Saturday, June 30, 2007

Girls Will Be Boys... or They'll Work on the Shinkansen!

Here are two instances of synchronicity that I, in my most solipsistic moments, like to think prove the world was basically created for me, rather than the other way around.

No sooner than I wrote about it in my comics blog the Japan Times ran an article at least somewhat related to my point about how this country has a long tradition of gender-bending comics series and cartoons. Usually it's men becoming women, but like in the West, there are some stories of female-to-male transformation even ol' Shakespeare would appreciate. It extends into the realm of television dramas; for example, last August LaLa TV re-ran the early 90's bodyswitch comedy Houkago (After School) in which electricity causes two high schoolers to occupy each others' bodies and learn how the other half lives.

But currently, there's Hanazakari no Kimitachi e: Ikemen Paradise, a TV drama where a girl disguises herself as boy so she can get closer to her crush by enrolling in an all-boys high where the guys excel in being cute.

The other television coincidence is the 2-hour telefilm Shinkansen Girl. This is the story of one of the shinkansen cart girls, those uniformed young women who push the snack cart through the shinkansen car offering snacks and drinks for sale.

What I love about Japan Times' write-up of Shinkansen Girl is how it admonishes the reader to "be extra nice to the young women who push the snack and drink carts down the aisle." I don't need this advice; I'm always nice to them.

And why not? They enter carefully and demurely, clad in their flight attendant-style outfits and give the whole car a smile and a greeting, then skillfully pilot the heavy cart while mountains and sea whir by outside the windows.

It's all part of the relaxing and strangely peaceful shinkansen experience and I've become quite a devotee of these hard-working women. All day long they zip through their nation offering tasty treats and reasonable prices to travellers. Even as I type this (and possibly as you read it), they're being borne along at great speed while we sit and live out this moment in relative stillness.

Although we're all hurtling through space at an astounding 65,000 MPH as the earth orbits the sun.

With that in mind, I make it a point to always buy some Pocky (chocolate-covered pretzel sticks) or some chocolate-covered almonds and, even though you're technically not supposed to, I always say "Arigato" as I accept my candy and change.

When someone works a service job like that, I feel it's almost my civic duty to try to be the most positive customer I can be. I know how crappy it made me feel when I was toiling for minimum wage in an ice cream joint at the mall and certain people would go out of their way to be as assholeish as they possibly could, maybe to make themselves feel better about their own wage slavery.

I don't know if such people exist in Japan. I'm almost certain they do, but even though this is a very polite society in general, people tend not to be overly kinds to servers in restaurants or cashiers in supermarkets.

In America the check out lines and restaurant tables are the frontlines of a war being mutually waged needlessly between the equally tired and put-upon. Hate flows both ways at times.

The war has to stop somewhere, and I see no reason why it shouldn't end everytime I go to Tokyo at 186 MPH.

Oh- and about the solipsism and synchronicity. Obviously, these perceived events are the result of omission. Much like the idiots who think Pink Floyd's album Dark Side of the Moon eerily "synchs" up to the classic film Wizard of Oz (it doesn't), I tend to notice the instances where things validate my viewpoint and ignore the BILLIONS of times things have virtually nothing at all to do with me.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Our School Does "Cool Biz!"

A few years ago, then-Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro came up with a money and energy saving scheme for the government and business. In the summer, instead of running air conditioners at full blast in their offices, salaryworkers should wear shortsleeved shirts and do without ties.

Because a tie with a shortsleeved shirt is the height of dorkiness.

Mr. Koizumi dubbed this concept "Cool Biz." Beyond a few placards (with frosty blue lettering) in the men's business attire departments at places like Jusco and Uniqlo, I'm not sure how well it's caught on around the rest of Japan, but Friday my boss came into my classroom and said, "Joel, I have an idea..."

Usually when your boss prefaces a statement with those words, it's time to batten down the hatches and mizzen mast the poopdeck and all that nautical folderol sailors use when sailing into a gale. Not that my boss is menacing; actually, he's a fair, straight-shooting guy with a sense of humor. And his idea was that for July and August, our school will adopt the cool biz dress code.

"That's a WONDERFUL idea," I told him. "WOO HOO!"

I was already wearing my tie, but I quickly imitated him and undid it and stored it in a drawer.

