Friday, August 17, 2007

Swimming in the Pacific

Today a friend picked me up down at the Circle K combini (convenience store, suckas) and drove us to the shore. We didn't get there in a bitchin' Camaro and we didn't play video games or see Crystal Shit, our favorite Doors cover band.

The beach is near Nakatajima Dunes... actually, it's part of the same long stretch of coast. Behind some wildly deformed pines and a block of slummy-looking highrise apartments of weatherbeaten and stained concrete, along a gravel path and up some sandy steps watched by a cartoon squirrel who informed us that fires were forbidden.

Swimming, too. This isn't the Gulf of Mexico, a briny pond as still as a backyard pool. This is the mighty Pacific, swimming prohibited with pounding waves and a dangerous riptide. And surfers.

This part of Japan is surfer's heaven, even if it is all beach break. Here the waves curl hundreds of yards out into the sea, or rise slowly before suddenly exploding against the shore in a blast of white foam.

But first we had to cross the nastiest looking beach I've ever seen, and I've been to Mexico City Beach in the offseason. Hell, even in season Mexico City Beach can look pretty frizzly with empty cans, bottles, the occasional toilet seat, waterlogged construction supplies and black seaweed strewn all over.

The Nakatajima beach looks dull brown on first glance, but up close is actually a mix of black volcanic particles and white sand. Like Oreos finely ground up by God. It's also a junkheap. The high tide line is marked by human-made detritus of all kinds. Styrofoam coolers (a glimpse of home), spent fireworks, PET bottles and special for today, a battered lounge chair whose sole occupant was yet another styrofoam cooler.

Beyond the surfers, a small fleet of commercial fishing boats trawled back and forth. We put on sunblock and ran for the water. It felt like going a round with Muhammad Ali in his prime at times. The first wave hit me square in the chest and face, a bullish blow that made my brain ache. Later, the Pacific kicked me squarely in the testicles and filled my shorts with clingy gritty particles that sandpapered against my skin. My duck dive technique was more of a one-legged frog dive off a stump with a large-mouth bass chasing me.

And after each hill-like wave, a powerful undertow grabbing your legs and pulling you out for the drowned souls of sailors to embrace you and carry you fathoms below into the cold dark deep.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tokyo Inferno... August 10-13, 2007

Tokyo was a blast. A blast furnace. I hiked part way to the station here in Hamamatsu and caught the little old lady bus to the station and was on the shinkansen early in the morning, and in Shinjuku's fabulous Hotel Kent (right in the heart of Kabuki-cho, near the Koma Stadium) by 2:30pm Friday.

My tactical objectives included field-testing my new Fuji F40FD FinePix camera under combat conditions, eating a steak at Outback in Shibuya, buying doughnuts at Japan's only Krispy Kreme in Shinjuku, loading up on Shakey's pizza buffet for lunch one day, finding Manga no Mori in Ikebukuro, buying books here and there and finally, getting shabu-shabu at my favorite little restaurant in Kabuki-cho. I'm happy to report I concluded all phases of the operation successfully. Long-term strategic results are pending, but we have no reason to be anything other than optimistic.

But I have to tell you... it wasn't easy. Evidently Tokyo was suffering under one of its worst heatwaves in history. Temperatures hit the mid- to upper-90s by 11am each day, with body-melting humidity. Lots of matted black hair and shiny faces greeted me everywhere I went, and by the end of my afternoon rambles, my shorts were sagging from sweat and covered with salt patterns marking high tide for my perspiration.

I kept myself hydrated each day, swallowing 6 500ml bottles of water on Sunday, but only peeing maybe twice all afternoon.

The skies over Tokyo were brilliant blue the whole time, with only a few puffy clouds in the late afternoon, and virtually no wind at all.

My first night there, I went to Blister and Tower Records in Shibuya, then went back to my hotel and had a shower before heading back to Outback Steakhouse. Saturday I spent in Ikebukuro looking for Manga no Mori to check out the rumor that they carry American comics. I found a Shakey's Pizza there, so I also had my pizza orgy-feast. A couple of tables over was a stocky, muscular little guy with James Earl Jones' haircut from the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian. A mini Thulsa Doom.

