Thursday, December 28, 2006

More Random Observations about Japan...

The most popular English phrases for Japanese people have to be "I was surprised," and "Long time, no see." Out of those two, my favorite is "I was surprised." Whenever someone tells you about his or her experience abroad, you'll more than likely hear this expression. Usually it's some comical culture shock thing.

When I was in America, I thought I was pretty strange. Not your run-of-the-mill person. But after hearing Japanese stereotypes of Americans, I'm forced to admit I'm pretty damn American. I'm a John Wayne walkin' talkin' example of everything American to the Japanese. I'm funny, I'm positive, I'm confident to the point of arrogance, and I'm optimistic.

I also have a massive appetite, and I've fired guns.

On the other hand, people seem to expect me to be a heavy drinker. While that was true in the past, it's not true anymore. This year, other than a few social events, I've barely had any alcohol and I'm becoming less and less interested in indulging. A beer or two with dinner, like last night, is fine. But going on a massive binge just doesn't thrill me.

Maybe people have me confused with some of the other gaijin in Hamamatsu. Many of them are heavy drinkers. I had two roommates at different times who were incipient alcoholics. Places like Down Under, Groovy Gravy and No Name Bar are the centers for gaijin socializing and most nights you'll see the same faces in the same groups.

So I can see how that particular stereotype got started, at least in this city.

Speaking of last night...

I went to a new (for me) restaurant called Vivace. It's an Italian place. Inside, it's comfy and modern, with dark wood fixtures and white walls. There's a semi-private enclosed dining area near the front, and a bar for solo diners, such as myself.

The reason I went was one of our students works there and I told her I would. My co-teacher had already dined there, and I'd managed to promise twice and renege both times. So I was locked in.

The student was happy to see me when she walked in. She quickly told the other server that I was her English teacher, then she leaned over to me and asked, "You speak Japanese, don't you?"

"Chotto," I replied. A little.

I spent 2900 yen, which is around 30 bucks. A little pricey, but the food was good. I had some sort of strange but delicious sardine spaghetti with nuts in it, and then a margarita pizza which was the best pizza I've had in Hamamatsu. The crust was thin but chewy, the way I like it.

We were able to have a little conversation while I ate. At one point, she bounced over to me and nodded back towards the kitchen where the chef was looking out, smiling. "He said he thought you were my boyfriend," she told me.

We laughed together.

"It was a joke, maybe," she said.

After I finished off the pizza, she had the chef make a special dessert for me. She asked, "What's your favorite sweet? Chocolate, fruit or cheesecake?"


She talked to the chef and came back after a few minutes with a slice of fudgey chocolate cake with some sort of semi-sweet creampuff topping and a scoop of berry sherbet. It was excellent. I'll have to get some friends together to dine there sometime.

Vivace could use the business. Granted, it was a Wednesday night, but the place was dead. There was just a young couple in the corner having an intimate dinner, and later, two women who'd just finished a day's shopping and then an older married couple. It seems a shame that's all the business they had while I was there, although I was dining early for Japan.

That's another observation. I can't tell you how many times I've had dinner at 8 or even 9pm. People here think I'm weird because I want to eat at 5pm.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hamamatsu Matsuri, 2005!

The Hamamatsu Matsuri (festival) is held early in May, during Golden Week. It lasts 3 nights, and features fighting kites at the Nakatajima Dunes. The first year I was in Japan during this festival, we had nothing but rain and chilly weather so all we did was eat international food down at the Act City plaza.

The next year...

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Perfect weather. Sunny and warm all day and cool at night. This photo has nothing to do with the festival. It's the temple gate near my old apartment. Instead of a temple there's a cooking school on the right and a kindergarten behind the gate itself, where the original temple was before one of Tokugawa Ieyasu's battles wiped it out.

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This is a spy camera shot of one of the festival floats, called yatai in Nihongo. Elaborately carved from wood, and pulled by groups of people wearing special costumes, these wagons are the centerpiece of the festival parade.

I didn't get to go to the kite battles at the beach because of work, but the first night of the festival fell on my first night off, so I got to fully indulge myself in those festivities.

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This is the main parade street. During the Hamamatsu Matsuri, this road is closed to traffic, and viewing benches are placed along the sidewalk. Food vendors set up tents selling yakitori and sweets and unimaginable delights. Well, not so much unimaginable as unnameable here, because I have no idea what most of them are called.

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Here's how it starts. This is around 5pm or so, first night of the festival. The paraders are special marching corps from all the various neighborhoods in Hamamatsu. They wear these blue tunics with special leggings and tabi... you know, those "ninja" shoes with the toe notch. On their backs they wear the neighborhood crest, many of which are red and white, with kanji or designy disks. Their job is to make a lot of noise, and to help them accomplish this, they bang drums and play flutes and bugles.

The coolest part is the practice runs. In the month or so leading up to the Hamamatsu Matsuri, various marching corps make dry runs in full regalia. I'm not sure but they probably also do a bit of drinking. I know this much- for the real thing they definitely do a lot of drinking. Noise making is more efficient when one is soused.

I think in the old days, these groups were men only but now there are a lot of women involved. They wear the same costumes as the men. The costumes, which include a wrap around tunic and special matching pants, are called happi.

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And there they are! Look at 'em go! This looks like so much fun to me, but in true Japanese-style, it also represents a commitment. Once you join the marchers, you are in it for the long haul... the full three days and nights of merrymaking and heavy drinking. I saw some participants on the third night who were completely wiped out. They looked half-dead, but also well satisfied.

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Most of the groups are led by flag bearers. Some of these flags are really long and trail to the ground. The most intense groups have multiple flagbearers who work out some twirling choreography that's really impressive. As are their sheepish smiles when they screw up. It's all for fun, but it's also serious business, man!

The woman in the foreground is a marcher for a different group. Because I don't know the starting point or organization of the parade, I'm not sure why she had time to watch, but I'm glad she enjoyed the show. She's wearing a happi with kanji on the back.

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Here's another marching group. The noise was incredible at this point, and I can still hear the massed bugles echoing as I write this almost a year later. This is probably because the supermarkets started playing nonstop loops of the marching songs two weeks before the festival and it became imprinted on my brain along with the entire Beatles song catalog.

Special note- about this time (6pm), I started drinking. Practically everyone else was, so I thought I should give it a try and show both the Japanese and the gaijin contingent what we Athens peeps can do in the proper environment. The Safari Bar van was set up in front of Zaza, and I made that my headquarters... since I was first there and first to drink that evening, I had a prime seat at one of the tables where I could watch the parade and wait for my friends to show up and join me.

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As night set in, the best part of the parade arrived- the wooden yatai. Lit with lanterns... they approached in the thunderous din like mysterious barges from the spirit world...

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Inside were women in kimono, playing shamisen or other traditional Japanese instruments.

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Aren't these people beautiful? They're not stylie girls or any particular group of funky thrillers; they're just regular people in casual clothes. The heartland group of any country, the humble, plain folk without any agenda other than doing their best, and what's right. I love them.