"We still must wear dress shirts," he cautioned.

"That's great!" I said.

So cool biz it is until the heat and humidity subside somewhat in September. I really don't think our students will mind in the least. And we can save on a/c costs, too. I was able to leave mine off all during lunch and for almost two whole class periods before the air became stifling again. Usually I run it all day long in the summer, and have to empty the collected condensation out of these tall plastic ashcans at least twice.

I think this came about as the result of a joke I made about how hot it is going out to Bentenjima. I was telling my boss' wife about our new trial student there and we got onto the topic of Japanese summer. Every Wednesday, I take a 6 or 7 minute train ride out to Bentenjima, a small oceanside suburb and walk about the same distance through a concrete sauna to reach a large oven where I teach.

Actually, it's a community center and office building. But to get there, I have to cross a bridge over the sea outlet for Lake Hamana. The view is impressive, with a towering highway bridge off in the distance and the Pacific beyond, a red torii (shrine gate) riding above the waves closer at hand, then fishing boats along a canal. To the north, the JR train and shinkansen bridges and beyond that, Lake Hamana proper, then steaming rice fields and houses all the way to the mountains that look like torn bits of blue-gray construction paper pasted against the sky.

On a June or July afternoon, the air is milky and dense, heavy with moisture. Despite cloudless conditions, visibility towards the mountains is low. They fade into super-heated mists.

By the time I'm sitting in classroom, I'm drenched with sweat. The walk back to the station is easier, but the damage has already been done. I'm Stinky-sensei for the rest of the day.

I usually wait until I'm in the community center to tuck in my shirt and put on my tie, but the heat catches up with me there. That extra minute or so is enough to bring out even more sweat.

But maybe this cool biz idea will help. It certainly can't hurt!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Life in a Japanese Park...

Four years ago when I came to Japan for my first 2-week stay, I spent part of an afternoon in the park in Mitaka. Mitaka is a suburb of Tokyo, and I was there to visit the Studio Ghibli museum. To visit the museum, you buy a ticket at a Lawson convenience store, a ticket with your time reservation printed on it in 24-hour time.

Because I have some difficulty reading numbers, I ended up in the park with about 3 hours to kill. After eating at a Mos Burger down the street and taking a bus back to the downtown area where I drank coffee and ate an eclair in a department store, I'd exhausted every fun activity in Mitaka save going into the Studio Ghibli Museum... and I still had an hour and a half to wait.

I spent the remaining interval- and it seemed more like a day and a half- sketching, taking snapshots and walking around and around on this circular path, while in its grassy center a raggedy group of kids and teenagers played baseball. Some homeless people napped under tarps nestled next to the tennis court fences and some fashionistas in high-heeled black boots sat on benches and discussed Louis Vuitton.

If you want a more detailed and interesting look at what it's like to hang out in a typical Japanese park, you should read "Parklife: You'd Be Amazed" at the Japan Times online site. It's pretty long but well worth your effort. There's even a photo essay that goes along with it you might find fascinating, too.

To me, Japan isn't so much Fujiyama, samurai, geiko, the cyber-madness of Shinjuku, the fashion-crazed youngsters in Harajuku or even the high-powered shopping heaven of Shibuya. It's those things, of course, but it's so much more- or even less. Japan is the work-a-day life of ordinary people, and the un-cool areas they inhabit. Convenience stores, train platforms, office buildings, small houses... and city parks. If you spend 2 weeks in Japan you can see all the wild and weird attractions and feast on the pop culture surface.

But if you live here for a few years, you'll get to know the daily rhythms of real life. And sometimes the beat that accompanies your day comes from the popping joints of old people doing their morning calisthenics in the park, with NHK coming over the loudspeakers.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Nothing Much Happening With Me These Days...

But the island of Iwo Jima has been renamed Iwoto. Due to the complexities of written Japanese, the name actually hasn't changed at all. It's difficult to explain- like those subatomic particles that seem to defy cause and effect in quantum physics. Those little guys who go backwards in time or can be two places at once.

The name still translates to "Sulphur Island." Not the most inviting of names. Iwo Jima is sacred land to both Japan and the United States and is administered through the Tokyo city government or something like that. When Clint Eastwood wanted to make his two films about the battle there, he had to get permission from Tokyo's mayor. And he wasn't allowed to shoot any fight scenes on the island itself.