Manga no Mori was disappointing. I got lost several times trying to find it and gave up more than once before deciding bullheadedly to keep searching. After all, I was already at maximum sweatiness and stinkyness. I found a cool model shop that sells doll parts and clothing for customizing just about any kind of action or fashion figure you can imagine. And true to form, Manga no Mori turned out to be just a few yards and around the corner from one of the first places I looked for it before deciding I was in the wrong place.

Too bad about the American comics, though. They had an uninspiring selection of graphic novels and two long boxes of uninteresting schlock for 100 yen each. Second issues of 4-issue miniseries from a couple of years ago, and a scattering of Catwoman books with great covers but not much else to recommend them (unless you're a big fan of the character).

Still, it was worth it to explore a Tokyo ward I've never been to. So far I've visited Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Omotesando, Roppongi, Akihabara, Marunouchi, Asakusa, Ikebukuro and the suburb of Mitaka. I'm pretty handy in Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya and would make a pretty decent tour guide in certain areas there.

Saturday was also the day I made my Krispy Kreme run. I tried to find it Friday night, but couldn't. Saturday morning I did some online research at a Kabuki-cho internet cafe. I was thinking it was closer to the station's south exit, but actually it's behind the station on the South Terrace, which is across the street from the main part of the station.

Krispy Kreme is a little rectangular building set on a raised concrete terrace in what's basically a concrete desert. Direct sunlight kicking the crap out of everyone in line, the security staff handing out frilly little parasols. I wasn't too proud to take one to spare my bald head the terrible swelling and redness and pain that comes with each sunburn.

The line wasn't too long, the wait was only about 35 minutes or so and they gave away a free glazed doughnut to everyone in line who wanted one. And yes, the hot doughnuts sign was lit and the machinery was running, fresh dougnuts moving along the conveyers and taking on their shiny, sticky glazed coating while delighted doughnut fans watched and murmured, "Sugoi! Sugoi!"

They only let us in a few at a time, unless you wanted standard boxes. In those cases, you got to skip ahead of everyone and go right inside. A dozen glazed doughnuts was 1500 yen, if I remember correctly. And the specialty doughnuts were 1700 yen a dozen. They carry 15 varieties for now. Glazed, chocolate glazed, my favorite chocolate-covered custard and others. And they're just as sweet as back home, and tenderly melt in your mouth. There's no mistaking these for anything other than Krispy Kremes.

After showering, I went back to Shibuya and ate at Shirokiya where I tried raw horse meat sashimi. That's right- I ate raw horse meat. And it was good! It tasted a bit like roast beef.

Sunday was Harajuku Day. I went up and down Takeshita-dori snapping photos. I kept my camera on and anytime a Gothic Lolita or any kind of Harajuku fashionista in an interesting outfit went by, I tried to get a good photo. Some came out fine, but many included giant shadowy heads of people I wasn't trying to photograph, or else vague, colorful blurs. I developed a methodology, but it requires at least 2 people- a shooter and a spotter. More on that another day.

I ate lunch at Wendy's there, to honor my father. While Subway might've been more appropriate (considering how he loved their sandwiches) he and I had a tradition of eating at Wendy's, especially the one in Madison, Georgia on our way to or from Athens. While I was there, a contingent of Americans or Canadians came in, the curly-haired son in his three-button polo looking bored or else wiped out from the heat. His mom gently brushed his bangs with her fingers and spoked quietly to him, but he obviously wasn't having a good time.

Really, it's not a good idea to visit Japan in August. I highly advise you never to consider it, unless it's August or nothing. And especially stay the hell out of Tokyo. I was having a great time, but in retrospect I could also call the whole trip a mistake due to the heat and humidity. And the walking. Tokyo in August is like Disney World at the same time- you're hiking, waiting in lines, standing exposed to the sun with concrete and asphalt reflecting heat and sunlight directly into your face and you really need to be in good shape to bear it.

