Ikebukuro has the largest retail space in a single building in all of Japan, but I would like to dispel any ideas of a cavern-like Wal-Mart planted in north-west Tokyo. Like so much retail in Japan, this is an outgrowth of the train station. Ikebukuro is sliced in half by it's gargantuan train station, which is still only the second largest in Tokyo. It is the meeting point for a tangle of national and private railways, the two most prominent being the Seibu and Tobu railways.
The ideographs that spell out Seibu and Tobu refer to east and west sections of Musashino, an old name for the large plain region that is now thick with humanity and concrete. The railways are rival feudal networks of department stores and trains to move people to the department stores. They are literally the product of a sibling rivalry, carving up Tokyo real estate in a business epic of Shakesperean size. The owners of the companies are half-brothers, their father making a fortune in the immediate aftermath of the war. For unclear reasons the legitimate son was disinherited from his father's fortune, and the illegitimate son was given control of the Tobu empire. Left with his breeding and business connections the legitimate son founded Seibu, creating a network of train lines that webs across northwest Tokyo into Saitama. Seibu had the largest deparment store in Japan for years until Tobu built an annex to their Ikebukuro branch to surpass it. These twin giants perch on either end of Ikebukuro station only a few hudnred yards from each other. In their competition to stay ahead of one another the buildings are crammed with retail stores crammed with just about every product under the sun.
It seemed like a good place to look for tortillas.
I had just finished paying for two plastic wrapped packs of tortillas and a pound of kidney beans when my cell phone began to chime with the melody of the emerging spirits from "Spirited Away." The Seibu food section was exploding with after-work shoppers and blue print uniformed employees hawking French wines, pickled eggplants and grilled eel. I while scurrying with my groceries, looking for a quiet corner in the middle of this riot.
"It's about your working visa Jamie!" the voice on the other end was struggling to get to me amid the row of butchers screaming the quality of their pork cuts.
I found a staircase where my cellphone hovered between one and two bars. "My visa?" I cradled the tortillas.
It was my boss, calling about my visa renewal. "It's not as simple as I thought. You see, the law has changed..."
When I first entered Japan I was given a three year working visa with "instructor" status. Everyone who has employed me in Japan, from the lanky American owner of the vegetarian restaurant to the central Tokyo tour guide company, understood the old law. A visa's a visa, I'm free to gut fish in Hokkaido or edit textbooks in Osaka. But at some point when no one was paying attention the categories got shifted and suddenly an instructor visa was just that: I could teach in schools, but only public schools.
I've been blissfully working here illegally for two years and now I have to write it all out for the immigration officer in a neat little form, with a little letter saying, "gee, sorry, won't happen again."
I had dreams last night tangled with large dark cities and creatures of science fiction. Before I woke up I was riding in an elevator with two men, and one calmly turned to the other, opened a mouth the size of a basketball, and sunk his teeth into the other's man's neck, right where it meets the shoulder.
After I got the call I had to get home to cook the beans and throw together some guacamole and salsa. I had twelve dinner guests coming over, and I was supposed to have appetizers ready by six. We were cramming into my studio apartment, which is roughly the size of a humvee. Hiro was making sukiyaki for our main dish: pots of vegetables and beef bubbling away in a sweetened broth. Kayo had worked for a few years in a bakery and was bringing cakes and puddings. Takeo and Michi were bringing a bottle of a thick Mexican liquour. Everyone else brought chips or beers or a few dollars and a grin.
We tucked into my place tight but comfortable, thirteen of us tucked around two tables scrambled with a dozen plates, two pots of sukiyaki, a tray of fresh sauces, kidney beans cooked in rum, a plate of warmed tortillas, and a rainbow of drinks. Takeo played bartender in the corner, his day off starting to look a lot like the nights at his bar. Hiro and I cut each other up in our mock Iron Chef competition. He kicked my ass, but I wowed on exoticism: no one had ever had proper burritos or fresh salsa before.
When it got dark and stuffy in my place we went out to the roof with folding chairs and jugs of wine. We took photos against the spread of Urawa. Carlo Rossi is also the cheapest wine in Japan, and I showed them how to hook it in your thumb and drink it from over your shoulder, just like I learned in that dorm room freshman year.
Hiro was lying down apart from the group, his face pale. "You alright?" I asked.
"Think I just ate to much. but thanks for those... burritos? They were great." He smiled wanly. "You know I don't drink much, those two kinda ruffled me up to. Be alright in a little while."
"Actually," I said, looking over my shoulder as Kayo trying to get everybody to dance against the chilly night air. "I have this problem with my visa. I think it'll be okay, but... I might have to leave in six weeks." I explained the details.
"You're kidding! Do you think it'll work out?"
"I dunno, I have no idea how strict it is."
"But you'll be able to work it out somehow right?"
"Think so." No one had budged from their chairs behind us so Kayo was dancing by herself in the circle of chairs, her face poised in faux contentment, studiously ignoring the wine drinkers who refused to get up. "You wanna be alone, for a bit, right, get over all that food?"
He nodded, and I went back to this circle of folks, none of whom I'd known longer than six months, the fixtures of my life here. I had wandered years in Japan to finally find myself with a circle of friends who seemed barely aware I was an American, who had taken me plainly as I was, never uttered a false praise of my Japanese or plied me for free English lessons, never asked me silly questions about my ability to eat raw fish or if rice exists in America. Just a group of folks I could share a beer with, get together a Sunday afternoon soccer game.
Felt like they were already all just a snapshots, laughing and gummy bodies stiffened to thin, frozen faces on a photograph.