Evidently, there were civilians living on the island prior to the fight who were all relocated. After the battle, the island became famous as Iwo Jima (or, in Japan, Iwojima) but its former residents have longed for its original nomenclature.

This probably won't change anything in the U.S., where people still can't pronounce Okinawa. Or karaoke, for that matter. Or sukiyaki.

Speaking of Clint Eastwood, he has a new status here among people I personally know. That is, the people who know who he is. It may come as a shock to you, but even some of the most commonly known Hollywood stars count for nothing in Japan. Which is only fair, because can you name even one Japanese mega-star?

Clint (as his friends like to call him) took the time to shoot the Iwo Jima battle from the perspectives of both nations involved. I saw the more conventional of the two films here, Flags of Our Fathers, but still haven't seen Letters from Iwo Jima. People in Japan are humbly proud of their little country (although that era remains understandably troublesome and the source of conflicting emotional responses), so when some Hollywood bigshot takes time to try to understand Japanese feelings and points of view, they tend to appreciate it.

This has led to one of my movie channels celebrating Clint's film oeuvre as part of their "The Movie Star" series. And the happy result of that is, I've seen Every Which Way But Loose 4 times in the past two weeks. Also Bird. I wish I could read the Japanese subtitles for Every Which Way because I think it'd be amusing to see how they render the classic line, "Right turn, Clyde."

In other Japan news, rainy season began in northern Japan this week. It started in the Kanto region earlier in the month, and is already officially over in Okinawa. We haven't had a whole lot of rain, but this is one thing that we can't blame on global warming. Instead, it's the La Nina current, which led to a high pressure system over Japan that warded off the seasonal rains this year.

Students tell me this has happened before. This is a problem, too, because Shikoku is already having water shortages. Looks like it'll be a long, muggy summer combined with water rationing in parts of Japan.

I may have some of this information wrong because I'm winging it from half-remembered news stories I read earlier this week. If so, I'm not particularly sorry. Just one of those things where I don't feel like doing a lot of research and linking!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

My International Dining Ways...

I'd never tried Indian cuisine before moving to Japan. Isn't that strange? I lived in a college town that had plenty of Mexican restaurants, Chinese buffets, Italian places and two Thai- even a vegetarian restaurant or two- but no legitimate, authentic Indian places.

Indian cuisine was represented solely by some tasteless offerings at one of the vegetarian places.

Now I'm in Japan where "curry on rice" is practically the national dish and Indian restaurants abound.

Last night, I met some friends at Garuda, a small Indian restaurant just up the street from where Joshin Kid's Land used to be, and a door or two down from the former Groovy Gravy bar. Garuda has the best tandoori chicken I've had here in Japan- big meat pieces of chicken, served to you sizzling on veggies in a metal plate.

Afterwards, I challenged the triple again. Two scoops of chopped chocolate and one of rocky road. That's probably the last time I'll do that particular ice cream stunt but now that's it's summer here, I will be eating cold desserts frequently.

One of the girls working there seems to enjoy using her English with me when I order. One thing that tends to hold back English learners in Japan is the relative lack of English speaking opportunities. So even if the person lacks the Eigo-embarrassment so common among Japanese learners of English, he or she is probably somewhat screwed because the only outlet for using this skill is in the English class itself.

This is probably why so many English students here attempt to do homestays in Australia or Canada. Once your skill level in a foreign language has reached a certain point, that's probably the best way for you to push it higher or maintain it- get your ass to a country where people speak that language.

My Japanese is terrible, but it's so much better now that it would've been if I'd only studied at home in the U.S. I learned basic, introductory Japanese in America. Here, I use it daily and I pick up new words and phrases the natural way a baby might. By osmosis. I really need to supplement that with a formal class, but once again my work schedule interferes.

If I was really keen on learning Japanese- or more keen, I should say- that wouldn't be a problem. There are classes on Saturday morning and some during the week. But when you work 1pm-9pm, it feels like there's a huge chunk taken out of your day, right in the middle when you're most awake and willing to learn or do things.

And the wings on either end of my workday don't really allow for much personal time, which is something very precious and dear to me.

Saturday morning? Weekend mornings are my longest sustained "me time" segments of the week.

