Saturday, March 24, 2007

We Had an Earthquake This Morning...

I was checking my email this morning when my apartment started doing pushups. I guess this is part of its bid to get into shape in time for beach weather. A little light exercising to get its muscles used to stress before joining a gym and taking up jogging...

It had a rolling motion and let me feeling a little dizzy or lightheaded, like something was wrong with my inner ear. The most frightening part of being in an eartquake is when it starts, you have no idea how long it will last or how strong it will become.

How many earthquakes have I experienced here in Japan, these trembling, volcanic islands along the Pacific's vast "Ring of Fire?"

Well, with this most recent one I can only confirm 4. I'm sure there have been tremblors or shimmies all along, I just haven't noticed them. But 4 unmistakeable earthquakes where I've had enough time to recognize the situation and reflect upon it while it was occuring. The realization that, "Hey, this is an earthquake," and then a faint thrill. Fear, excitement, anticipation.

In other, less ground-shaking news, last night I celebrated my 39th birthday a few days early, surrounded by friends. We went to Kushitomo, the fried-food-on-sticks restaurant. We eventually had 8 people, and I had a nice time.

This is the first time I've been out with friends in a while, thanks to my recent physical ailment (that I hope is repairing itself through medication) and it was nice to escape the confines of my apartment, comfy though they are.

We ate way too much food. One thing I've wanted to do at Kushitomo is totally gorge myself. I think it's good to get that out of your system, especially when you're craving something. And I frequently crave delicate, fried foods on slender sticks. Mission accomplished.

I can't speak for the others, but I ate past being full, but stopped just short of the "I need emergency surgery" point. For the last two courses, they brought out fried bananas- which turned out to be molten fruit-lava underneath their golden crust- and then a tongue-soothing dish of sherbet.

Later, walking with T in the rain, I realized I'd made a horrible mistake. I should've eaten the fried banana WITH the sherbet!

Dammit, now I have to go do it all over again! And soon!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In Which We Eat Eel Then Save a Child...

Yesterday was a national holiday here in Japan, so I didn't have to work. And I'm glad because it was warm, windy and sunny. Instead of being cooped up in my classroom all day, I went with this girl I'm seeing lately to an unagi restaurant near Hamamatsu Station.

Unagi is Japanese for eel... and eel is good eatin'. It's the local specialty here around Hamanako (that's Lake Hamana to you and me, Russ!) and in its classic form, is grilled in a tangy barbecue-like sauce and served over rice in a small rectangular box. It tastes a little like smoked mullet but the meat is much tenderer and isn't as fishy. The grilled-on sauce is a little sticky, though.

It's pricey. Our lunch sets... which consisted of unagi on rice, a clear soup with a single eel liver floating near the bottom and some pickled vegetables cost us about 24 bucks each! The staff were friendly and of course, talked to my date exclusively although they were all smiles when I finished my meal and declared it to be "oishii!"

"She is happy now," my date told me. "They were worried. Sometimes foreigners think Japanese food is strange."

Afterwards, we walked around downtown. Our original plan was to drive out to the Nakatajima Dunes, but we decided it would probably be a little too chilly out there exposed to the sea wind. The direct sunlight was nice, but in the buildings' shadows, there was a noticeable drop in temperature.

So we rode the bus back up to where she parked her car and went bowling. The bowling center was a madhouse. Every mom in town seemed to be there trying to burn off her children's excess energy through healthy sports competition. And some poor mom were stuck with gaggles of little genki lunatics, tear-assing around the bowling ball racks with a reckless disregard for sharp, metal corners and people lugging around heavy bowling balls.

It seems that the default mode for groups of 3 or more children here is to play kamikaze-style games of tag until someone gets badly injured. Although one chubby kid was getting the ol' sandwich treatment from a couple of his pals over on one of the benches.

All the noise and crazed energy really got to my date, and she bowled the absolute worst games of bowling I've ever seen her roll. She even failed to break 100 once. And this is a girl who routinely tops 160 and spikes as high as 210 on occasion.

Meanwhile, I ran up the scale from 110 to 134 to my new all-time high of 189.

That was a beauty of a game. During the middle frames I rolled nothing but spares and strikes, including my second-ever turkey. I finished the bonus frames with a spare and a strike. It felt good. It felt like real bowling.

Exhausted, she drove us out to the mall at Shitoro... the massive Shitoro Aeon/Jusco shopping complex. En route, she kept us on a steady audio diet of dance pop and r&b, some of which I admit was pretty tasty.