I took three showers Saturday and two Sunday. After my second shower Sunday, I walked to Books Kinokuniya in Shinjuku and bought some really great books about Japan and modern Japanese pop culture (one is actually a scholarly dissertation on the subject of Japanophilic literature produced both here and the West, and how our differening viewpoints on Japan affect each others').

One my way to the Shinjuku Tower Records, I stopped to watch a fun pop-rock duo consisting of a guy in Buddy Holly glasses on a semi-hollow body electric guitar and a thin, happy-looking girl in stripes and denim capris on a snare, high-hat and foot-bass. They had quite a little crowd going for their energetic, melodic sounds and I watched their show until the end, then took a flyer from the girl and bought a CD single from the guy, who actually used his smattering of English on me and thanked me profusely for watching. That's one thing I really like about Japanese indie groups- when you talk to them, they tend to be really friendly, forthcoming, down to earth and appreciative of your interest in their music.

Then I had my shabu-shabu. I'm getting pretty good at it; I didn't make a fool of myself this time (for once) causing the staff to come help me. Shabu-shabu is also a 2-person kind of meal, but I was able to manage it alone. Delicious, but expensive. I swirled my beef in the boiling broth, watched it turn gray, then added noodles or a bundle of mushrooms as the need arose.

An old man to my left carried on a peppy conversation with the cute servers while he ate a small steak and some vegetables served on a sizzling metal platter.

I tried to escape early Monday because I had plans with a friend of a friend. One of my ex-students has an American friend in-country, and as she was going to be busy with her boyfriend, she asked me to entertain the girl for one night. Our plan was to get in touch around 3pm, so I thought I had plenty of time if I left Hotel Kent around 10:30am.

First, the Chuo Line train was delayed (I wonder if someone jumped in front of it as sometimes happens in Tokyo). Amazingly, Thulsa Doom II was on the same platform, looking to hit Akihabara and the maid cafes there or else get the hell out of town the same way I was. He had a hardcase backpack and was wearing what appeared to be the same clothes from Saturday- a tee and jeans. How anyone could wear denim on an August Tokyo day, on the Chuo platform is beyond me. A man with a superior internal thermometer/temperature gauge I suppose.

And a really silly haircut.

The train arrived and we crushed ourselves into it, approximately twice as many people as could safely fit in such a space. I held onto one of the overhead rings, but I could've simply allowed the bodies around me to support my weight and I'd have been just as safely upright the entire time.

Just when I thought everything was going my way, all the shinkansen were full until the 1:23pm Kodama superexpress to Nagoya. The superexpress is super, but hardly express unless you're comparing it to the slower local trains. It stops at every station along the way, making it a 2-hour trip from Tokyo Terminal to Hamamatsu Station.

Which isn't bad. I always enjoy riding the shinkansen and actually prefer the slower ones to the ultra-fast ones that stop rarely. Only this time I was in a rush. Fortunately, everything worked out in the end... as it often does for me.

I took 245 photos with my digital camera. Some are shitty, and some are cool. I'll post the best of them in some photo essays when I get internet access again!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Yakyu Post...

Yakyu is Japanese for "baseball." While soccer is rapidly overtaking baseball as Japan's national pasttime, baseball is still much more part of the national consciousness here than back in the sport's birthplace... wherever that might be, records dating back to baseball's supposed origins being scarce and hard to come by.

While scientists in the West believe baseball to have been handed down to the Ancient Greeks by Zeus himself, Japanese experts theorize the game was created by Babe Ruth sometime in the late Renaissance, probably around 1519 or so. The words "base" and "ball" first appear together in print- albeit in separate dramas- in the First Folio (1623), a collection of many of Shakespeare's plays. In his classic novel Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships (1726), Jonathan Swift depicts the Liliputians playing game he called "base-ball" (the hyphen would be lost in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906). This satirical passage includes allusions to the tiny ball-players using a strange substance to improve their physical strenght, but then dying prematurely of liver failure and cancer.