My ideal situation, I think, is a job where I work 9-6 and a Japanese class at 7.

I should be working on my comic in my freetime anyway. As much as I enjoy learning new things and want to improve my Japanese at a faster pace, doing creative things should be my first priority. Instead, I find myself piddling around in the Internet... for example, like now.

The ice cream really hit the spot after all the hot Indian food, and it was also pleasant talking to a cute, wide-eyed and smiling young woman in English.

"Thank you very much!" she said chirpily as I took my cup of challenge from her hand.

"You're welcome!" I replied, giving her a sincere smile.

People here tell me I smile a lot. I don't want to do anything to wreck this impression they have of me.

Before I took the #9 bus back to Sanarudai, I stopped by the bookstore in the Zaza basement. Their English book section has expanded and now takes up 3 shelf sections. They have a decent selection. Yajimaya is heavier on translations of Japanese literature, but other than that they have the same books. Mainstream authors like Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling and Stephen King tend to predominate, along with other junkfood books like Meg Cabot's "Princess" series. But you can also find Ray Bradbury, Virginia Woolfe, Truman Capote and a few other paperback surprises. Mario Puzo's potboiler The Godfather has been calling to me lately, too. But I'm trying not to buy anything I already own back in the States.

I read through the Lonely Planet Japan guide... especially the stuff on Tokyo, which I love. I'm surprised they don't mention Hotel Kent or Shinjuku Listel Hotel, two convenient and relatively cheap places I've stayed at in Shinjuku. Hotel Kent is right in Kabuki-cho, only about 5 minutes from the station and you can have a decent single for under 10,000 yen a night- for Tokyo and considering its location and quality, that's a bargain!

I'm trying to decide what I'm going to do for my summer holiday. I know I'll spend one night in the hospital, and a day moving into a new apartment. The hospital stay will be pricey (of course), but I may come away with some time and money to spend on something fun. I don't want to just watch TV in Hamamatsu like I did last year.

Although I needed that last year, time to reacquaint myself with this city and to also develop more "home" feelings about my current apartment.

This year, I'd planned to either head home for the 2 weeks, or else go to Hong Kong. Instead, I may have to shave my travels down to a couple of days either in Tokyo, or else someplace I haven't visited before, or where I've only spent a short time and that very long ago. Kyoto, Hiroshima?

I bought More What If?, a book of historical speculation. Essays wondering how Western civilization would've changed if Socrates had died at Delium, or Martin Luther had been burned at the stake. That's the kind of thing I groove on, being a longtime history buff. I've always been drawn to the science fiction genre called "alternate history," but usually the actual craft of writing has been so poor that I can only manage a page or two, much preferring to take a book's plot- what if England had remained Catholic, for example- and imagine a much more interesting story in my mind.

So it's fun to indulge the more scholarly side of this kind of imaginative exercise.

On a related note, I'm reading Harry Turtledove's Ruled Britannia, which features William Shakespeare involved in political intrigue in an England where the Spanish Armada succeeded and Queen Elizabeth was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London by the triumphant forces of King Philip II.

Turtledove specializes in alternate history sci-fi, and Ruled Britannia is an exciting book that takes a dry premise and weaves something fun and surprisingly exciting from it. The prose is pretty engaging, too. I haven't found anything so glaringly inept that it would kick me out of the story...

Like my one attempt to delve into the pulp stylings of Tom Clancy. I lasted about 20 pages before the ineptitude of his writing overwhelmed the techno-espionage war-porn aspect and I had to leave the book lying on the library table.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Indonesian Food Tried, Declared Delicious by All...

Last night I had dinner with a friend at a small Indonesian restaurant called Sarasaya. It's opposite and just down the block from the old Joshin building. We followed a middle-aged Japanese man up some stairs and because it was only around 5:30pm (which is practically still lunchtime here), we were the only patrons.

Our host even gave us a fresh copy of the Asahi Daily News, in English. At least I think that's the newspaper's name. The online link gives the name as the Asahi Shinbun (shinbun means "newspaper" in Japanese), but be that as it may, this newspaper reprints old Calvin and Hobbes strips. We used to get it in the teachers' room at my old Nova school and we always pored over it obsessively.

I have a feeling some of us took it to the bathroom and probably rested it either on the filthy floor or against the e-coli laden stall walls while holding it with their pants down during lunch period.