After hanging out at Starbucks for an hour or two, we went magazine shopping. Then...

As we were aimlessly walking about on the ground floor this round-faced little tyke came running by in a panic, his face read and streaked with shiny tears. He ran smack into two very kind women who knealt outside a clothing store and tried to calm him. Lost kid, on the run.

"We should do something. Let's go back and keep an eye on him at least," I suggested, and my date agreed. A few months ago, I was the nearest Jusco and saw a kid in tears, sprawled on the floor because her mother had vanished. Not a shopper stopped to help her, and as a non-Japanese speaking foreigner there was nothing I could do. It haunted me all that night... so I wasn't about to let another opportunity to help go by.

Plus, my date works at a pediatric clinic where she routinely deals with frightened toddlers. As I hoped, she involved herself and soon had the boy's panic dialed down to at least a manageable level. And she did the most sensible thing I've seen in a long time- the first question she asked him was his name.

He wasn't able to tell her, but he did try to say something intelligible. She kept cooing to him in Japanese, then succeeded in picking him up, when the other two women, as nice and gentle as they were, failed. All of us as a group took him into the clothing store, where the staff called information.

Several times, the boy tried to escape, running off crying, "Mama! Mama!" but my date safely brought him back each time, telling him we were going to find his mama and everything would be fine.

The women quickly developed a plan that entailed toting the poor kid upstairs to the information kiosk. We all trooped down to the escalator and about the time the shopgirl was halfway up with the boy in her arms, two frightened women came running towards us, rolling a baby carriage, another small child jogging along beside them. Looking in all directions, their eyes always pointed approximately toddler-level towards the floor, their faces pale. One of the women in our group saw them and ran towards them, made contact and pointed out the child on his was to the second floor.

Mission accomplished. But I couldn't be satisfied until I actually saw the boy safely in his mother's arms again. I had to have closure. The mother child reunion was only a motion away, but I had to view it. I had to.

"Let's wait and see," I said, following the woman with the carriage. Something about my own OCD, I think. If I didn't see it, then even if I accepted it intellectually, I couldn't believe in it emotionally. In my secret heart, that kid would be forever lost.

And finally, there was mom, holding the rescued child, his face still red and puffy from crying. I felt relieved, and so did they. I know they were also embarrassed for having lost the boy in the first place.

"Arigato gozaimashita," they told my date in quavering voices and she waved and cheerfully told them no problem in Japanese. Even the boy waved as we all said, "Bai bai!" in the sing-song way of Japanese-English farewells.

After it ended, I was able to relax and feel good about what we accomplished. The sickness I felt when we first saw the kid was fading, and a much warmer feeling was replacing it. I heaped praise on my date for her quick thinking and calm command of the situation. I was proud of her... and everyone involved.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Let's All Go to Akiba! (Akihabara, New Year's Day 2007)

Back when Japanese electronics were cheap and inferior, foreigners- servicemen and tourists- coming to Japan latched onto Akihabara in Tokyo as a place to pick up bargains. Tiny transistor radios and 35 mm cameras at low, low prices. This was probably also due to better exchange rates.

Akihabara in the afternoon
sunshine of a January day...

Akihabara became known as Electronics Town, and there are still signs that well tell you this at the station. Unfortunately, all the theft-like bargains are pretty much a thing of the past because Japanese electronics are expensive and superior. Now Japan's power-nerds and uber-hobbyists are transforming Electronics Town at lightning magical school girl speed into Geek Town.

More Akihabara. Most of those
tall buildings either sell video
games or electronic entertainment...
or both.

Akihabara still has lots of camera, computer and home electronics stores to keep the techiest of techno-mages in happyland for a lifetime, but the streets and sidewalks are increasingly the domain of the meido... the maid cafe girl in her gothi-loli maid outfit of black and white with lacy pinafores and over the knee socks. The pudgy faced guy on the prowl for anime-inspired plastic statues. And the overwhelmed parents indulging their hyper-genki kids on booster packs for the collectible card games that kids obsess over these days.

Occasionally, these trucks would
roll through, covered with colorful
advertising for what I'm
guessing are cd soundtracks for
anime or video games.

The otaku has long been seen as disturbed and disturbing. Outside of normal society and polite conversation. There were some pervo sex crime cases in the 90s perpetrated by members of this group and believe me... people here tend to have long memories for that kind of thing and are none too shy about generalizing based on them.

