Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Most Beloved Johnny Depp...

Lemme tell you, the person I most envy in the world right now is Johnny Depp. If I survey my students, I guarantee a 98% will report a favorable impression of The Depp, with at least 85% of respondents planning to marry him at some point in the near future.

Johnny Depp, whose involvement in the modestly
successful Pirates of the Caribbean films has earned
him a modicum of popularity in Japan.

While Spider-Man 3 pulled in massive amounts of yen here (and caused 2 of my students to cry), nothing in recent memory outside of the Titanic fad has had as huge an impact on Japanese moviegoers as the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.

Suddenly, people here are enthused about Spidey... but that's nothing compared to their adoration for Depp and the Pirates.


I have no idea. Pirates are amusing movies. The first was certainly a surprise, a dark horse hit powered by Depp's fey turn as Captain Jack Sparrow. The second film was an even bigger hit, but basically a bloated mess that consists mostly of set-up for the third. Which seems to be even more bloated. Despite the summer event trappings, they're still basically fun flicks about pirates, and Depp's performance is such a major component that I try to catch a few moments sleep during the scenes where he doesn't appear.

But why now, and in Japan?

Could it be some holdover from his title role in Edward Scissorhands, a film often cited by Japanese Depp enthusiasts as their second favorite? Was Secret Window and its second generation The Shining trappings so effective here?

Japanese pop and visual-kei bands tend to rely on androgyny or outright femininity among their male members as part of their appeal. So maybe that's why Captain Jack Sparrow- or as he's called here, simply Jack- has such popularity.

Or then again, maybe it's inexplicable.

What I do know is I avoided Zaza City during Pirates 3's opening weekend. Well, that's not entirely true. I took a piss in the Toys-R-Us bathroom because it's roomy, clean and features foamy hand soap and a powerful air dryer.

But I refused to take the escalator to the next level, where hordes of Depp fanatics (male as well as female) were thronging. I'm not certain but I think I heard a faint chorus of, "Yo ho ho, a pirate's life for me..." The scene lives in my imagination, though. A Saturday at Toho Cinemas, with the most eagerly-awaited franchise follow-up here since Azumi 2: Death or Love?

A madhouse, I'm sure. The line spilling out of the cinema into the lobby, the ticket cashiers' parking ticket validation wrists aching, popcorn supplies running dangerously low, leading to a run on nacho chips (a poor substitute). The clean-up crews doing pretty much what they do everyday because this is Japan and people rarely throw their empty wrappers and soft drink cups on the floor (unlike America, where most people just leave them where they finish them).

Unfortunately for many of Depp's most adoring fans, it's also school festival season. Many of them are locked up with preparations for this weekend's festivals, and have been for several weeks now, leaving them no time to obsess over Depp or attend the cinema to get their fix of Jack.

Poor kids. I remember when Blues Brothers 2000 came out and I couldn't see it opening night. I cried.

You Think Those College Football Scandals Are Bad!

Japan was recently rocked by a sports scandal involving, of all things... high school baseball. I come from a baseball-crazy family, so my perspective involves a little wishful thinking. Would that baseball were as popular in America as it is in Japan.

Even though soccer is supplanting yakyu as Japan's national pasttime.

According to a story I read in Asahi Weekly, nearly 400 high schools have been giving preferential treatment to their baseball players. These perks include lower enrollment fees and even free tuition. By Japan High School Baseball Association's count, 7,971 ballplayers in practically every prefecture received these perks. One player from the Senahu University Kitakami High School actually got money from the Seibu Lions, a pro team.

High school baseball is massive here. The yearly championship tournament is nationally broadcast and whenever a local team moves up in its brackets, people around here excitedly tell me about it in class the next day.

Meanwhile, in America... who cares?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Nihon News You Probably... Can't Use!

Friday, I signed a new, not-quite-one-year contract with my school. Despite recurring physical ailments, I'm still enjoying my time in Japan. So much so that whenever I think that it might be ending in approximately 10 months, I get nostalgic and heartbroken over stuff I can just turn my head and see practically any time of the day.

What I saw today outside of Zaza City was a 3-piece rock/pop band performing in the small amphitheater between the buildings. What made them unusual was their mode of dress- they were all in samurai-style kimono. The lead singer had two swords tucked into his sash, and they looked real. Real enough. You can buy metal bladed sets all over the place. They look real but are probably only useful for buttering your toast... and not even that efficacious at that because obviously even the shorter of the two swords is much too long to maneuver against the bread gracefully.

Even the girl handing out the fliers was in a kimono.

The drummer was outstanding. A muscular dude with long, flowing hair like something out of an animated movie, his kimono sleeveless to show off his bulging arms, his playing heavy on the toms in a sort of big band swing rhythm. The guitarist was playing a black acoustic with a single pickup, smiling happily, his face upturned to the sun, strumming away. And the lead singer had a strong voice.

And those swords to add authority.