But the copy at Sarasaya was pristine and untouched by grubby hands until we despoiled it.

The host also gave us a helpful reading of the daily specials in broken English. It was obviously a struggle for him, so I appreciated his making the effort.

One constant factor when you're an English-speaking foreigner living in Japan is the profound embarrassment many Japanese feel when forced to use their meagre English language skills. Sure, some people revel in the opportunity, like the older woman who chirped "Thank you" to me and then cackled with delight after I kindly gestured that she could exit the elevator ahead of me.

Or the Bentenjima schoolkids in their yellow plastic helmets who I meet crossing the bridge there almost every Wednesday and who will greet me with a cheerful "Hello" one after the other, forcing me to repeatedly respond in a sort of verbal high-five social ceremony, or that stupid thing we were always forced to do after youth league baseball games- meet the enemy on the mound and tell each other "Good game" over and over and completely insincerely.

The kids also get a huge kick out of it.

But for your average workaday computer store cashier or restaurant employee, the thought of having to interact with a confident, cocky gaijin in English is the stuff of high school class nightmare. You can see obvious fear on their faces, the mental block so overwhelming that even your own attempt to use put them at ease by using infant-level Japanese results in a Japanese person saying, "Thank you" and an American replying "Do itashimashite" and both having a mental breakdown.

Language is one of our great barriers to communication. Maybe we should abolish it.

My friend had a tuna steak that looked like a sauce-covered work of art, and I had this amazing-looking grilled chicken in cream sauce with mushrooms and onions, along with a generous wedge of naan and a plate of rice. We both had salads with some sort of mild ginger dressing.

Lemme tell ya... that chicken dish was delicious. It was so tasty, I could've eaten another complete helping even past the point where my appetite was sated. And I was definitely full after I finished off all my courses. All that for under 20 bucks; a bargain by Japanese dining out standards.

Still, being loaded up on creamy chicken and mushrooms didn't stop me from Challenging the Triple at Baskin-Robbins. "Challenge the..." is a fairly new concept in Japanese English, quickly assuming the commercial status of adding "the" to the middle of phrases for no reason, a la the popular new apartment highrise here in Hamamatsu called "Tower The First," or the well-received annual sales event known as "Jusco The Bargain."

That's why I'm implementing a new concept in my classes- Challenge the English.

Baskin-Robbins' Challenge the Triple campaign adds a third scoop to your Regular Double at no extra charge. That's a pile of ice cream! I highly recommend anyone currently in Japan who is also an ice cream lover to rise to meet this challenge, maybe even to the point of administering beatings to various members of the rock group Survivor afterwards.

With our ice cream, we had nowhere in particular to go. Downtown Hamamatsu was becoming a hotbed of nocturnal fun, with groups of sharply-dressed young people looking for fun in the restaurants, bars and izakaya that abound in Kajimachi, and up and down Yuraku-gai and Mall streets. We sat in front of Zaza City, joined by a friendly homeless guy with a missing tooth.

I had to point out our similarity at this point to Goober and Gomer Pyle, two country boys come to town on a Saturday night without dates. Eating ice cream, no plans, no girls.

Around 9:30 or so we met up with some people then went to Tengu, the underground izakaya. The hours of 9 to about 11 make up prime restuarant eating time in Japan, so if you're in Hamamatsu and out on a Saturday night, you need to have made reservations. Because there is virtually no chance in hell you're going to get seated in any restuarant worth the time.

But if all else fails, you can probably get a table at Tengu, where the food is pretty decent and reasonably priced. Being underground and near the station means you're away from the bustle of Kajimachi. You can easily eat and walk back there without too much of a time lapse, and Tengu itself can be pretty fun.

By the time we were finished eating, the need for karaoke had surfaced in the group. We tried both U-Style and Shidax, but learned another lesson that should've been prior knowledge- after dining time comes singing time in Japan. It was now around 11pm, so of course all the karaoke places were jammed up, with long wait times for rooms.

And I do mean long wait times- with karaoke sessions sometimes running 4 hours or more, unless you have a reservation you just might end up out of luck and out on the street.