Regardless of where it came from or where it's going, baseball is on my mind right now because I just came from my apartment where I ate frozen pizza for lunch (remind me to heat it next time) while watching some high schoolers battle it out on the diamond.

It's high school tournament time here, a time of the year not quite as frenzied as March Madness back home, or September Sullen Slouchiness in parts of Lithuania and Estonia. I think the whole thing is set up regionally, but I'm not really sure. A Nova student once explained it to me, but to be honest I tuned him out part of the way through and started thinking about Star Wars.

Today's lunchtime contest featured Imabari beating up on Higashi. The game was scoreless through 4, but in the bottom of the 5th Imabari started scoring. They scored 4 runs, then added 7 more in the 6th.

The amazing thing about Japanese high school baseball is, these kids look like pros out there. They do some crazy thing from time to time, like turn the wrong way on a pop-up (the Higashi shortstop did this but still made the catch) or overthrow the cut-off man (the Higashi rightfielder did this, allowing 2 runs to score that same inning) but for the most part, their level of play is outstanding. They certainly look better than any high school baseball I ever watched back in southwest Georgia.

I have a feeling either of these teams would literally destroy the best SOWEGA team, no problem.

Another spectacular things about this game was the crowd. There must've been 30,000 or more in the stands. And during Japanese summer there are few hotter places to be than in the outfield stands at a ballgame. If you've ever been to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (the "Launching Pad") in August, or Turner Field (the "Boredom Zone")... then you know what I'm talking about.

No shade, little breeze, humidity over 90%, and nothing around you but steaming baseball fans and baking concrete and steel.

The fans had towels around their necks, or else popped umbrellas and parasols. Two girls were wearing broad-brimmed straw hats with floral hatbands like little old ladies at a garden club party.

Down the baseline seats, the hardcore supporters of each team kept up the noise. Japanese baseball fans aren't like American fans, sitting quietly unless someone actually makes contact with the ball or there's a close play at home, except for one or two middle aged fat-asses verbally abusing the umpire with witless obscenity-laced tirades and ruining the game for everyone within earshot.

Japanese fans carry little plastic megaphones which they beat against their open palms in rhythm, or shout slogans and chant through. The schools' bands play heroic brass instrument-based tunes nonstop. It's more thrilling than the game at times, a frenzy akin to the atmosphere at an SEC football game, minus the undercurrent of hysteria and hate, ignorance and anger. It's the sheer joy of youthful competition coming through...

Actually, it's probably scary to someone unfamiliar with SEC football. But as a baseball fan who's weathered so many Braves games surrounded by passionless yuppies chatting about work or else talking on their cellphones (about work), or University of Georgia football games with thousands of vicious, violent drunks, this is to me what sports is really all about. Not money or steroids or hip flasks (although there was a perks-for-play scandal that recently rocked the high school baseball world), just baseball.

PS- There's a good chance that it was Higashi that was actually beating Imabari and that Imabari is actually Inabari.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Post-Move Euphoria... Fading... Fading...

The move itself went surprisingly well. I got up early Sunday to take care of the last minute details. Throwing out crap, packing up things I needed until that morning, cleaning visible signs of evil gaijin activity.

I thought moving at 10am would be a smart idea. Beat the heat and humidity. But as I discovered at 9am while taking a load of garbage to the drop-off spot, the heat and humidity are formidable opponents here in Japan. Somehow they must've gotten wind of my plan, because they were out in force to stop me. I broke a sweat before I hit the corner and knew it was going to be rough.

My friend arrived right on time and we quickly loaded the first bags. That's right- bags. Garbage bags. It was either garbage bags or cardboard boxes, and I don't know how to say "cardboard box" in Japanese. A short drive later and we were at my new apartment, which is near a coin laundry advertised by a giant picture of a smiling gorilla with the words "Health and Happiness To You" printed under his hairy chin.

So if you're ever walking drunkenly towards my apartment, look for the happy ape. Then I'll show you the picture of the gorilla. It's very amusing.