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These guys are pulling the yatai with long, heavy ropes. A labor of love.

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Here's another view of one of the yatai. You can see the women inside, playing their instruments. The guy on the left with his back to us is another marcher, and you can see the elaborate crest of his neighborhood printed on his happi.

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Beer me! In the foreground, you can see the front of the Safari Bar. Behind it, a Japanese food vendor. Australian-style drunkery complete with kebabs (cooked by a friendly Turk who now owns No Name Bar) meets traditional Japanese matsuri food.

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Some friends of mine- the foreigner contingent. These are some really nice guys talking about I don't know what. I was very drunk by this point, I'm sure.

This was one of the most epic nights of my Nova career and my life in Japan up to that point. I'd just started seeing this adorable Nova student and somehow, I managed to find her in the crowd. We went back to Safari Bar (which was a stupid idea), I bought her a drink, found out she really liked me and was jealous of my friendship with another girl... then someone told me another group of Nova teachers were approaching, so we had to duck around the corner to hide.

In the entryway to Zaza, we sat on the steps and made plans and talked relationship.

At that moment, I felt like the coolest guy in the world. The festival was rocking, a girl so cute it was physically painful sometimes just to look at her was crazy into me, and I was happy drunk and expansive. Unfortunately, this led to more drinking... beer after beer... until 1am, and the worst hangover I've had in years the next day. It was worth it. I soared on the afterglow of Cute Stylie Girl for days after.

Of course roughly a week later, she did me wrong. We haven't spoken since.

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After hours, down a bar-lined alley. The marchers are having an after-party, and so were we foreigners. I hooked up with the rest of the Nova teachers and had a few more drinks. One teacher played his guitar, we all posed for stupid drunk photos... and then the marching group gave us free alcohol and food.

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Check them out- they're beat! They're wearing exhausted smiles, yet they still have two more nights of carrying on. As for me, I was still feeling chipper and going strong, but I couldn't get off the mat for the second night. I learned a hard lesson in pacing one's drunk self.

Feeling I'd accomplished all I'd set out to do, for the third night I found myself a spot at Ohgiya and drank a single beer. Personal and family tragedies were mere days away, but I had no idea at that point. All I knew was the Hamamatsu Festival was a highlight of my time in Japan.

If you get a chance to visit, I highly recommend you come during Golden Week to participate in this festival. It may not be the biggest or the best in Japan, but it's definitely 3 nights of fun. This year I'll be off that entire week and I'll be able to go down to the Nakatajima Dunes to see the kite battles.

In the meantime, imagine this- Chuck Mancuso let loose in that atmosphere of nearly anything goes. I think Hunter S. Thompson would be traumatized.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas is Over...

It was a nice one. I woke up around 8am, took care of some household maintenance issues, then opened my presents, which were greatly enjoyed and appreciated. Later, in the afternoon, I went to Ohgiya for dinner.

Actually, it was a toss-up between Ohgiya and Denny's. I also briefly considered going to an Italian restaurant not far from my apartment, or finding a more upscale dinner-spot. But since I'll be throwing money around like a terminal patient on a final fling in Tokyo in a few days, I decided not to spend more than 2000 yen.

And Denny's was packed. It was Girl City in there, which was nice. But I didn't feel like waiting for possibly half an hour just to take a table solo while late arrivals watched the Lone Gaijin hogging up prime real estate.

So Ohgiya.

Ohgiya recently remodeled. In years past, during the winter they'd put a heavy, clear plastic sheet around the patio area and stick a kerosene heater out there. One of my Nova students had the back of an expensive jacket ruined because he sat too close to the heater and scorched it. Now, it's surrounded by some really nice but fragile glass and wood sliding doors.

Which will probably end up demolished by some drunk-ass sometime before spring.

Christmas Day night was a very mild evening, probably too warm for the heavy coat I was wearing and this was a good thing, because it was still 10 minutes until Ohgiya's opening time. Inside, I could see the two staff members on the early dinner shift putting on their aprons.

I stood around, watching the shoppers. The street was busy as the sky darkened... strolling couples and shopping groups. Lots of girls in fur coats and tall, over the knee boots. A group of Nana-esque gothy-punk girls who caught the appreciative eye of a gothy-punk boy. He gave them a lingering look over his shoulder but they never looked back, being absorbed in their own chatter and laughter.

After a few minutes, the revolving orange light on the Ohgiya sign came on and with it, the white paper lanterns along the facade.

The manager is an elfin-faced woman in a special burgundy tee (as opposed to the black or navy blue tees the regular staff wear, male and female), and she opened the doors to put out one of their banners.

Smiling because she recognized me, she asked, "Maji?"

Which means, "Really?" I haven't been there for a while, so she was surprised to see me. I nodded happily and went in, took off my jacket and found a spot to sit at the bar in the back. The server took my drink order... "Cola, onegaishimasu!"

For my Christmas dinner, I ate yakitori shio (salt yakitori), ebi furai (fried shrimp), furai potato (french fries) and daikon salada (Japanese radish salad with a delicious herb dressing). The cost was around 1300 yen.

While I was eating, a few middle aged dudes came in and ordered beer. Yakitori is beer-drinking food. These middle aged guys love to order a few dishes and drink big mugs of beer, or else order the gigantic bottles they have at Ohgiya.

These bottles are probably as long as your ankle to your knee. I think they're sho-chu or chu-hi and not beer but they're brown glass, whatever they contain. When I went to a sashimi restaurant with one of our students a few months back, he ordered one and set it on the floor beside his chair. A convenient spot for it.

After I finished, I paid and offered a sincere "Gochisosama deshita!" (a polite phrase that roughly means "Thank you for treating me") and caught the #9 bus back out to Sanaru-dai to relax and reflect on a peaceful, enjoyable holiday spent far from family and friends.

Christmas in Japan is a romantic holiday. It's more a time for couples to get together and have a cozy, intimate dinner at some candlelit restaurant. Thinking along those lines, I sent a "Happy Holiday" email to a girl I really liked two years ago... only to find out she'd deleted her Hotmail account without telling me her new email address.

So much for that.

Then I texted with a friend for a while. She just started a new job with Suzuki, and she's having a hard time adjusting. It's a great company for her to work for, and Japan is the Land of Lifetime Employment. She's made, she's got it made if she can fit into the corporate culture, which is still pretty blatantly sexist here. Plus she'll have to get used to the non-optional after-hours drinking thing... and all the welcome parties and farewell parties, as well being expected as part of your job to go to coworkers' weddings on your days off.

Then I watched Fellowship of the Rings.

Note: Not only is Suzuki a high-powered auto and/or motorcycle manufacturing company... or companies (I need to research this more)... the name itself is practically the Japanese equivalent of "Smith." I've lost count of how many Suzukis I've met.

Which reminds me of a joke my dad once told me (on several occasions):

There was this guy who lived in Smithville, and he was getting pretty sick of all the people there named Smith. Practically everyone in town had that name. So one day, he hopped a freight train to escape and fell asleep. Waking up the following morning with the train stopped, he jumped off only to see a huge factory labelled "Smith Manufacturing Plant."