There are a surprising number of small combos like this with playing skills comparable with any of the best Athens bands, even if they tend towards the bubblegum. Even some of the high school brass bands I've seen have been superb. And Force Studios upstairs at Quest Music on Yuraku-gai has better sound quality in a smaller space than even the fabled 40 Watt; really, there's hardly a comparison. I thought the 40 Watt sound techs were supposedly so competent but they need to fly over and take lessons from the crew at Force Studios.

Vending machines. As you may or may not know, vending machines are commonplace here. And no, you cannot currently buy the used panties of school girls in vending machines in Tokyo. That may have been true at one time, but like the famous "loose socks" the selfsame school girls sport in Western imaginations, those particular machines are a thing of the past.

There is a fresh egg vending machine across the street from my apartment, in front of a liquor store (of all places). And if you go to certain restaurants, you'll actually order your meal by buying tickets from vending machines.

That's right. I ate lunch today at Pepper Lunch downtown. On the right, just inside the front door, is a vending machine roughly the size of an American cigarette vendor, with color photos above the large, plastic buttons. Choose your meal, press the button. Press it again if you want a drink (150 yen, please).

You get two tickets, which you hand to the person working the counter. The counter forms a large island in the restaurant center around which are stools with customers hunched over sizzling hot plates of beef and vegetables.

I think the idea at Pepper Lunch (depending on what you order), is to mix the veggies and rice in with the sliced beef, then swirl it around with your hashi (that's chopsticks to you and me, Russ!) until it finishes cooking, while you hold you paper placemat in front to catch the blisteringly hot grease spatters.

I do most of that, but instead of mixing my green beans, corn, carrot slices, garlic slivers and essu-saizu gohan (small size boiled or steamed sticky rice), I flip my beef slices then eat it all separately. It's a cheap alternative to paying 25 bucks for a small steak and a shriveled, puny little apology of a baked potato at Bronco Billy's.

Should any of my hardcore meat-eating family members or friends come to visit, we'll go there for dinner or lunch one day. It's delicious. We can also go to Sawayaka for a hamburg steak (it's like a really delicious steakhouse hamburger minus the bun)... if we can get a chauffeur.

Every ramen shop I've been to also employs the vending machine ticket system, but these places generally require caution. Unlike Pepper Lunch, many of them don't post little photos above the buttons on their ticket machines. I usually try to compare kanji or katakana but I frequently make mistakes.

Like the not once but twice I ordered ramen loaded with chili powder. The first half of the bowl? Delicious. The second half?

Like inhaling lava directly from a volcano.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Gothiloli Phenomenon!

I haven't been posting enough in this blog. Plus, all text and no pics makes for a dull blog-reading experience. I've got a great scanner, but I hate scanning things. This goes back to my days working as a graphic designer at UGA when I'd sometimes have to scan dozens of slides for professors to use in publications and PowerPoint presentations. Scanning slides or batches of photographs is tedious, a chore.

Here's a mediocre older sketch I did a couple of years back...

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That's not a gothiloli (pronounced GOSiloli in Japan). That's a cosplayer. There's a difference, although some cosplayers might cosplay as gothilolis. Cosplayers generally dress up only to represent their favorite anime or manga characters at fan conventions. These costumes can be professional-quality jobs, too.

This, on the other hand, is a gothiloli...

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Come closer... she won't harm you. She appears to be in her natural habitat and she's not even particularly elaborate in her outfit, although there's a striped-stocking variety just about to pass by us in the foreground... she may be more spectacular. Some of these girls look like Victorian dolls sprung to life.

This is the way I encounter them the most, unexpectedly passing by in a crowd. I've been told by my friend A (who works with a gothiloli girl at Popeye media cafe) they only dress this way for live shows, but you can also find them during daylight hours.

Maybe it's something fun to do when you're not working one of your many parttime jobs.

I think it would be fun to date a gothiloli, at least in the shortterm and to learn more about it. Maybe because the girl at Popeye is staggeringly cute in her normal mode. I can only imagine how much like a demented wedding cake she appears when she's all gothiloli'd out.

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This girl is a bit more outrageous, although her shoes are fairly tame. I've seen footwear that would shock RoboCop. That's more than likely her own hair, bleached and straight-permed. Which, if true, means she's pretty hardcore with this stuff. I mean, that hair's not going to be easy to hide or do a lot with for a more workaday appearance.

But perhaps she lives with her parents, or works at a cafe. I have no idea! Those tanned lazies in front of McDonald's and MiniStop have no visible means of support and yet they always seem to have money for french fries and fleece track suits.

My older niece asked me, "Does anyone dress normal in Japan?"

The answer to that is, "Yes, of course." Most of the people you meet are completely, absolutely normal and mainstream in every way. But there are otaku, the Akiba-kei, the visual-kei... the obsessive fannish types, and they're more extreme here than anywhere in the world. They are the 120-percenters, and they do things Right.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Melt-Banana is in America and I'M in Japan...

How could this have happened? Are we not communicating?

