreviation some people might not be familiar with. Of course, working in Akihabara (and cosplaying a character from the show, I’m pretty certain) she knew exactly what I was talking about.

“Ohh, you like Utapuri!! Who’s your favorite?”

“Ren,” I answered almost immediately; mostly honestly, because Ren is my favorite (tied with Masato) but also because I’m pretty sure that’s who she was dressed as. She smiled deviously and posed before responding in a deep voice:

“Mai neemu izu Ren.”

I clapped.

We parted ways after that, after she reminded me that I should visit the cafe on the flyer, but I couldn’t help but grinning all the way back to the burger joint. It’s not every day that I have a sizable conversation with a Japanese person outside of school, my host mom or my internship. In addition, that crossplayer really made me rethink my perception of people who work at maid cafes. For at least some of them, dressing up in costumes is fun, and working at a maid cafe is a way to get paid to dress up and have fun. I think maid cafes get a bad rap because maid outfits are an established fetish, and there’s no denying the fetish aspect of the concept. But the flyer she handed me said that the cafe was open to anyone–groups of friends, families, lovers, anyone. The foods were cute, and everyone in the picture looked like they were having a great time–girls and boys alike. Not gonna lie, I definitely want to visit next time I’m in Akihabara.

I kept smiling about that crossplayer all the way through my perfectly me-sized teriyaki burger.

After that, I went into some smaller shops to browse around, and got a cute keychain. I went into the store next to Book-Off and saw a very nice figure for an incredible price–I may have actually whimpered out loud–but resisted, because part of me knew that buying a scale figure with my limited luggage space was incredibly irresponsible. So I spent some time in Book-Off–struck out there; the game I’d been considering was very expensive, and I couldn’t find any music, magazines or manga that I needed. I texted a friend about the figure I’d seen, who almost immediately texted me back saying why aren’t you jumping on this right now. It was a figure I’d considered getting on the internet earlier, but decided the high price, the space he takes up, and the fact that it’d be hard to travel with him were dealbreakers, and I could probably live without him. This time, however, I pulled out all the stops and bought him. I knew I’d regret it later–or so I thought–but I was too excited to care. A chance like this probably wouldn’t come around again.

My host mother had returned from her travels, and she invited me to dinner, so that is where I went. I showed her my purchases, and she thought the scale figure I’d bought was very cool. After having dinner and watching a Ghibli special with her, I left to catch the train. It was raining after all.

The scale figure turned out to be very, very nice, and I’m really glad I bought him.  He’s made by the same company that made Yu, and their attention to detail and quality really shows in both figures. Pictures below~

I attempted to shower once again, this time at midnight. No one else was showering. I tried all four stalls. Every. Single. One. Gave me cold water. I went back upstairs in a cold, wet huff and sent a message to a friend who had lived in the dorms. At one in the morning she explained how the touchpad worked, and by then I decided it was way too late for a shower.

The last full day was less exciting. I woke up and showered first thing in the morning because now I finally understood what I’d been doing wrong the last several times–and as soon as I got in there I noticed someone had left a touchpad on for me.

Upon returning from the most satisfying shower of my life, I looked at the disaster area that had once been a nice clean dormroom and decided that I should probably do something about the pile of smelly laundry before I pack it all up again. So after eating brunch at the convenience store I trekked to the supermarket.

I’d already been to the supermarket in search of detergent, but they didn’t seem to sell any in small packages. My mother assured me that we’d use whatever I bought on my travels, so I decided to get a bottle. I spent at least 20 minutes in the household items section because I had a really hard time judging what bottles contained laundry detergent and which did not. None of these things were brands I recognized, aside from Febreeze, and Renoa which I’d seen commercials for. But did the bottles labeled Febreeze really contain detergent? I stood there for the longest time before deciding that the lemon-scented one was both on sale and had laundry-like instructions on the back. It’s sobering to think that years of Japanese study and my three months in this country did not prepare me for shopping for regular household items.

I did my laundry, and even dried it even though the drier was expensive (100 yen for 30 minutes). I stupidly put my jeans in the drier so exactly nothing came out dry after 30 minutes. I was gonna have dinner with my host mom again that night and was already crunched for time, so I decided to hang everything haphazardly around the room: a skirt on the back of my chair, pants hanging out of a drawer, jeans flopped over the sink, and miscellaneous small items on the floor in the sun. The closet, I discovered, had several hangers, so I hung my t-shirts on those. Everything was (thankfully) dry when I got back.

Living with a host family makes a lot of things easier, or at least living with my host mom did. It was just the two of us, so we shared a lot of things: shampoo, detergent, towels. She even offered to do my laundry for me; all I had to do was add it to the washer when she did her own laundry. I was able to forget for a few months about the perils of being a Responsible Adult, which I guess I’m glad for in the long run because it minimized the stress of living in another country. Being in the dorms really opened my eyes to how much father I have to go if I intend to come back here to live and work for any extended amount of time.

(Which I would, at some point, like to do.)

The infamous shower touchpad. Ye be warned GoodSmile cafe entrance! A perfectly me-sized burger Spoils from Akihabara. regrets: 0 A complete set of Uta no Prince-sama nendoroid petits! Look at how cute they all are aww Sho even came with his hat! Lancer's tall!! Fully armed, he takes up quite a bit of space. He also came with extra arm and head parts to pose him differently. What a charmer!

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Lauren Fellows

<p><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">Lauren Fellows is a Japanese major, geology minor studying at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. She hails from Boulder, Colorado, and is glad to be going to school in a place with both mountains and a water feature (the weather, however, leaves something to be desired). Lauren is a huge dork who loves drawing, watching anime, writing stories, and taking pictures of toys when she isn&rsquo;t spending long hours training to beat the Elite Four in the latest Pokémon game. She&rsquo;s ventured to a few places outside the United States, most notably France and Israel, but this is her first time in Japan and she is SUPER EXCITED. While in Japan she plans to make friends from near and far, experience anime culture in its natural habitat, and explore an urban jungle unlike anywhere she&#39;s ever been before. The adventure of a lifetime is just over the horizon!</span></p>

2013 Spring
Home University:
University of Puget Sound
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