These people are thronging
around the open front of an
electronics shop. Staff members
were out front, hawking bargains
and special prices... but the prices
weren't really all that cheap!

So for American manga and anime fans who think it's cute to call themselves otaku, my Japanese students have a question for you:


But the akiba-kei? Now that's a different story.

The guy in the orange parka
is a store employee out on the
street, trying to drum up business.
And succeeding mightily! The
giant head in the foreground belongs
to some poor guy who's still half-blinded
by my flash going off in his peripheral

Action games are still all the rage
in video game arcades across
Japan. This guy's going to town
on a game my friend T loves to play...
you pound those toms while popular
songs play and you score points based
on how well you time your beat. I'm
guessing this guy was fairly good at it,
or else this is a local favorite machine,
because there was quite a large crowd
watching him.

Increasingly finding acceptance in Japanese society, the akiba-kei hobby consumers you'll see in Akihabara have gone from being seen as creepy and possibly deviant to being viewed as softer, and cuddlier. This is thanks to recent positive portrayals in the media and TV dramas extolling their more positive side- that is, if you're a young woman sick of stylish young men who'll only do you wrong then maybe you should consider dating a nerd who will be eternally grateful for your having merely spoken to him.

Across the street from a gigantic
Sega shop. Video games! Video
game systems! Orange!

Yeah, they're still seen as weird. Only it's a nicer weird.

Because I didn't do my homework beforehand, I didn't get to go into any of the hobby shops, other than the large Animate. Animate is a national chain of manga and manga-drawing supplies stores. There's a small one in the basement at Zaza that could fit in its entirety on just one floor of the Akiba Animate.

The Akihabara Animate building.
From collectible card games to
schoolgirl cosplay outfits, you can
find all sorts of crazy, groovy stuff

If you wanna dress like a
Japanese high school girl, here's
your chance! Actually, with all the
high school girl anime characters,
these uniforms are popular with
cosplayers around the world. This
may be an exact replica of a costume
worn by some anime or manga

I bought a guidebook to all the craziest toy stores in Akihabara recently, so the next time I go there, I'll be ready to rock. T wants to go with me and check out the maid cafes. I doubt we'll go in schoolgirl uniforms but we probably will play the tom-drum action game!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Experiencing the Japanese Medical System!

Well, that was certainly a unique experience. I've tried to keep this blog from being overly personal but I think this will prove most grueso... educational!

For a few years now, I've suffered from a physical complaint we usually associate with old people. I was able to maintain some normalcy for quite some time, but starting last fall things began to take a turn for the worst until I finally was reduced to the point of barely being able to function like a normal human being.

No appetite, constant pain and discomfort. Cancelling social events. The last month was really atrocious despite my somehow managing to latch onto a girlfriend... or a semi-girlfriend...

Over the weekend, the condition became so bad I had to call my boss to get my ass (literally) to a hospital. I also had to inform him that I was probably going to miss at least a day of work, maybe more

What ended up happening is, a friend drove me to a gastrointestinal clinic not too far from my apartment Monday morning. Japan probably has big mega-hospitals like those in the US, but I haven't seen any. What they definitely have are smaller hospitals and even neighborhood clinics. The girl I'm seeing works at a pediatric clinic that serves a small municipal area.

And the gastro place I went to is along those lines. We filled out some forms and I got a plastic patient's card, and then we were sent to wait in a crowded lobby. Every so often, a nurse would come out with patients' files and announce, "Suzuki-sama!" and tell Suzuki-sama to follow her.

A nurse brought a comfort doughnut for the old woman sitting next to my friend. My friend made polite small talk with the oldster, who soon proved perfectly capable of carrying on a lively conversation with no other participants beyond herself.

The truly amazing thing is, after experiencing the beauracratic nightmares of gaining internet access and satellite tv... this small clinic was a model of efficiency and timeliness. The gears turned in complete transparency. Patients came by hooked up to IVs from time to time, and the staff worked briskly and dilligently with little or no fuss. Even my status as a foreigner with little or no Japanese language skills caused no difficulties... and I've seen clerks at computer stores go pale as soon as I made eye contact with them from fear of having to do go through most dreaded, most feared ordeal of all- using Japanese high school English with a gaijin.

After about an hour and a half, my name was called. We had to approach a glassed-in desk where my friend translated and I answered some simple questions about the nature of my complaint. We waited a little longer, and then they called my name again: "Buriyan-sama!" and took us to a corridor.