Here's a Melt-Banana video:

You will love it or I will punch you in the face.

PS- No, I'm kidding about punching you. Punching people is not the Melt-Banana Way.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Wow... we need a teacher... STAT!

The woman who was going to interview for the teaching job decided she wanted to stay with Nova. Which is fine... she's doing quite well for herself there. But it leaves out li'l school (and our wonderful students) in the lurch.

Because... my fellow teacher is taking off soon. I didn't know that until I told my boss about the interview cancellation and saw the stricken look on his face. This is serious business.

We have an ad on Craig's List, but so far the respondents have been mostly men. Sorry, boys. The man spot is already filled. We need a woman. I know that wouldn't fly back home in the U.S. but the simple fact is, our student body is largely female and they're more comfortable with at least one female teacher. Also, we're trying to create a nice balance for them. Yin and yang.

I have no idea what's going to happen. I'm not worrying about it because whatever will happen will whether I obsess over it or not. Also, it doesn't affect me all that much unless the school has to shut down.

I just feel for my bosses and our students. They're the ones who will get hurt in all of this. Sure, they'll recover. But to my bosses, this school is their baby. They want it to be the best and they want the students to feel secure within a positive, stable environment.

Obviously, not enough people read this blog for me to get any hopefuls commenting or requesting information. Dammit!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Job in Hamamatsu, Anyone?

My boss told me yesterday that our school will soon be minus one teacher. Fortunately, it's not me. Unfortunately, my co-worker has decided to move back home for reasons that I won't go into here.

Which means we need a new teacher, stat!

Actually, we have a front-runner who can pretty much have the job if she's interested. One Nova teacher in particular came to mind so I emailed her immediately.


In the odd event she decides not to take it, the job will be available. Specifically, we're looking for a woman (sorry guys, but believe me it's for the students), preferably Canadian (my bosses love the Canadians and if I have to make a generalization, I tend to agree with them but anyone nice and professional who can speak clearly will get a fair consideration). College degree. Either in Japan now, or willing to relocate.

The hours are 1-9pm, Monday through Friday. Competitive pay, plus all national holidays. Golden Week off, two weeks vacation in August and at New Year's. Low stress, conscientious students, extremely kind and helpful employers. Accomodations will be arranged.

It may not be open for long (the person I suggested is probably interviewing Monday), but if you're interested then give me a comment and I'll let you know the status and give you some more information!

And Winter Came Marching Back...

Yesterday was a wild, windy day. It started mild, but by the time I went to lunch with a friend, dark clouds were spreading out from the north, somewhere over the mountains.

But first, we went to a very small restaurant run by some of her friends and had an amazing lunch of hot soba (buckwheat noodles), salmon with carrots, bamboo roots and some sort of peppers, something called "mountain vegetable" and rice. Plus a tiny bowl with a little dollop of some sort of cream with a slight onion taste. This was probably the best lunch I've had since I've been back.

After that, we walked to Starbucks and talked while watching all the people coming and going to the train station. Hamamatsu Station is a center of nervous energy all during the day, and the Nova/Starbucks/McDonald's intersection stays busy. A window seat on a rainy day at the Starbucks is great for people-watching, and on a warm, sunny day, you can do the same at one of the sidewalk tables.

By the time I had to head for the office, the sky had opened up. Great gouts of rain more like the run-off from a gutter than normal precipitation began lashing us in a swirling wind. Then thunder and flickering lights.

It turned cold and windy after the rain. Even now, on a sunny day after, the wind is blustering.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Golden Week...

It's over. Golden Week. Golden Week, the week with so many national holidays in it, most people take it off and entire companies shut down. In Hamamatsu, it's marked by the Hamamatsu Matsuri.

Hamamatsu Matsuri is a 3-day and night revelry. During the day, there's kite flying at Nakatajima Dunes, and at night the downtown area shuts off traffic so neri (neighborhood parade groups) can wear happi (short tunics with kanji on them) and pull yatai (beautifully decorated and lit wooden carts in which musicians ride) up and down the street while blowing bugles and whistles and beating drums.

It's quite a show. I went Friday night by myself and ended up eating a huge meal at Tengu, the underground izakaya (Japanese restaurant/pub).

Monday was my first day back at work. Most of our high school students spent their Golden Weeks studying or participating in club activities at their schools. The work never lets up for them. One girl had a welcome party for new members of the Drama Club.

Welcome parties are another fixture of Japanese school and business culture. In April, the school year begins and new employees enter various companies. In order to foster the proper team-oriented environment, initiates are immediately involved in these welcoming ceremonies and celebrations.

Other students, the older ones, weathered visits from friends and family. In some cases, the visitors had to be shuttled off into the houses of still other families... kind of a domino effect. In typical Japanese style, family and social obligations led most of my students into biting off almost more than they could chew.

Still, while they roll their eyes and complain in my class, I get the idea they really enjoy doing these things. Especially if it was a thing well-done. Or maybe not...