"Dammit," he said. "I was trying to get away from Smiths, and here I am where they make the sons-of-bitches!"

I wonder if people here sometimes think that as they ride the JR train to Toyohashi and pass big Suzuki building along the tracks.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Merry Christmas!

From Japan. Today was a semi-warm day... compared to the past few weeks. I've been watching various Christmas specials featuring Bart Simpson and Charlie Brown. But not together, although that would be pretty interesting.

Some of our students gave me gifts yesterday as we finished Test Week. I got crablegs, a tiny glass Christmas tree, a cloth 2007 calendar that coincidentally perfectly replaces the 2006 version I've enjoyed, some nice chocolate and a bottle of Italian wine.

I also did some photo reference searches for the graphic novel I'm working on, took care of some laundry, and cleaned and straightened up. I may not post tomorrow so...

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Have a Jim Brown Christmas!

Merry Christmas from Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka-ken... Japan.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Eating in Japan...

MSN ran a story a few months back about what toddlers eat around the world. I thought I'd share the info about Japan:


The Japanese enjoy the world's longest average life spans, and a big reason for that may be the food they eat starting from a very young age. Rice is the centerpiece of a common toddler meal. All other foods -- fish, meat, vegetables -- are side items intended to enhance the flavor of the rice. A typical toddler lunch is egg-flavored rice with broiled fish or seafood (more popular than meat due to the island's access to water), a side dish of lightly cooked seasonal vegetables, and soup with tofu (commonly known as miso).

Other Favorites: Noodles -- soba (buckwheat) and udon (wheat flour) served in a soy-flavored fish broth with vegetables; tofu with veggies; Bento, a boxed meal of rice, pickled veggies; and other side dishes.

Sweet Tooth Satisfiers: Kimi balls are egg-flavored, rice flour-based sugary treats that literally melt in your mouth.

That's pretty good general info. We can go into more detail, though.

One thing that's not mentioned here is natto. As a foreigner living in Japan, you'll be asked, "Can you eat natto?" It's almost always asked that way and only rarely, "Have you tried natto?"

You'll be asked this often, maybe even once a day over particularly curious stretches.

Natto is a breakfast food that consists of fermented soybeans. They're a bit sticky and have a fairly neutral taste. Supposedly, their strong aroma is a deterrent for most gaijin, but I have a very weak sense of smell so that's no problem for me.

Back in November 2005, I went to an izakaya with some Japanese friends and of course, these cute girls asked if I could eat natto.

"I have never tried natto," I replied. "But I would like to."

So they ordered it for me, giggling all the while. When it came, my friend pushed the bowl in front of me and said, "Showtime!"

I discovered that not only could I eat natto, I also didn't mind eating natto. It's not my favorite meal by any means but now I have a neat li'l trick I can play on the people I meet in Japan that will amuse and delight us all.

Bento are pretty cool. Bento are lunchboxes that look more like gift boxes, with neat little compartments where you can see what food you're getting. I only bought a freshly-made bento from a small restaurant one time, and it had a piece of salmon in it along with the rice and pickled vegetables... plus, it was delicious and fun to eat.

I actually ate it in a secret spot at Zaza City. The few people who saw me probably thought, "Another weirdo foreigner. At least this one likes good food."

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Someone's home-packed bento... I think!

At the beginning of the delightful 2004 comedy film Swing Girls, Tomoko and her classmates are bored with their droning summer session math teacher, so they volunteer to carry bento to the school's band, who are playing at the high school championship baseball tournament in another city.

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A store-bought bento.

Being irresponsible, the girls not only eat one of the bento, they also fall asleep and miss their stop. They backtrack on foot across the hot, humid countryside... which causes the remaining bento to spoil in the heat. Which sets off an outbreak of vomiting and explosive diarrhea at the baseball game, leading to the rest of the story where they learn to play instruments and love big band jazz.

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"We challenge you to express the spirit
of youth and ruin bento! It's fun!"

At most train stations you can find shops selling stacks and stacks of neatly packed bento. It's actually one of my favorite sights in Japan, something that to me is uniquely Japanese.

But don't underestimate the popularity of American-style fast food in Japan. McDonald's is everywhere, and to a lesser extent so are Wendy's and Subway. McDonald's in particular is highly popular.

I'll always remember the time I was waiting to teach my Saturday morning kid's class and the smallest of the children came in and hopped up on the stage under the window and began excitedly pointing outside.

"Joel! Joel! Joel!" she shouted. "Makudonurado! Watashi wa duburu chiisubaga wo tabetai!"

Not sure of the particles but that's how I remember it now.

Another McDonald's piece of trivia- because space is limited in Japan in general and urban centers specifically, many of the McDonald's are 2-stories, with upstairs eating areas. Around lunchtime you can find a table of high school girls eating fries and scarfing down burgers and then... putting on makeup.

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"Enjoy a very sensual meal at McDonald's." Japanese
McDonald's are a bit more stylish than our American variety.

And putting on makeup. And putting on makeup. They pull out little mirrors and compacts and all sorts of stainless steel devices to curl their lashes and transform themselves into whatever J-Pop ideal of perfection is the current style and it takes approximately forever.

No lunch is complete without this lengthy and elaborate beautification ritual. I don't even think they do it for others, or for their boyfriends or classmates particularly. The rest of the world goes completely away and all reality consists of the face in the mirror, so it seems very self-absorbed. Their concentration is extreme and their movements precise.

That gives me this weird feeling they do it strictly for themselves.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Kuriyama Chiaki and the Cat's Eye

Hmm... sounds like a title for an adventure movie. Get Steven and George on the phone, and have the aerodrome ready my private jet!

These types of press conferences are common here. In this case, a group of actresses are promoting Kisarazu Cat's Eye, a Japanese tv drama about 6 ex-high school baseball players who are drawn into their dying friend's scheme to become cat burglars...

It stars a bunch of people I don't know and Kuriyama Chiaki.

Here's a pic from the show. It has nothing to do with cat burglary, high school baseball or cancer. I think Kuriyama Chiaki plays some sort of JROTC member in it. All the photos I've seen of her from the show depict her in miltary garb:

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And these are from the press conference:

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I'm not sure why the cat in the logo is crying. I wish I could read Japanese.

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Here they come, stylish and beautiful. And even they're not the main characters of the drama. In fact, Kuriyama Chiaki is barely in it at all, judging from the shashinshu I looked at recently. Shashinshu are glossy, expensive photobooks that accompany almost every film or popular tv drama in Japan.

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They greet the audience. This format is pretty common, I think. Walk out onto a stage, someone makes a speech and explains who everyone is and what they're doing there, then each person gets to talk to the crowd and maybe answer some questions.

There's Kuriyama Chiaki in the black boots to the right... she's someone you may recognize from her role as crazed schoolgirl killer/bodyguard GoGo Yubari in Quentin Tarantino's deliriously ridiculous Kill Bill Vol. 1.

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But first, meet this guy and his shiny bald head! He's your interlocutor for the evening.

