The height of my magnificence was an autumn Saturday in 2011. To date (2014), I’ve only been to one Japanese wedding. Ryo Tamayama is my oldest friend in Tokyo. I first met him in 2005, when he and a friend came to visit Yuki, their schoolmate. Yuki and I had been close friends since his family moved to Irvine from Minami Gyotoku in Chiba. He and Ryo were school buddies back then.
Ryo’s summer visit coincided with my second first semester of Japanese. In the fall of 2004, I took JAPN 180, Elementary Japanese. This was the first class in the program at Orange Coast College. We learned the basics of pronunciation, vocabulary, simple sentence structure, as well as the Hiragana and Katakana writing systems. It was a five unit course, and I got a D.
The problem wasn’t with my knowledge, because by the end of the term, classmates were sneaking peeks at my test papers. The bookstore ran out of the workbook at the beginning of the term, and I missed some assignments. I got way behind on the writing systems, and that basically sunk me in terms of points.
I caught up, but I couldn’t make up the assignments I missed, and I couldn’t do anything about failing the first test or two. I ended up with very high marks on the final exam, and I pleaded with the teacher to understand my situation. Nope.
I went on to JAPN 185 anyway, even though I fell short of the C requisite for advancement. I lied to the teacher and said that I passed the prior term. It was a cocky move, but not much of a risk. I passed 185 with a B. Suck it, OCC!
In a meeting with one of the school’s counselors, when talking about my grades and my prospects for transferring to a university, she noticed my eccentric history with the language program. She pointed to it as a scar on my transcript. I asked what I should do. I thought that passing the higher class with a B would somehow overrule the D. She disagreed, and suggested I retake the class.
I walked back into Ito-sensei’s 180 class with Kagawa-sensei’s 185 skin on my wall. She recognized me and called me up to her desk. I told her that I had gotten a D and was trying to correct my grade. She was fine with it, until I started acing quizzes and turning in flawless assignments. I told her what was up, and she wasn’t too happy. I made it clear that I was doing it at the insistence of my counselor. I got an A. Retaking that five unit course added fifteen grade points to my GPA numerator over zero new units to the denominator. That’s two touchdowns.
I was excited when Ryo showed up. He didn’t speak much English, but I was equipped with my preschool level Japanese, so we were good. We also had Yuki to keep things going smoothly. Ryo’s trip was about a week long, and we hung out almost every day. Yuki and I introduced him and his friend to the American house party. It was a blast, and we became good buddies.
I booked a trip for January of 2006, four or five months later. When I arrived at Narita Airport for the first time, Ryo and his girlfriend were waiting for me. After almost an hour of standing around looking for them, I got on a bus to Shinjuku Station, and a nice young lady helped me get into a taxi for my hotel. Ryo had been at the wrong terminal, probably at my fault. I hadn’t even known there were two.
He found me at my hotel, and he, his girlfriend, and I went out to my first Japanese meal. The place was Mysterious, a psychedelic izakaya on Yasukuni Dori in Kabukicho. We ate chicken, sushi, and fried potatoes, among other things. I drank a Corona.
He went all over Tokyo with me in my week and a half in country. He was a college student then, so he was able to spend a good amount of his time out and about. He introduced me to a lot of his friends at a drinking party near his university, way out west in Hachioji. I spent the night at his apartment and returned to central Tokyo the next day.
One of the last nights I was there, Ryo and I went out to dinner with Yumiko, his ex-girlfriend. I had a magical vacation in Japan, and I knew that I wanted to try living there. I was hooked. I returned to America and applied to Temple University, Japan Campus. Temple in Philadelphia established their Tokyo campus in 1982. In 2005, it was fully recognized by the Japanese government as an official Japan campus of a foreign university. There is a beer vending machine just outside the administrative office. I was accepted.
In the one-year period between my vacation and enrollment, Ryo Tamayama was in Vancouver, British Columbia. He went to study English, and returned home fluent in Korean. He learned English too, though. We became even closer friends in 2007 and 2008 while I was in Tokyo, and have a lot of great memories together.
When I arrived in 2009 on the JET Programme assignment, we had many more opportunities to hang out. He visited me in Ogatsu, Ishinomaki in my first few months there. We went all around eastern Miyagi Prefecture, and he and our friends Hiro and Mari spent the night with me at my house, which was swept into the sea a little over a year later. Ryo and the girls almost got me my first ticket in the country when we pulled through a tollbooth, and the operator noticed that the two in the back seat weren’t wearing seatbelts. Ryo told the officer that I wasn’t at fault, and we were let go with a warning. I just assumed that everyone wore seatbelts. I got that elusive first ticket a few weeks later for “dangerous” “speeding” on a country road.