Like the poor guy on the sidewalk opposite U-Style. Surrounded by his friends (who had helpfully put his head inside a large, clear plastic garbage bag in case of leakage), he collapsed against the building behind him, his head between his knees, his arms stretched out loosely in front. King of Saturday Night!

Come to think of it... he wasn't the only party casualty we encountered that night. On our way to Tengu, we came upon a group of young guys trying to force one of their more inebriated members into the backseat of a taxi. One guy was berating him loudly in Japanese, perhaps for being a shameful lightweight and while entering a taxi should take no more than 5 seconds at most, by the time we were able to cross the street several minutes later, the drunky was still not in the cab.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Miss Universe Wants to be a Hero...

Newly crowned Miss Universe Riyo Mori (or as we say here in Japan, Mori Riyo) wants to be on the cult hit TV show Heroes. And it looks like she may get her wish. Ms. Mori is the first Japanese Miss Universe since 1959.

Since she lived in Canada for 3 years, I'm guessing her English skills will be more than up to the task should she land the part.

I've never seen Heroes. Japan gets plenty of Western TV, especially if you have cable or a Sky Perfect satellite receiver, but so far Heroes isn't one of them, as far as I know. Cult shows that are or have been popular here include Twin Peaks, The X-Files, most versions of Star Trek and Roswell. 24 and Lost are crazy popular among those hip to them in Japan.

Bart Simpson is the CC Lemon (a fizzy soft drink with a weak lemony aftertaste) spokeskid... or at least he was. I've frequently drawn him as one of the characters in my kids' classes dialogues and he usually gets a response consisting of the kids whispering, "CC Lemon!" to each other behind my back.

SuperDrama TV runs Dallas on the weekends, Walker: Texas Ranger daily and recently aired the first season of The Sopranos Friday at midnight.

But the "Superman as a teen" series Smallville is also playing here now, and I haven't heard much buzz on it.


Ms. Mori is certainly a beautiful young woman, full of enthusiasm for her new role as Miss Universe. Evidently she doesn't fit Japan's national image of what a Japanese Miss Universe should be like. I don't really have an opinion on this. Still, I've noticed that my own views of what makes a woman attractive are sometimes at odds with whatever seems to be the societal standard here, so I guess I'm not too surprised. That's also true back in the States.

As much as I love Japan, there are certainly some elements of life here that make me uncomfortable. A lot of incredibly bright high school girls in my classes seem ambitionless, preferring to dream of lives as tour guides, flight attendants and housewives rather than careers as lawyers, doctors or politicians. Among the glossy, harcover shashinshu (photo books) of pop stars and actresses posing in bikinis you'll find some of children as young as 11 years old. Some high school girls, obsessed with fashion, will accept money from lonely older men and go on paid dates. And of course, there are the infamous chikan (molestors), lone wolf pervs on the crowded commuter trains who take the opportunities afforded by being packed elbow-to-elbow to grope women's and teens' asses... or whatever else they can get their hands on.

So maybe it's not surprising that someone as seemingly Westernized as Ms. Mori might not strike the fancy of whoever it is that drives these particular aspects of Japanese life.

What does it all mean? I have no idea. One thing I've always tried to do is avoid getting into this "analyzing the Japanese" mindset that so many foreigners do here... at least based on other blogs similar to mine I've read. I can tell you what I've seen if you're interested, but I don't want to make the sweeping generalizations about Japan common where one ESL teacher or another has read the (almost) completely asinine Dogs and Demons and thinks he or she has it all figured out.

Whereas I have no problem with making sweeping generalizations about ESL teachers like myself!

But yeah, I find myself creeped out from time to time here just as much as I ever did back home, only in slightly different ways.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Am I on My Last Lap in Japan?

A week or so ago, I signed a new contract with my school. It runs out on March 21st of next year. It actually ends earlier than it should because my 3-year work visa runs out in April 2008. A short contract, contingent (as my boss told me) on my plans... and the school's plans.

Which means I possibly have only 10 months left here in Japan. And I know from experience how quickly 10 months can slip by. It's been just over a year since I returned and it feels more like 3 months. Or 90 days.

During my remaining time, I'm going to try to have as much fun as I can and do as many things as I can remember I initially planned to do when I first came to this country. But I also need to plan ahead for the inevitable final day.

I'm still enjoying Japan itself, but I have to admit I'm a bit burned out on teaching English. The days go by too quickly and have a built-in sameness to them. My bosses are still treating me well, and the students are still fun to be around.