It took two sweaty trips, but was much easier than I'd anticipated. But you have to understand, I absolutely loathe moving. Moving is my least favorite activity apart from dying in the jaws of a shark. The worst move ever was from Toyohashi to Hamamatsu. Multiple hikes to the train station dragging my overloaded suitcases, in the sun and humidity, no help whatsoever. Not one but two train trips between there and Hamamatsu. And expensive taxi rides.

Moving from Athens to Japan is a close second, but only because I had so much furniture. Oh, and boxes of books. All my college moves were much easier. Just my dad and me, an S-10 pickup truck and a straight shot on the highway.

The apartment itself is very nice. Probably the nicest place I've lived in since I first left my ancestral home, stately Bryan Manor. This apartment is basically two rooms. Or one big room with an entrance hall that doubles as a kitchen. The walls are a pleasantly textured white and the floors are a fake blond hardwood. It exudes cleanliness.

I'm also on the fifth floor of my building. Now I work on a 5th floor and live on one as well. So my view has the same perspective. Although from my classroom all I can see is the massive parking deck of the now-deceased Ito Yokado store, and the courtyard below where high schools sneak off to smoke and text message. I'm serious- when I was on my way to my Bentenjima class two weeks ago, I found a couple of high school girls in their uniforms sitting cross-legged in the breezeway between our building and the Ito Yokado.

Like Quentin Tarantino's wet dream fodder, they were smoking and text messaging with an air of casual sullenness.

From my apartment balcony, I can see other apartment buildings and busy roadways. It's a hot asphalt pizza oven there.

We dropped off the last of my stuff, then went to check on the dog my friend is caring for while its owners tour Europe... and then I bought lunch for the both of us (not the dog, unfortunately) at an Indian buffet. We had salad, curry and naan, and also some tandoori chicken.

After I got partially settled in and showered, I met him again and we went downtown to the big hanabi festival. Every August here in Hamamatsu, groups of men in tight leggins and toe socks walk around with giant sparkling fireworks, spewing orange flames and smoke all over downtown. The main street was blocked off and little tents lined both sides. Festival food sizzling, kids with brown summer faces walking around, lots of jimbei (a sort of short pajama outfit) and yukata (light summer kimono).

We had dinner at a noodle shop where they specialize in eel dishes and soba. It was very cheap and very delicious. The young woman who served us had a shiny wart on her forehead but was otherwise blemish-free and very pretty. The older woman who runs the place grinned happily at us. People here, at least the ones I've encountered, really want you to like their restaurants and the food they serve.

And now I'm at Popeye Media Cafe, just like in the old Nova days of yore, of yesteryear when ice cream scoops were a dime a dozen and movies cost 2 bits but you got a cartoon and a newsreel about FDR crossing the Delaware. I just bought a mama-chari, the ubiquitous girl's bike of Japan, ridden by nearly everyone.

Except the people who ride those folding bikes with the BMX-looking frames and tiny wheels.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Party Time, Conversation School Style!

Friday night we had a farewell party at our school for my fellow teacher, who's leaving in order to move back to Canada and possibly enroll in college there. A lot of students came out to wish her luck and say their goodbyes.

My bosses had the office refrigerator full. I went in to put my daily water bottle inside to cool it and there was no room for all the green tea and beer. They had a visitor, too. An old friend of theirs who's actually a fairly young guy from Canada. He was in and out most of the day, entertaining my bosses with stories of his life in France with his French wife and his current job as a tour guide despite barely speaking Japanese.

Seemed like a cool guy. I wonder how one achieves this sort of life. I could go for a French wife and a tour guide job. Plus, I also barely speak Japanese.

I ended up teaching only 3 lessons. So the morning (actually the early afternoon, but I always think of it as morning because my day is bisected by a late lunch/early dinner break) was pretty boring. I taught 1 and a half lessons after dinner; the high school girls I teach during my second evening class rarely come to the school earlier than halfway through the lesson period.