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I don't know who she is, but she really seemed to be enjoying herself. She's genki. Genki means "healthy," but it can also mean "energetic and full of personality."

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Here's my favorite person in the world lately, Kuriyama Chiaki. According to her biography on the Internet Movie Database, she once watched the movie Se7en... oh, I forget. But it was more times in one day than you could! Tarantino keeps the bar set from Kill Bill Vol. 1 at his home- you know, where Kuriyama Chiaki as GoGo stabs a businessman to death- in case she's ever in LA with her friends and wants to hang out.

That's a bit creepy. That's a lot creepy.

Did you know the businessman wasn't asking GoGo about cars when he asked her if she liked Ferraris? While the super-fast Ferrari is well-known around the world (there's a Ferrari/Porsche dealership within walking distance of my apartment and I love to go windowshopping there), the word "ferrari" has a slang meaning here in Nihon that's kind of interesting.

When you learn what it is, you'll understand their conversation better and why she stabbed him.
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There she is, up close! She's dramatic in black. She has this Morticia Addams appeal sometimes.

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Genki Gal in full effect. Someone said something that really amused her. I know absolutely nothing about her, but she strikes me as the kind of person who's always on the edge of laughter. I like that a lot.

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Devil horns instead of peace signs. Why? I don't know. Maybe it was Kuriyama Chiaki's idea. Maybe it'll catch on. Really, flashing the peace sign in Japan is the universal "I'm being photographed" symbol.

So much so, I was sending a text message with my cellphone in my classroom one day when this girl walked in and instantly- as a joke- jumped into the peace sign pose because it looked like I was photographing anyone coming through the door.

Go here for more info on Kisarazu Cat's Eye! It's all in Japanese!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

You Know What's Exciting?

An earthquake during a test. The voice on the tape had just said, "It's no laughing matter," when my chair started shimmying. It took me a moment to realize what was happening... an earthquake.

The three students taking the test paused, their eyes wide, amazed smiles on their faces.

My question is... was this a tremblor we were feeling because someplace else got hit harder, a shaky-shake because we were having a localized minor quake or a precursor of something big and deadly sometime tonight or in the next few days?

I've experienced a tornado on Christmas Eve, but never an earthquake.

Tomorrow is my last day out at Maisaka. It's not a real lesson, just a "talking class," where I'll referee as they discuss whatever they want.

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I'm going to take a box of Melty Kiss. Melty Kiss is a range of chocolates sold only during the winter- they have plain chocolate and strawberry chocolate... and I think mint chocolate as well. They're tiny squares of delicate chocolate deliciousness dusted with cocoa, and the story is they would melt in any other season.

Hence the name and the winter-only sales.

This may be true. I was recently addicted to Meiji's gigantic dark chocolate bar. During the summer, it was of normal candy consistency. Now that the temperatures are down and the winter wind is blowing, the bars break into shards of glasslike density. It's like putting brown plastic into your mouth before it finally starts to melt.

Or, if you chew it, it crunches.

Not a problem with Melty Kiss.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Test Week!

It's not as fun as Discovery Channel's Shark Week, but it's Test Week at our school. Our B students have to do a lot of reading, our A students test for listening comprehension. And so far, so good.

Our Superstar told me about her debate. The topic was whether or not Japan should adopt English as its official second language. It's already the unofficial second language. She and her friends stayed overnight in a freezing dormitory in Shizuoka, then debated in English well enough to finish 8th out of 52 schools from all over the country.

8th in the nation. Not too shabby!

Here are some quirks of living in Japan:

1) When Japanese tv features Western movies... and by that I mean English-language films... they don't censor the language and only a little of the content. Even on the movie channels via SkyPerfect you get the full effect of language, although if there's any full-frontal nudity, the lower bits are turned into a digital mosaic. I watched American Pie on Fox Japan last night and it was salty.

2) At supermarkets, you bag your groceries yourself. You put your basket on the counter, the cashier rings you up, and places plastic bags in with your items. There are tables nearby where everyone mills about, bagging up their goods.

Shopping carts are kind of funky, too. They're made shallow so you can place one of the smaller plastic baskets on top, and another underneath.

3) When you enter a shop, the employees shout "Irrashaimase!" at you. It means, roughly, "May I help you?" but also serves as an all-purpose greeting. In ultra-busy shopping centers, for example the giant Kalmia mall-and-train-station complex in Toyohashi, counter workers are shouting that nonstop. Sometimes they're synchronized so it sounds like stereo harmony, and other times they're off-synch so you get polyphony.

You also have to shout it through your nose with a slight whine to it.

4) Speaking of nasally whines, women both young and old often sing out "Bai bai," with the same sinusoid inflection.

5) Restaurants usually give you either fresh, hot towels to wipe your hands with before you dine, or else pre-packaged wetnaps. You'll commonly see older men wiping their faces too.

6) Young women here love black boots. Tall black boots with stilletto heels, even if they can't walk in them. These are usually matched with short skirts.

7) When you go on vacation, it's good manners to bring back a box of sweets for your coworkers. Or English teachers. We often get chocolate-covered macadamia nuts from students who visit Australia or Hawaii, or bean-paste infused sweets from places in Japan. Some of which I love, some of which I'm not too fond of.

8) If you work for a Japanese company, be prepared for afterwork drinking parties. These are common with college students, too (which just goes to show binge drinking is the universal denominator for college students). If you have too much to drink at one of these parties, it's okay to throw up on the train platform. This is called "platform pizza." Purato-foma pizza... or something like that.

9) People want to learn English here, but after they do, they're frequently too shy to speak it in front of foreigners. On the other hand, children from elementary age to high school will often shout "Hello!" at you as they pass you on the sidewalk. Responding in kind causes them to either start giggling, run away... or both.

10) Don't assume that blonde speaks English. She might be German or French, or even from South America.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


The title of the Go!Go!7188 (go go nana ichi hachi hachi in Japanese, by the way) is derived from a character out of the novel Genji Monogatari, which we call The Tale of Genji. This is the oldest novel written anywhere, in any culture. The first we know of, and it was written by a woman sometime in the 11th century.

Ukifune was a young woman who didn't know she was the daughter of the Eighth Prince of Japan. She was unhappily involved in a love triangle and attempted suicide by throwing herself in a river. Surviving, she cut off all her hair and became a nun.

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I'm not sure what all that has to do with the song's video featuring a Medusa-haired woman in a kimono shooting a bunch of yakuza guys and turning them into flopping goldfish...

Crying? There's No Crying in English!

These kids here, the high school ones. They are driven. Pushed. Pressured. Now I know I went to one of the worst high schools in the US, in one of the worst school systems. Not only that, I was a slacker.

So no, I never had to take exams every few weeks on multiple subjects. But these kids do.

"How was your weekend?"

"I was studying."

"For an exam?"


"In what subject?"

"Math, geography, Old Japanese, Japanese... nandake... and science."

"When is your exam?"


Along with club activities, and juku (cram school, after school school). Many high schools have rules against students having part-time jobs, but some do that. One of our students is a short-order cook at Denny's on Saturday mornings, and she loves it.