As a teacher, I'm not so hot. I know that- it's not false modesty. I think everyone's pretty much forgiven my shortcomings. However, many years ago, I rejected teaching as a profession for some good reasons. Teaching English in Japan isn't exactly like teaching at a 2-year college in the States, or subbing at some high school or other there, but it is teaching.

As much as I love living in Japan, maybe teaching English is no longer the best career for me. And my Japanese skills aren't advanced enough for me to look for other types of jobs, nor will it be by the time my 10 months stumble across the finish line and face-plant just past it, breathing hard and dripping sweat.

On the other hand... what else is there for me to do now but teach English in Japan? Take the civil service exam and become a letter carrier? I'm too old for the military, too old to become a cop. I'm done with piddling, uncreative graphic design jobs for practically no money, being screamed at and otherwise verbally abused by small business owners and bipolar supervisors. Besides, I'm behind the tech curve in that industry.

Cubicles and telephones... yuck. Dumpy apartments and lunches at Taco Bell... yuck.

Ten months to figure all this out!

Monday, June 4, 2007

Is My Face Red?

Of course it is! I'm badly sunburned! And that's what happens to your face when it's badly sunburned!

Sunday, I went to the big picnic at Hamamatsu Castle Park. The picnic for some friends' school. I got there at 11:30am to help set up, but everything was set up so I did nothing. Not long after I arrived, the guests-of-honor arrived- the students and their parents. Pretty soon we had a large group of family units sprawling on various plastic tarps or sitting in camp chairs.

We spent the afternoon tossing footballs (a few of these kids showed nascent gridiron skills... maybe the University of Georgia should start recruiting in this area), playing soccer and dodgeball.

After lunch, we made shaved ice treats for the kids then played more games. Many of these games involved extremely tiny children tossing waterballoons at other extremely tiny children. Rolling them across the grass, actually. Or throwing frisbees several inches, then picking them up and throwing them several inches farther. Then waterballoon chases, and random drive-by waterballoon assassinations.

Kids and dogs got soaked.

Afterwards, Mike and I went to the art museum where tons of Disney production art is on display, part of a travelling exhibition designed by Walt Disney himself. It came to Japan in 1960 and promptly vanished for over forty years, finally being rediscovered at Chiba University and sent on its way again after thorough archiving and researching.

It's an extensive collection, and all of Disney's Nine Old Men are represented lavishly, along with Mary Blair and another artist whose name escapes me. It starts with some yellowed drawings by Ub Iwerks for "Steamboat Willie" and concludes with actual background paintings for Sleeping Beauty.

I bought the guide book (a massive and heavy tome fully illustrated and including quite a bit of useful English text along with the Japanese) and a book on Mary Blair. Some of this stuff I'll go more into detail about on my comics blog.

Later, I went downtown and ate dinner at Pepper Lunch. This is becoming one of my favorite treats. It's almost as good as having a real steak.

The best part of the day was when, inspired by the Disney art and the Mary Blair book, I got out some of my old sketchbooks and found the nearly-illegible final letter my father wrote to me the year he died.

I thought it was lost. As I left Japan in December, 2005, I found myself struggling with suitcases that were way too heavy. I managed to drag them from my apartment in Hirosawa-cho to the Takamachi 7-11 convenience store, but once there I realized there was no way in hell I'd ever make it to the train station.

Luckily, I was able to communicate to the store employees I needed a taxi and while they called for me, I went outside and discarded pounds and pounds of paper ephemera. But weeks later, when the urge to hold in my hands something my father created came over me, I couldn't find his letter.

I searched for it on and off for the next year but finally gave up. At least I have his cornbread recipe, I thought. That was comforting. It was written by him in a stronger hand years ago and if there's anything that links everyone in my family to Dad, it's food. Especially the Sunday night snacks of cornbread and buttermilk in front of the TV.

Then, suddenly, there it was, his letter, in my hands again. His last words of fatherly advice and love, written in a faltering hand that's almost unrecognizable from things he wrote when he could hold a pen or pencil comfortably, tumbled from between the pages of the sketchbook. Surprising, and that much better being a surprise because it was almost like having the phone ring and hearing his voice speaking to me again.