We sat opposite these small examination rooms with sliding plastic doors with metal handles. They looked like cramped medical cubicles more than the comfy yet terrifying beyond all belief doctor's offices I remembered from my extreme youth... the last time I willingly made myself available for humiliating probings.

From the one directly across from us came the distinct sounds of a young woman sobbing. After a while, she staggered out, smiling and wiping tears from her eyes, a pretty girl walking sort of bow-legged and gingerly like an old, old woman. Her slender, stylish boyfriend joined her. took her gently by the arm and they took approximately forever to leave the hallway.

Then it was my turn. I entered the medical box and a nurse talked to me in soft, comforting Japanese and patiently put up with my stupid look and mumbled "Wakara nai..."

She pointed to an illustrated poster over the examination table. Oh. Dudes do it this way, chicks do it this way. Great. I had my pants down before she was prepared, and I had to pull them back up. She draped a large (flatteringly large, I have to tell ya) modesty towel over me and I waited with my head on a square, vinyl-covered pillow.

Beyond my feet was a central hub where behind a sliding curtain, doctors and nurses performed the arcana of their discipline, beyond the understanding of mere mortals.

All too soon my doctor entered and the nurse helped me position myself over another vinyl pillow that went below my lower back to give me the proper pelvic tilt and...

After a very uncomfortable exam that took place with my knees on my chest and my pants and boxers around those same knees, I was told I had a relatively mild case of whatever it was I was complaining about. Which makes me sick at heart for those with worse cases, because there were times when I'd be sitting on the bus heading to work and seriously contemplating throwing myself out the window, if only we'd get up enough speed to guarantee my successful departure from this vale of tears.

The total cost was payment for two lessons at my school and about $150, but I've got meds and I'm on the mend. My appetite has returned, as have my generally good spirits. I feel like I've de-aged 20 years overnight.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Hair, Hair, Hair!

The school year in Japan runs from April to March, so March is Grad season, and our school just had a bumper crop of high school graduates. What is the first thing they did after graduating?

They dyed their hair brown.

Every single one of them! Even the girls who had great hair! Most, if not all, high schools here ban hair coloring or ostentatious style displays in favor of uniformity and group harmony. But colored hair is the fashion in Japan, with millions of people- male and female- sporting brown or auburn locks these days. So I guess dyeing your hair is now an official rite of passage in Nihon.

It's quite a change after seeing these students with black hair for almost a year. Each looks very different now. We do have one girl with naturally brown hair who is constantly in trouble with teachers and school officials who insist she must be dyeing it. Think again...

On the other hand, from what I understand, there's a growing move towards natural hair. All it would take is a popular idol to give an interview extolling "keeping it real" and the pendulum would swing. Hamasaki Ayumi, I'm looking at you!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Thanks, Global Warming!

Japan is coming out of its warmest winter in quite a while. We had a few windy, bitterly cold days and nights but as far as I know my little corner of Nihon got below freezing only a few times. I could be wrong, because I didn't check the temperatures as often as I did back in the U.S. I haven't been watching the local nightly news; I'm not even sure there is a local nightly news!

And while I'm in favor of mild winters, of course... I'm not in favor of wholesale climate change. It may be politically and economically unpleasant for some cynical manipulators of public opinion, but almost the entire mainstream scientific establishment believes global warming in incontrovertible. Those funded by political thinktanks are holding out, in a similar fashion to how the Soviet Union would only accept certain Marxist-friendly genetic theories, leading to failed crops and poor harvest and starvation. All politics aside, there's no way anyone possessed of a reasoning mind can deny that human activity is having a vast, negative impact on the earth.

The end result of this warm winter is that the cherry blossoms are opening much earlier this year. In fact, I was out with a friend yesterday, and she excitedly pointed out a cherry tree in full bloom as we drove past a temple.

As beautiful as cherry blossoms are, and as much as they speak to the hearts of many Japanese people, this is probably not a good thing. Cherry blossom-viewing season is a special time here. One thing I love about Japan is this idea of taking pleasure in something ephemeral. In spring, it's cherry blossom-viewing parties, picnics called hanami. In the autumn, it's viewing the moon, known as tsukimi.

Sakura. That's the Japanese name for cherry blossoms. Sakura time is brief and that appeals to the Japanese soul. A brief flowering of beauty, bittersweetly enjoyed even more because it is so short lived.