But pressure. Friday, our Super-English High School Girl came 5 minutes late, which for her is early; she's sometimes as much as 45-minutes late. She came in out of breath.

"Sorry," she said breezily.

"No problem," I told her. It really doesn't matter to me. I can slow the lesson down or speed it up.

"We're having this debate," she said by way of explanation. She actually told me about this earlier in the week, and I understood. It's the way of the Japanese high school student. She's in her school's international program, and on the student council, both of which keep her snowed under with activities and projects after hours, so she's often late or absent to her English lessons at our school.

Then she sniffled and lowered her head.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

Some huge shiny tears ran down her cheeks and her face was red. "I'm... just... too... busy," she said, in a squeaky voice.

"I'm sorry..."

"No, you don't have to be sorry..."

And then she straightened up and was back to her usual smiling self. Pressure. It gets to everyone from time to time.

This weekend I didn't do a whole lot in town. I spent a most of my Saturday straightening up my living room for the holidays. One thing I've inherited from my mom is the desire to have a nice, orderly and clean environment for Christmas. The last Christmas I spent in Japan was depressing not only because I was away from my family and working that day, but also because our apartment was cold, drafty, dingy and smelled like combination gorilla cage and dive bar.

Partially because the kitchen pantry had approximately 10,000 empty beer cans and liquor bottles piled all over the shelves, and dead birds rotting away behind them.

Sunday, I tried to see Casino Royale, the first Bond film since the Sean Connery films that features a plausible Bond. The 15:05 showing was sold out, and I didn't feel like waiting around until 18:30 to see the next one.

I'm holding out for Tokyo. Then things will come alive. I know it.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

"Ukifune" video- more Go!Go!7188...

This song rocks hard. Very hard indeed. This is one I love to listen to over my headphones on a shinkansen ride, gliding past the ugly city sprawled at the foot of Mt. Fuji under a thin winter sun, at 300 km/h.

That's 186 mph to you and me, Russ.

Here's a Little More Tokyo!

Not really. I just thought you should see what a Tokyo train station looks like. In two weeks, I'll be here:

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This is the Shinjuku station... I think. Eerie yet dull flourescent lights, lots of English signage. But it can still be confusing, even daunting, especially during rush hours. This place was even worse last December because they were remodelling it and there were plastic baggies hanging from the ceiling and ten times the noise and murk.

The typical Tokyo station is underground, with news stands and snack kiosks (like mini-convenience stores) all around. The Shibuya and Shinjuku stations are under department stores or massive shopping complexes. You can take the steps up into the city itself, or into the stores filled with high-priced designer goods and larger-than-life photos of actresses and models.

These places typically make Christmas shopping in the States look like afterhours.

If you're really interested in the hustle and bustle of major megalopolitan life, visit me and I'll take you there. Probably we should use some sort of tether line like the professional mountaineers do though, in case there's a danger we'll get separated or one of us should be sucked into some kind of consumerist crevass and forced to purchase Louis Vuitton handbags and perfume that makes you smell like Maria Sharapova.

Actually, the Harajuku station is a quaint old-fashioned open-air platform with a great view of Takeshita-dori and all the fashion girls there. And the platform that leads to the Hachiko exit in Shibuya is elevated, and you have to go downstairs to the the groundlevel ticket machines and exit/entrance.

Tokyo Terminal, from where the Yamanote, Chuo and shinkansen lines ebb and flow is ridiculously massive, with all kinds of book and clothing stores right in the station itself. I get lost in the main area just about everytime I stop there!

If you leave the Shinjuku station from the Kabuki-cho exit, you're right back here:

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Just cross the street towards Studio Alta. I've taken so many photos of this view, it's getting to be a personal cliche. I love this photo, though. It has a strong contrast between the brilliance of the blue winter sky and the electric mayhem below, signified by all the bright red signs.

This New Year's Day, 2005. Later, I got lost in Shibuya... not very many people out and about because a lot of places were closed. On days like this the pace is less frenetic and you can really drink in your surroundings. Even if there is a bit less to see.

And there's the tiny pink Nova Usagi in the distance on top of Shinjuku Honko. I wonder if kids really like Nova Usagi. A lot of the teachers heaped abuse on the poor li'l rabbit, but I actually enjoyed Nova Usagi's confident attitude... always walking around hands-on-hips with her eyes shut.

Yes, I think Nova Usagi is a girl. There's one image of her wearing a ballerina tutu but everything else she does is non-gender specific.

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Here's a big poster advertising The Incredibles, which was known simple as Mr. Incredible in Japan. That's Pa Incredible and his daughter Mabel. I think that image is from the barn-raising scene where the Incredible family uses their immense powers to build a barn and milk 50 cows for market in less than 15 seconds.

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This shows you how large this poster was. I call this my "National Geographic shot." It has the feel of one of their photos from a story illustrating big city life in modern Tokyo. I guess there's some kind of social commentary I'm making here about commerce and the predominance of Western pop culture around the world.

Or maybe I just liked the brightly colored superheroes and the dudes selling stuff in front of and beside them!

There are a lot of shoe stores along this street. An abnormally large number, so I think I'll call it Shoe Avenue from now on. All day long trucks unload hundreds of boxes of Nikes and Converse and who knows what all and store clerks rush out and hurry the merchandise into these stores.

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This is more Shinjuku. This is in Kabuki-cho, or near Kabuki-cho or some damn place! It's back towards Koma Stadium. I cropped it out but there should be a McDonald's sign on the far left. Kabuki-cho loves McDonald's and McDonald's loves Kabuki-cho.

Hmm... in 14 days I'll be walking this street again.

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This is the shop where you can get practically anything. The have electronics, cup-a-noodle ramen, light bulbs, cellphone rechargers, paper plates, disposable hashi, over-the-counter allergy remedies, household cleaners, Zippo lighters, sunglasses, business attire including ties, sportswear, toys, candy, snacks, and a surprisingly well-stocked sex fantasy section catering to whatever lingerie, cheerleader or schoolgirl fetish the modern young pervert might have.

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This smoking guy didn't want his photo taken. But we all don't want things we... uh... can't have. I think he looks cool. Maybe I'll create a cartoon or comic character based on him. A little Tokyo tough guy, pretty conservative in outlook but a nice enough person if you don't screw with him. Yeah!

And this, once more, is my favorite shabu-shabu restaurant. I think I'll give 'em a treat and make them clean up after my sloppy shabu-shabu stylings next month. The funny thing is, I don't know if their smiles mean they like me or if they're just being polite and they hate my smelly gaijin ass.

You really just do not see too many foreigners in this particular section of town, other than the random Southies from Boston who troll for dance club and strip club customers. So I don't know. The people seem nice enough but I do feel a little out of place there, unlike in Shibuya where a lot of people I've run into speak at least a little English, and the staff at the Outback Steakhouse and even some at Shakey's Pizza are very fluent.

I am the perfect example of the Clueless American Abroad, blustering about all oversized and overconfident, secure in my bubble of American invulnerability. And all this time I was convinced otherwise!