On October 1st, 2011, Ryo married Yumiko, that once-ex-girlfriend who (according to Ryo) saw how international he was becoming, and found it really attractive. You’re welcome. I was invited to the ceremony. Being Ryo’s close friend, I set up the UCLA game to record for later viewing, and made my way from Ishinomaki to Tokyo.
I won the wedding.
I took the train down on Friday night. I met a friend in Omotesando, a very fashionable neighborhood in the center of Tokyo, and we had some drinks. I woke up in time for the wedding, but my taxi driver couldn’t find the chapel. I barely made it on time, and sat in the back with the high school friends of the bride and groom (same high school). One of my old friends was in the group, and so was a white girl. She went to their high school, and had grown up in Japan. I later asked if she could speak English, and her friends said, “She can when she’s drunk!” We were all drunk, and she spoke decently, but was legitimately not fluent. I think her name was Miriam.
The wedding was very nice. It was Western style. We took pictures at the chapel, then moved to the reception room where there was assigned seating. I was with my good friend Mari, and some of Ryo’s cousins. It was a fun reception with singing and dancing. Early in the reception, Ryo and Yumiko left so they could change into their ball attire. When they came back, the energetic Master of Ceremonies announced that there would be some audience participation.
The bride and groom stood in the center of the ballroom, and my table watched enthusiastically. The emcee was talking, and I wasn’t paying strict enough attention to pick up what he said, until I felt his eyes on me and heard, “Mr. Steve!”
Everyone in the room, the families, the co-workers, the classmates, the bosses, and the friends looked over at me, the one foreigner at the reception. I was startled, and terrified that I would misunderstand the question or not know how to respond.
“What’s different from before about the bride and the groom?” he asked. I kept the seating chart and program from the ceremony, so I know that there were a hundred sixty eyes on me, if you don’t include the host and staff.
“Uh. Yumi’s… hat changed.”
“Is he correct?” the emcee shouted into the microphone.
There was an overwhelmingly positive response, so the guy threw me a bag of kaki-pi, my favorite snack. I obediently showed it off to the rest of the reception, and got a hearty laugh. I really wanted to summon the host back over to ask him for some milk, but the show had moved on.
I met Ryo’s parents for the first time on the way out. Mari and I headed to the place where we’d have the “afterparty”. The bar was extremely classy, and offered a really special view of some of the city. This part of a Japanese wedding is convenient for keeping numbers down at the formal ceremonies. Friends of the bride and groom who are of similar age are invited to a bash in the evening. The honored couple are fashionable, popular, and genuinely nice people, so the masses were out for the event.
I had my hands full remembering the names of all my new friends, and was excited to see some people with whom I hadn’t gotten together in years. I couldn’t believe the fact that I was saying, “It’s been more than five years!” to people who lived in Tokyo. I kept busy by posing for pictures and winking at girls.
Attention was called to center stage for some question and answer with the newlyweds. After thoroughly humiliating the couple, the friend who was in charge of the party games somehow split the hundred or so people into about ten teams very quickly. The only person on my team that I knew was me, and I don’t even know him that well.
I was with some of Ryo’s elementary school buddies, and they were pretty excited. We talked for a bit about how we all knew him, and then we posed for some pictures. The host turned on a projector to use for the trivia contest, but the first order of business was to show some embarrassing pictures of Ryo. It was then explained that the team with the most correct answers would get to choose prizes from a hat. There were some real good prizes, so my team decided to play hard.
In a room full of friends who had known Ryo and Yumiko for any number of years, in a trivia contest conducted in their native and my second language, I led my team to a victory. There were ten questions. We got eight correct, and on a couple occasions, I intervened in the discussion, saying something like, “No. Trust me. It’s B.” When the results were announced, I popped out of my seat, pointed to the ceiling, gave and received some pats on the back, and shook hands with my teammates as we were being called to the front.
We were the champs of a gaggle of fashionable, successful, young Tokyoites, and out came the bag from which we’d draw prize tickets. When the host called for the first team member, I was tossed onto the block. In a nod to the overall attention I had been receiving that night, the man with the microphone went off-script and asked for me to do a small self introduction for the people.
I smiled and said, “I humbly refer to myself as Steve.”
