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Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Living the easy, or at least convenient, life

"Life ain't easy for a foreigner in Japan."

That's a line I love to lay on my Japanese wife, especially right before my birthday or Christmas. The self-sacrifice card, subtly played with the right mix of puppy-dog eyes and puffy lower lip, might earn me an extra present. Perhaps something I really want -- like a bag of chikuwa stuffed with cream cheese or a fresh hechima for our ofuro.

Yet, my wife has long since caught on to most of my husbandly tricks and is particularly exasperated by this one. It is her contention that, when everything is added together, there is no place in the world easier to live in than Japan.

She has an extended list of arguments.

Argument one: Stroll five minutes either east, west or north of our Tokyo home and what do you find? A convenience store, that's what. Open 24 hours a day, selling chikuwa with cheese and -- if I'm lucky -- hechima. As for heading south: Stroll that way for five minutes and you'll hit four convenience stores. One of which just has to sell hechima.

Meanwhile, back where I'm from, some of my family can't even reach the next house in five minutes. After midnight my hometown also locks up like a dead clam, with the only light coming from a bracelet of traffic signals, mostly stuck on yellow. If you want to find a 24-hour store, you have to drive some place else. And once you get there, they won't have any hechima.

Argument two: The only thing more convenient than a convenience store is a vending machine, which line most Japanese streets like soldiers braced for inspection. No -- they don't sell hechima, but you can buy almost anything else, including soda, milk, rice, beer, wine, batteries, nylons, CDs and condoms. The main items here being available every few feet. Thirsty? Just turn your head. If you don't see a drink machine, it means you've got your eyes closed.

Peek then across the sea and you'll discover American vending machines come in but two basic types: vandalized or broken. The first challenge is finding one in running condition. The next is getting that machine to actually exchange its wares for money.

However, this failure to cough up goods should not be taken as a sign of faulty mechanics. I believe most U.S. machines have glitch bugs built in -- designed to prey on certain soft touches. I remember a soda machine in my campus dormitory that would supply drinks to everyone else but me. With my friends all merrily gulping carbonation, I would insert my quarters and hear them tinkle away like so much silver laughter while I waited for a Mountain Dew that never appeared.

That particular machine seemed to follow me, taking my coins all across the States, an artificial intelligence bent on my financial destruction -- the Vendimator. I eventually swore off all American vending devices. Then, eight years ago, on a humid day near Cleveland, my eldest son just had to have a soft drink. The money clinked in and out came a can of coke . . . as well as 25 bucks in change.

Still, I counted that windfall as just a bit of machine slickery to further seduce my money -- which I now only donate to glitchless Japanese machines, thank you.

Argument three: My family members crisscross metropolitan Tokyo almost everyday and in almost every way: by buses, bicycles, trains and taxis. From crisp predawn to stale late night, at least one of us is always on the go, with several choices of how to get there. The result being that, if there's a hechima fair in, say, Chiba, Tokorozawa or Yokohama, all we need to attend are time and yen.

But time and yen will get you nowhere in rural America, unless you first sink that yen in an automobile. Many of our shorter Stateside visits have thus found us trapped in a rented room, killing time till some kind relative drives to our rescue. Consequently, to my wife, the great prairies of the Midwest do not evoke images of endless horizons and panoramic sunsets. Rather, they signify shackled mobility and restricted freedom. Even renting a car doesn't help much, for as she puts it: "There's no place to go anyway."

"So," she sums up with a wifely snort. "Don't tell me it's hard to live here, OK?"

So . . . I don't. Neither do I mention ozone level pricing or sardine housing or crowds like buffalo herds or street congestion like stuck bowel movements. Nor air pollution, noise pollution, pollen pollution or even vending machine eyesore pollution. Nor language troubles, nor homesickness, nor that the Tokyo Giants and dumb variety shows (some people claim these are the same) dominate prime-time TV.

Pretty much I agree with her. Japan is a great place to live. Especially when I eventually open my gifts to find just what I wanted.

What could be finer than sitting in a steaming ofuro and munching on some cheese chikuwa while scrubbing your back with a scratchy new hechima? "Boy, I can't do this in the States!" is always the second thing I think of.

Right after, "I better not mix these up."

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