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And this is actually Shibuya the previous night- New Year's Eve. I don't know why I put this here, because I tried to organize these photo essays geographically, as if we were taking a walking tour.

For today's, it's as if we walked from the Shinjuku station to the shabu-shabu restaurant... which takes maybe 5 minutes in real time.

I really took those photos going the opposite way. I stopped in an AM-PM combini and bought a disposable camera and the first shot I took was the smoking guy walking by that shabu-shabu restaurant.

But I forgot to include this pic the other day. Lots of lights, lots of people out strolling, banners advertising the new Exile release flapping in the wind from the lamposts.

And yes, that guy on the right is wearing sunglasses at night. That's so he can so he can so he can even watch you breathe.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

News from Japan!

Transitory Nature of Teaching

I got some bad news last night. Every Wednesday, I've been teaching a family. Together. Dad, Mom and daughter. They're taking our lowest level and while they're not exactly English beginners, many of the basics- vocabulary and pronunciation- are new to them.

I've really enjoyed teaching them. As a trio, they're enthusiastic learners and few of our students are as hardworking. They help each other out, compare notes and generally seem to enjoy the lessons. Which means I also enjoy them.

But last night, the father told me that was their last lesson. Next week, they'll take the level test and then we'll part ways.

Such is the life of an English teacher. And life in general. People come into your life, you come to depend on their presence, and then they go away. I still think about my Nova kids, my regular Saturday bunch. They seemed to like me and in the end, I abandoned them. Moved on. It was time, but still...

Transitory Nature of Fame

Speaking of moving on, fallen J-Idol Hirosue Ryoko has separated from her husband, according to some reports. To me, this is infinitely more fascinating than learning against my will that Britney Spears and Paris Hilton have become best friends or that Lindsay Lohan has been sober for 2 weeks.

Eh... not really.

To be honest, celebrity personal lives whether they're Japanese, American or hybrids of Venusian/Martian stock are boring. Well, maybe not that last one. But the others, definitely.

The thing that's interesting is the way the arc is severely shortened here. A meteoric rise, followed by an equally spectacular fall. But instead of playing out over a decade or so, the Japanese version happens in about 3 years.

The pop culture scene here is littered with celebrity casualties. One young actor had some tv hits early on, got busted for pot and poof... no more career. Hard Gay made a big splash a couple of years ago, but if my students are to be believed, he's already worn out his welcome. There are a few who become evergreen- Hamasaki Ayumi has maintained her stratospheric popularity in the notoriously fickle world of J-Pop, as has Amuro Namie.

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Hirosue Ryoko at the beginning
of her career.

Hirosue Ryoko, on the other hand? She's managed to hang on for 10 years or so, but has never fully capitalized on the goodwill she garnered early on in her career. So her story is a cautionary tale of bungling and bad publicity.

She emerged in the mid-90s as a cutesy, tomboyish type, fronting ad campaigns for Clearasil, Nintendo and DoCoMo. Following the Japanese celebrity model, hit singles and tv shows came next, and movie roles. Girls even copied her hairstyle. Then her career peaked with an appearance in the Luc Besson-produced international film Wasabi, starring as Jean Reno's half-Japanese daughter.

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Hirosue Ryoko flashing the weird Fruits-style in Wasabi.

And then the bad times came. Wasabi garnered only middling reviews, and some startlingly negative ones for Ryoko herself (she played one of Besson's trademark crazy-haired girl waifs, sharing hair color with LeeLoo from Fifth Element and the orphan-in-danger characteristics of Natalie Portman in The Professional) and didn't open up higher profile roles for her.

Soon, there were media reports of erratic behavior, attacks on her fluctuating weight, all of it capped with a shotgun marriage to her male model/fashion designer/Shibuya streetfighting boyfriend. And now their alleged separation.

All this before she was 26.

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Hirosue Ryoko today, a
working mom, older and hopefully
much wiser.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

This is GO!GO!7188...

It's a Japanese rock trio with one of the most amazing lead singers I've ever heard. In this song she really goes to town.

A good friend of mine introduced me to this band. This isn't my favorite song of theirs. There's another really cool song that combines a traditional Japanese melody with hard rock guitar and drums... this particular friend of mine sings it whenever we do karaoke.

She's a good singer in her own right.

So here are my Rules for Doing Karaoke the Super-Gaijin '76 Way:

1) In deference to Puffy AmiYumi, pronounce it kah-rah-oh-kay. No stress on any syllable. Not "carry-oh-kee."
2) Everyone sings.
3) Do not complain about anyone's song choice. Your turn will come soon enough.
4) One song, then pass the mic.
5) Do not under any circumstances cancel another person's song unless they ask you to. This is grounds for an immediate ass-kicking.
6) Leave the room, lose your turn.
7) Applaud and cheer your friends' efforts.
8) Have fun!

As far as the songs you choose, that's up to you. I favor a mix of songs you can actualyl song along with songs that are nearly impossible. I can rock out on any Beatles song, most Nirvana, Pixies, Elvis Costello, Kinks, Clash, Paul Simon and Talking Heads.

Other recommended groups include J. Geils Band, Van Halen (my version of "Hot for Teacher" is a scorcher) and if I'm feeling it, Metallica.

Songs I'm not so good at but love to sing include "To Sir With Love" by Petula Clark, "Whole New World" from Aladdin (but only in a duet) and anything by either the Carpenters or Freddy Fender.

Songs I want to attempt in the future? "Moon River." That's up there on my list. I'd also like to work my way through the Dean Martin song catalog and see if I can't do something with "9 to 5" by Dolly Parton.

Trust me- you haven't been to karaoke until you've been there with me. It's performance art. Before I quit going with the other Nova teachers (it became like being locked in a broom closet with one hundred Ebola monkeys, only less fun) I was legendary for my table-sprawling, go-for-the-glory performances.

Rock star. With karaoke, everyone's a rock star. Everyone's in show business.

Here's the greatest guitar solo of all time...

It's in this Electric Eel Shock video-

Monday, December 11, 2006

Nova Teachers...

Tonight, after work, baking brownies in my belly, cutting behind the Staba/Nova building to make the bus stop in time for the #9 home, I had the pleasure of walking behind a couple of Nova teachers.

Two tall guys, bundled against the cold. One was pushing his bike, the other was clutching a book. And they were engaging in the Official Sport of Nova Teachers, badmouthing the Japanese.

Something about a little kid saying, "Gaijin!" when encountering the bike guy somewhere in Hamamatsu or nearby. That part of the conversation, I missed.

"His mom slapped him," said bike guy.

"She slapped him?"

"Well, it could've been like-" (here he mimed giving a high-five) "-like for a kid getting the square shape in the square hole."

They chuckled.

That was one of the milder examples of the Official Nova Sport. In Toyohashi, we had teachers who hated, just absolutely loathed, everything about Japan and they were vocal about it. One guy was always telling me to read Dogs and Demons, by Alex Kerr.