“Ikemen!” came from a number of regions of the crowd.
After telling them a short tale of my friendship with Ryo, I put my hand in the bag. I settled on one ticket, and drew it out. Without looking, I handed it to the fellow with the mic. He looked at the prize, lowered the ticket, and raised the microphone. In a gradually escalating Michael Buffer-like proclamation, he roared, “Roooooooooooooooombaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!” I knew what a Roomba was, but it didn’t occur to me that that’s what he was saying, so when it was explained to me, “robot vacuum cleaner,” I rejoiced.
The thing was shipped to me a couple weeks after the wedding, and retailed for more than I spent on the trip. I was pretty pumped up. I immediately signaled the barman for another cold one, as I was firing on all cylinders and didn’t want to overheat.
Eventually the party started to die down. I had been quietly invited to a third party, though, so I was staying close to Ryo. This last party was strictly for hometown kids, the friends from all the way back. Being Acting Lord of Weddings, I was invited. A close friend of mine was not invited, so parting was awkward. She was sort of distraught, because she wanted to be with her friends. I had to comfort her by saying, “I think he just feels guilty that I came all the way from Miyagi, so he is letting me stay the whole night.”
The setting was a smart restaurant near Shibuya, I think. The first floor consisted of a few tables and the kitchen. The second floor had one large table and a ladder. Our table was in an enclosure up in the corner. It was technically the third floor, but we had to crawl through a hole at the top of the ladder, and the ceiling was four or five feet off the floor. It was dark. I had recently become obsessed with accessibility. I had gone through a phase in which I avoided basements. I didn’t like elevators, and I avoided standing under suspended things. Magnitude nine earthquakes will do that to a fella.
Luckily, I was drunk as hell and riding the natural high that comes with winning Best Supporting Actor of somebody else’s big day. This little roost in the rafters was where I tried to get the white girl to speak English. In a crafty move, we were seated together in the corner, next to Ryo and Yumiko, so it was only natural to bring it up. Every once in a while, I’d go down the ladder to use the restroom, walking by the other parties, prompting a “Check it out. Who’s this guy?” or two.
After we stumbled out of the chic little place, I began thinking of how I was going to get back to my hotel. I was ready for a bowing contest and some big hugs when Ryo said the magic word.
I asked if he was serious, and he told me that we were all going to the center of Shibuya to get loud. We slid over by taxi and walked into one of the big chains. There was a bit of a wait, so we sat in the lobby. Yumiko was starting to fade, and she said she wasn’t feeling well. We got some water, but it didn’t help. She walked outside and knelt down by the curb. We stood around for support, and she heaved.
Maroon. On the dress.
Luckily, she had changed after the nuptials, so it wasn’t her wedding gown, and again before the afterparty, so it wasn’t even her reception dress. It was still a classy, white frock, though. I stood by in my cheap suit and offered up my twenty dollar coat, but Ryo had beaten me to it. Thousands of people, including several groups of foreigners walked past us on that sidewalk. It was very clear that we were a wedding party, and I was conversing normally with the other members. I got a hundred more of those looks. Mystique was my middle name that night.
We concluded that bridebarf is when civilized folk conclude a wedding night. We all had hugs and took pictures, then the party dissolved. Back to anonymity for me. I walked through the intersection in front of Shibuya Station, dodging revelers in the scramble crosswalk as they looked at me and said, “Check out the sad, white drunk.”
The sun was shining on the sea in the middle of the night, and I could have turned up the street instead of crossing. Life was behind me, and stupidly, I left it there. I only had about ten months left in Japan, but that night I was the walrus. The opportunities seemed limitless, like I’d relive it all the next weekend. I could hear the music and the laughter, but I opted for the pillow. The jubilance trailed off, or maybe Steve did.
I was defeated by my blood alcohol level: utterly lost. Knowing I was close, I stubbornly walked up and down the block in search of a memory. There weren’t any, and my phone was dead. I gave in and hailed a cab. Driving on the left side, he came up on my right. I sat in the back, and gave the driver the name of the hotel. He made the short left turn onto the main street, drove half a block, and stopped. “Here you are. Seven hundred ten yen, please.” Seventy cents a second.
I awoke having reverted to my oyster form. Washington was beating Utah. If I wanted to watch UCLA lose to Stanford and still have time to go read in the café at AEON, I needed to get on a train. The only tangible evidence of my fifteen hours of fame is a vacuum sitting in its box two feet to my left. I’ll use it when I have a bigger place.