Then it was party time. My boss ordered something like 8 pizzas from a delivery place called Pizza Time. They have pretty good pizza, with thick and thin crust available. Of course you have to put up with things like octopus and corn on your pizza... but it's still tasty.

Since my coworker taught a lot of kids and was very good with them, her littlest students all showed up with their parents. They occupied the seats in her classroom and quietly ate pizza. That was the strangest moment- there must've been 10 or 11 people in the room at one time, none of whom spoke at all for extended periods. Off in their own worlds, the way children tend to be sometimes.

Although some of these "children" were in their late teens.

Another ex-teacher was there, a very nice woman from Montreal. Our top student, the late-arriving high schooler, was once her kid student. That was 10 years ago.

I mingled as much as I could until a little after 9pm, then headed off to meet a couple of people at a restaurant downtown. They lured me out with promises of karaoke, but then didn't deliver. But we had a fun time anyway.

Still, the karaoke tease has left me antsy to do some singing. Maybe I'll go to Shidax by myself next week, in the afternoon. It won't be as fun as singing drunk with friends, but at least I'll be able to hear myself.

Tomorrow is finally moving day. I'll be without Internet access at home for a while until I can get SoftBank to hook me back up. Luckily, McDonald's has a wireless connection and there are some other hot spots downtown as well. I need a break from all this blogging anyway. My ex-coworker (I'm using ex- way too much in this post) told me there are some Americans living there, but that it's generally very quiet.

"There was one guy who was playing electric guitar upstairs," she said. "But his next door neighbor complained... so he stopped."

That's good to know. There's also a half-Japanese American girl living there who wanted to know if she should introduce herself. If she's anything at all like a certain other half-Japanese American girl I know then by all means she should. I highly recommend it, in fact.

I'm definitely in need of a new location and social environment.

And next weekend, I'll be in Shinjuku, Shibuya and possibly Harajuku and Ikebukuro as well. I've never been to Ikebukuro, so I'm interested to see what it's like. Eat some steak at the Outback in Shibuya, some shabu-shabu and kaitan-sushi in Shinjuku, pizza buffet at Shakey's. There's also a chance I'll go out to Mitaka to visit the Ghibli Museum again... if I can get a ticket and it's not too crowded.

Some students expressed giggling doubt that I'm going to Tokyo alone. But guess what? I always go to Tokyo alone.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Yet Another Typhoon and Other Thoughts...

I'm not sure what this one's number (or name) is. It's over Kyushu now, heading this way. My first inkling another typhoon was coming was courtesy an overheard conversation between the other teacher and one of her students this afternoon. My soon-to-be ex-coworker is flying out Saturday from Narita and she and the student shared some concern about whether or not the typhoon would be raging around the airport that day.

Sure, I could go do some research about it and find out some hard data, but it's 11pm and I'm very sleepy. Right now it's raining outside. The traffic sounds change when the street gets wet, from engine noises and squeaking wheels to a rising hiss that peaks just outside my apartment then dies away as the car passes. If I wake to that sound, I know it rained overnight.

I'm approaching my last couple of days in Sanaru-dai. My packing is about 85% complete; a rough estimate but accurate enough. Tomorrow and Saturday I'll finish that last 15% and do a little light cleaning. My boss has leased this apartment for about 12 years now, so he's already kissed the key money goodbye.

In fact, he's so confident the landlord is going to screw him, he told me not to bother cleaning the place. That surprised me, because he's a stickler for doing things the right way.

Still, because I consider myself an ambassador without portfolio for my country, I'll clean up the most obvious messes.

Today I realized even if I wasn't changing places this weekend, I'd have to eventually anyway. This place is just about worn out. As I've probably written, the floors are getting soft and there are problems with the kitchen sink drain and toilet. The multiple floods down through the ceiling from my upstairs neighbors probably haven't done much to help its condition, either.

I have a feeling there's rot and mold within the walls, maybe even in the load-bearing beams and studs. Those soft places in the floor are probably where the plywood has rotted out and fallen away.