Dogs and Demons is a critical analysis of modern Japanese culture, but it's one of those books that poses a thesis, then uses only the facts that support said thesis and none that disprove it. So it's the perfect book to read if you come to Japan to be constantly disgruntled.

Something about Japan put a bug up Kerr's ass, so he went and wrote a completely one-sided treatise about it. It's not that he's particularly wrong about the problems here, it's just that he's so pissed off about it, like it's a personal affront that Japan, of all places, should have a downside. But forget balancing out his arguments with examples that counter them- he wouldn't have a book then.

I thumbed through it, read the chapter on Japanese cinema and found it full of strawman arguments and other such fallacies academic types know the names for. I don't know the terms, just what they look like in the wild, in their natural state. For example, on the printed pages of Dogs and Demons.

Kerr argues that Japanese cinema is uncreative compared to Hollywood's, and how the Japanese produce virtually nothing but Pokemon anime and Pokemon anime sequels.

Never mind Kitano Takeshi's crime dramas and Zatoichi remake that featured a tap-dancing finale, or Takashi Miike's cross-genre insanity, or the continuing brilliance of Miyazaki Hayao and Studio Ghibli, or the new wave of Japanese horror (that Hollywood, by the way, can't seem to remake fast enough), or clever feel-good movies like Waterboys or Swing Girls (to be honest, they're basically the same film, the latter substituting big band jazz for the former's synchronized swimming) or all the other films I can't be bothered to list because smacking down Dogs and Demons is like beating a baby at poker.

Obviously, as a modern society, Japan has a number of problems. There's not a First World industrialized nation that doesn't have negatives to go with the positives. I'm not going to list either now, but I'm going to tell you I believe it's not even a 50-50 split. Things are mostly good.

Dogs and Demons and the Official Nova Sport appeal to the kinds of people who think only the negatives in life are real. You know- there are people starving in the world, so that offsets the efforts of others to feed them. There are wars, so let's not talk about people trying to make peace. There are crappy movies starring Vin Diesel, so let's ignore the ones starring Zhang Ziyi.

It's not just Nova teachers, most of whom are actually just young kids out for a good time. A lot of non-Nova gaijin here do the same thing. It's practically all some of them have in common as they spend hours boozing it up at gaijin bars while trying to score with mini-skirted Nihonjin chicks who want to practice their English, spending every experience out in the mass populace here looking for signs of racism or intolerance, at which point they'll react... wimpishly... but then go among their gaijin friends and say "See? Uh huh? Told ya so!"

In fact, even the term "gaijin" enfuriates them. But they're only here to exploit people, screw people, or hate people.

I think there's a cure for the problems in Japanese society these people find- they can get their miserable asses back to wherever it is they came from.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Toyohashi, Summer 2004

The first place I lived in Japan was a small city called Toyohashi.

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If you arrive in Toyohashi by shinkansen, this is the first thing you'll see: the platform. I took this photo after buying a disposable camera on a whim. I was waiting for the newest Nova teacher to arrive.

That's one of your Nova duties- to meet new teachers and take them to their apartments. It's a nice system if you get met by a positive person. I was not. The guy who met me was an arrogant jerkass who spent our 10 minute walk together telling me how horrible and boring Toyohashi is, then asking me rude questions and interrupting me before I finished answering him with even more rude questions.

The guy I met was an Aussie, one of the nicest people I met. He always was one of the unluckiest, and that can go a long way in making a person sympathetic. He had a billion questions and I answered them all as honestly as I could, but I gave it a glossy spin to put him at ease and build up his confidence. He's still there, plugging away.

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There it is, the shinkansen. This one was bound for Tokyo, stopping at every city along the way. Toyohashi was a pretty small city by Japanese standards, and when the nonstop shinkansen blew through, you felt it. A rush of wind and a tiny earthquake.

Let me tell you- I love the shinkansen. While here in the States we can't run a normal speed train from St. Louis to Chicago without crashing it and spilling deadly nerve agents into the watershed, the shinkansen has been running since 1964 and has only had one derailing. And that was in 2004 during the Niigata earthquake!

A shinkansen ride is smooth, baby! You feel like you're in a groundlevel airplane, and the land scrolls along at a comfortable viewing pace. Not detailed, like the local train, but a good fast scan. A cute girl comes through with a snack cart and you can buy tea or candy or chips right at your seat. I always buy chocolate covered almonds. I can't wait to hop on the shinkansen later this month and glide back to Tokyo, listening to 5678s, Go!Go!7188 and Electric Eel Shock all the way.

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Here is Toyohashi's impressive skyline! Downtown is bisected by a massive trainyard, and to get there from my old apartment (Society Hattori, where they store almost all the Toyohashi Nova teachers!), you have to cross over a pedestrian bridge that gives you a fantastic 360-degree view of the whole city.

Which looks like this in all directions.

See the building with the red crane on top? In this photo, it's under construction, covered with this gray tarp to protect the workers from the wind and also passersby from things dropped.

That was nothing but a skeleton frame when I arrived in April, 2004, but by September of that year it was an upscale highrise apartment building, open for business!

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This is another example of the Toyohashi skyline. Gorgeous, isn't it? It's like something off a romantic picture postcard of the exotic Far East! I have chills just looking at that unique architecture...

That's the elevated shinkansen track that ran just a few feet from my bedroom. I could've thrown a football over it. If I'd so desired.

Every 30 minutes, a rush of wind and my futon would shiver. Some of the guys living upstairs complained, but for me it was like living at the beach with roaring breakers. You either enjoy it or just get used to it.

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Okay, this is back downtown. Kalmia. This is the new Toyohashi Station. It's got a luxury hotel- Toyohashi Associa- lots of modern shops and boutiques and the main Toyohashi Nova branch right inside. In the basement there's an anime-goods shop called Animate where I bought art supplies, and tons of restaurants. This one cool dude showed me a nice soba place where I tried cold buckweat noodles for the first time and loved them.

If you want to know where the Nova branch (Toyohashi Honko) is, look to the left of Kalmia, about halfway up the side. There! That's it. There's a little bookstore next door, and ABC Cooking School (no guys allowed dammit!) and a Nova all together on the same floor. Cozy.

Unfortunately, when I started working there the a/c was dead and conditions were ripe for rebellion. And the people were just plain ripe.

The front area, under the arch, is where bands play and people meet. We used to stand up there after the branch closed on Monday nights and drink beer. And also dodge giant cockroaches and homeless bums.

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This is the Lawson near the station. We're looking down on it from the elevated station plaza. That's where we bought our Kirin tall boys.

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The larger street is Hirokoji-dori. That's Hirokoji Street to you and me, Russ. We're standing in front of a small shopping street. To the right is the Seibunkan building, with a nice cd store on the first floor, then books, books, books all the way up. There's a great music shop there where I bought my Epiphone Gibson SG knockoff. On the top floor are English language books and magazines, the best selection before you get to Tokyo. Better than any of the bookstores in Hamamatsu, which is twice the size of Toyohashi.

