Heads, Tails & Snake Eyes

Heads, Tails & Snake Eyes

Chaos theory applied to summer vacation


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on August 2009

You might say I was suffering from post-release syndrome. Prisoners—and some military men as well—often find that they can’t readjust to normal society once they’ve served their time, and still sit at the ends of their beds at 6am waiting to be told they can leave their cells, bunks or barracks. As a post-eikaiwa ALT, I was much the same. Barely three months after starting work at a public school in northeastern Chiba, I’d been told to go home and just enjoy my summer. And I was at a loss.

After a listless week spent watching Hollywood classics and pottering around town, I decided to rescue the back seat of my car from the avalanche of worksheets and flashcards that had accumulated over the first term. Among other things, I recovered about ¥1,000 in loose change and the missing pair of dice I had used in my first lesson. With the job half-finished and perspiration already pooling in my Nikes, I reached into one pocket, pulled out a ¥100 coin, and made a decision: heads, I would continue with the back seat excavation. Tails, I would return to the cool drinks and air conditioning of my apartment.

Result: flowers. Clearly this was going to be more challenging than I had imagined. New rule: flowers, and I would continue digging in the back seat; numbers, and I would embrace Freon.

Result: numbers. Happily pocketing the coin and dice, I collected my 7-Eleven bags of backseat waste, returned to my apartment, and greeted my fridge. Presented with the option of ice cold Coke or ice cold orange juice, I let the coin decide.

Result: numbers. Orange juice it is! I allowed the coin to make all my decisions for the rest of the day. TV or shower? Toss. Video or mindless garbage on TV? Toss.

The next morning, I took it further. Setting myself a three-hour outbound limit, I got into my car and tossed the coin. Flowers, I went left; numbers, I went right. At each T-junction, I would let the coin determine my direction. The joy of it was not the trip or the destination, but waiting for the next time I could snap the coin into the air and see how it landed on the seat beside me.

Illustration by Phil Couzens

Illustration by Phil Couzens

They say that even the best-laid plans go to waste. So I just removed the planning.

Inspired, that evening I set the rules for a true trip of chance, this time by train. A roll of the dice determined how many hours I would travel. The coin determined which of the two platforms I chose at my home station. At the last stop, depending on the number of platforms, either the dice or the coin would decide my next course. When time was up, I would find a place to stay wherever fate had dumped me.

I dubbed this “Casino Tabi,” tabi being the Japanese word for “trip.” That first Casino Tabi saw me—despite rolling a 7—only get as far Yokohama. I did, however, start by going through Tateyama at the southern tip of Chiba, and end up spending one of my best-ever nights of drinking in a yakitori restaurant populated exclusively by Japanese businessmen.

In my two-and-a-half years as an ALT, I would take a total of 14 Casino Tabi. From the fourth trip onwards, I let the coin decide whether it was to be by train or by car. A pair of 6s on the dice got me as far as Morioka in the north and Kobe in the south. Allowing Lady Luck to pick my route and destination, I explored parts of Japan that I would never otherwise have seen, meeting people I would never have thought to talk to as I rode their tiny local train through middle-of-nowhere Tochigi.

There was an element of fear to it, going off to places unknown. I never knew if time would run out near a five-star hotel or next to a park bench, or how a foreigner would be welcomed in the little villages in which I sometimes found myself. But if, as they say, our destinies are written and all we have to choose is which path to take, isn’t it better just to leave it all to chance and enjoy the ride?

I’d only ended up in Japan through a total lack of preparedness and a halfhearted application to the JET program as a favor to a friend. I left at the end of those two-and-a-half years, but came back again when I tossed a coin to see if I should return for a girl. When that relationship ended, it was the coin again that told me to stay. These may be acts of abandon, but they gave me the family, job, and so much more that I have now.

Nowadays, I go everywhere with a wife who plans each outing with military precision. But every now and then I reach into my pocket and pull out a ¥100 coin, bringing back memories of the days when I would leave every path I took to the hands of fate.