Oh, and let's not forget the roaches. Japan is a haven for cockroaches ("gokiburi" in Japanese), and during the musty, damp rainy season they come swarming. Well, not swarming unless you're absolutely filthy. They come in ones and twos in a steady stream over the course of a few days. In my old Athens apartment, I probably killed 3 or 4 total over the course of 6 years. That's one month's bag here in Japan. You can kill that many on a bad day.

Still, I'll miss this place. It's at least as large as that old Athens apartment, and since the two idiots upstairs moved out and were replaced by a pleasant married couple, the noise levels have dropped to something very tolerable. Especially when the noise is merely the sounds of children playing.

The trees are full of loudly buzzing cicadas, like a constant electric spark. Crows feast on them, causing the buzz to rise in pitch, becoming shrill. Almost a shriek. Sometimes their bulky green bodies lie on the sidewalk, looking remarkably whole but no less dead.

A day in Sanaru-dai is like this: Schoolkids wearing yellow plastic helmets run along the sidewalk shouting "Hayaku!" while seniors read in the air conditioned coolness of the community center, preschool teachers push carts with the bobbing heads of little kids peering over the sides, Cafe Arcadia opens daily to no customers, the old woman at the Irino liquor store down the road sweeps the walk in front of her shop... and across from her fire engine red Ferraris gleam menacingly in their showroom window, gazing out on the street where they're eager to race.

But now it's night, a rainy night and my kitchen sink is bubbling.

Tomorrow is my co-worker's farewell party. All week she's been receiving presents. I have this feeling everyone wishes I were the one leaving. Paranoia on my part. They don't actually wish me gone, it's just that if given the choice they'd keep her and send me packing. And who could blame them?

My boss laid in a supply of beer for the party. I haven't had a drink of alcohol in months, not since I last went to Tengu during the Hamamatsu Matsuri and accidentally ordered some green tea cocktail instead of plain green tea with ice. People here tend to expect me specifically (or maybe just Westerners in general) to be some kind of lush.

A student actually told me a few weeks ago that she thinks Japanese people don't drink as much as Westerners do. I beg to differ, baby. Townies and students in Athens may drink more per capita, but Japan is a boozing country. It's part of work culture here. Smoking and drinking. Drinking and smoking. So when I tell them I don't really drink, their eyes go wide and they say, "Eeeehhhh??!!"

Which is Japanese for "What the hell?" among other things.

A month later and the same people ask me how much I drink.

If I have one major pet peeve about living in Japan, it's that- no matter how many times I tell people I'm not a drinker, they either forget or just refuse to believe me. I get annoyed having to explain this.

I'm hoping my boss orders pizza. Really good pizza is hard to come by here in Hamamatsu. There are places to get adequate pizza, but with the closing of Pizza Patio in nearby Toyohashi, the nearest good pizza is probably in Tokyo. But my boss gets some decent stuff from a delivery company.

If you're in Hamamatsu, I also recommend the self-serve slice cart at the Entetsu supermarkets. Their pizza tastes a little like Papa John's. While you can certainly get better pizza than Papa John's at various mom-and-pop pizzerias, as far as delivery goes that's my favorite. I've given up ever finding the equal of classic East Albany Gargano's pizza, from back in the day when the Garganos actually operated the place. DaVinci's in Athens had a thin crust pizza that came close, but that place has gone the way of Pizza Patio.

So your best bet is probably Entetsu. It's cheaper than delivery. You'll pay around $30 for delivery pizza here.

One of our students, an older businessman, just came back from one of his frequent pleasure trips to other parts of Asia. This time, it was South Korea. When Japanese people travel, they usually bring back "souvenirs" for their co-workers and friends, food of some sort characteristic of wherever it is they visited. Mr. Businessman brought back Korean seaweed snacks.

And they are delicious. Salty and oily, with a taste a bit like popcorn. Only concentrated in these thin, metallic green slices with holes in them. They melt in your mouth. I'm addicted.

Okay, I'm rambling. And now it's bedtime.