Another crazy thing- there are 3 really well-stocked art stores right there around the station in Toyohashi. One is the Animate shop, and the other two are at Seibunkan. And one of those is massive. It's full of pens and stationary that the girls love, but then shelves of paints and papers and art supplies.

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And this is that little shopping street up close. Cheerful music plays over the loudspeakers there, enticing you to buy things. I found an Atlanta Braves jersey with Chipper Jones' name and number on it at a secondhand shop about halfway down this street.

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This is one of my favorite places in Toyohashi, Hanamaru Udon. I never failed to get a laugh out of the students when I told them that. Hanamaru Udon is a chain of super-cheap udon shops. You can get a full meal for about 3 bucks! It'll be a couple of pieces of fried chicken and steaming bowl of noodles, but it's delicious and filling when you can't afford anything else.

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And this is my absolute favorite place in Toyohashi. Pizza Patio. Italian decor, Italian pop songs, cute Japanese girls in Italian peasant garb. Authentic pizza. Plus a sign that read, "Pizza is traditional eaten with the hands. Cutlery is available on request."

We were looking at the sign and the waiter gave us a wry smile and nodded, as if to say, "Screw you jokers." Evidentally people were constantly pointing out the grammatical mistake.

Speaking of nods, I went there so many times one of the girls would always pass my table with a smile and pleasant nod of acknowledgement, and the guy waiter would seat me then say, "Pepperoni salami... esse sizu?"

Sometimes I'd crack him up by saying, "Emma sizu, kudasai. To... nama biiru, onegaishimasu."

Pizza Patio closed for good not long after I transferred to Hamamatsu. Broke my heart.

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This was my bike. My baby. I loved this bike, went everywhere on it, and it was the first one I'd owned since my mountain bike in Athens, way back in 1996. Almost 10 years of no bike riding, followed by a year and a half of constant riding. I had to abandon it in Toyohashi when I moved.

My next bike was a kid's mountain bike that was actually terrible on hills. My current one is a third-hand, run-down specimen with two flat tires.

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At sunset, in the summer, even Toyohashi could become beautiful. This picture doesn't do justice to the reds and pinks, oranges and yellows of this particular sunset. And we had them frequently... when we weren't drowning from torrential downpours from all the typhoons.

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Sunkus, another convenience store. Convenience stores... or "combini" in Japanese... are a major feature of modern Japanese life. They're more full service than our American ones. You can even buy business shirts and ties in some of the more fully stocked combini. You know, in case of emergency.

Some popular combini include Lawson, Sunkus, 7-11, MiniStop, AM/PM and Family Mart. If you need something and you're not sure where to get it, try a combini first.

Another tip- try some of the ice cream sandwiches and treats they have at these places. The prices are reasonable, and the variety is mindboggling. I got addicted to these chocolate waffle sandwiches with chocolate ice cream in them... which I bought at this Sunkus, hence the photo. Then they quit making them!

Another tip- if you're starving and you don't have much money, buy onegiri. Look for the one with the blue label- it has tuna and mayo in the center. They're 105 yen and two will keep you going until you can hit an ATM or beg a meal. I prefer 7-11's onegiri, but both Family Mart and MiniStop have decent versions.

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It's Satoko! I snapped this on our second date and wow she was pissed! It was worth it to hear the stream of angry Japanese she uttered half a second after the flash went off.

We had a fun time that night- a garlic restaurant in Kakegawa, then a visit to Kakegawa Castle, a driving tour of her childhood spots, followed by bowling. I wasn't enjoying my life at that time, but getting out of Toyohashi and spending a day with Satoko cheered me up and made it all seem worth it after all. Of course, she moved to Vietnam without telling me about a week later, but by then I'd already decided to transfer to Hamamatsu, and that turned everything around.

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My room in Toyohashi. Our apartment was a nice place, smaller than the one in Hamamatsu. The biggest problem was I couldn't stand my roommates. One guy was a complete asshole with severe personality problems, and the other guy was a fun-loving dude with too much drama going on all the time. I actually liked him, but he looked like a younger version of Jude Law and took full advantage of it, while simultaneously having a serious relationship with another Nova teacher.

What you can't see is that the left wall of my room isn't a wall at all, but instead is a sliding panel door with massive gaps in it. Which meant my roommate on that side and I had zero privacy.

But no one had privacy in Toyohashi. Because the town is fairly small and working class, it has few outlets for culture or entertainment beyond getting drunk in the same three bars with the other Nova teachers. Which meant existing in a fishbowl. Lots of gossip.

Plus, when I got there, the Nova contingent consisted mainly of a lot of very miserable, unhappy people who did nothing but complain all the time. Our boss was a tyrant and a weirdo, most of the female teachers were outspokenly racist and the male teachers were creepy, overly competitive socially and antagonistic. One guy was actually a fat, slobby, drunk bully, like something out of a junior high schoolyard.

Just down the tracks about half an hour lay Hamamatsu, where the atmosphere couldn't have been more different. A bunch of laid-back, fun-loving teachers intent on enjoying their time in Japan and with each other. They also tended to socialize in a fishbowl but with a more family atmosphere where you could drink a few beers, laugh and tell jokes and not end up in a nonsensical, Catch-22 style argument based on oneupmanship.

It also goes to show there's not one representative Nova experience. Many things are similar, but if you're at a fun branch you'll find way to enjoy your time even when it's tiring or boring. If you're at a hardship branch, you'll hate it. Unless you're one of those rise above people in which case I say- lucky you!

Right after I got my transfer approved, newer batches of teachers began arriving in Toyohashi and the most negative ones resigned or otherwise moved along. Things lightened up a great deal after that.

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And this? This is a train platform in a smaller, rural city just down from Toyohashi. I'd gone back to my old apartment there to pick up some stuff I'd left almost a year before. On my way back to Hamamatsu, I jumped the wrong train and ended up here, alone on a train platform.

If you've seen Spirited Away, you know this feeling. Towards the end, the main character, Chihiro, has to make a lonely journey to a distant place and she goes by train. Sometimes, when you're travelling alone, there's a sort of melancholy quality about it. Others may be laughing or talking together, but you're by yourself and you can only observe... like a ghost or spirit. It's amplified when you're travelling alone in another country.

I sat there, feeling stupid, waiting for the correct train to take me home and decided to see what was in my suitcase. I found a disposable camera with all these pictures on it, and a couple of frames still to shoot. So I decided to document this sort of banal place, so very common but still alien.

What can I say, I was in a strange frame of mind. My dad had just passed away, a girl had just punched me right in the heart at the same time, and I'd revisited Toyohashi for which I still felt some strong nostalgic connections. So there I was, feeling out of place like Chihiro.

I miss Toyohashi. It wasn't my choice of places to live and teach, but it had its charms. While I didn't get along with my fellow teachers, I did have a rapport with the students. They, as always, made it worthwhile to me. And I managed to find fun things to do. Seibunkan, AMC, Pizza Patio...

Toyohashi is one of those Charlie Brown towns. It's like his Christmas tree... ungainly, unattractive, it needs someone to love it. I'm always attracted to people and places and things like that, the underdogs, the unloved.