Sunday, July 29, 2007

Got Kinda Tired of Packing and Unpacking...

Town to town, up and down the dial
Baby you and me were never meant to be
Just maybe think of me
Once in a while
I'm at WKRP in Cincinnatiiiiiii...

I spent a good portion of my afternoon packing my possessions for my impending crosstown move. I'll be closer to work, but I won't be in a nice suburban neighborhood full of small restaurants and tree-lined streets. And it's amazing how much worthless crap you can accumulate in just over a year.

Baby, I'm a gypsy or a rolling stone. The longest I've lived in any one place in the past 17 years was the 5 and a half years I spent in that dumpy little apartment in Athens right before I moved to Japan. But I moved between Albany and Athens several times in the last decade, and I've even lived in two different cities and three different apartments since I came to Japan. This will be apartment number four.

Just to make me even more pre-nostalgic for Sanaru-dai, last night there was some sort of mini-festival in the park across the street, behind the community center. When I left my apartment last night to meet friends for dinner and drinks, I saw a mom and two children all wearing yukata, and recorded Japanese music filled the air. Kids in regular, modern attire were hiking up the sidewalk towards the park, and from the bus stop I could see they were also giving the swingsets a real workout.

What is it about kids and their universal behaviors? If you put a swingset in a park, kids will eventually show up and start swinging vigorously, perhaps trying to accomplish the fabled 360 around-the-world maneuver. While parents- who prefer standing still- talk, games of chase often break out. And regular walking just isn't good enough. It's more fun to hop, or Frankenstein walk, or do crazy, unself-conscious dances. Or, if you're really stuck for an idea, spin in place until you fall down and feel like vomiting.

Kids are reliable. Most people are, I suppose. Human behavior is pretty funny stuff. We had a huge coffeetable book called Manwatching by Desmond Morris when I was growing up. I liked it because it had a couple of pictures of naked boobies in it, but I learned a little something from it too.

I think.

At the very least, it gave me a life-long fascination with human social behavior. I'm not good at its practice, but I'm a keen observer of the thing we do when we're in public.

Athens was a great place for studying mating rituals. And Japan is an excellent place for people-watching. But I have nothing to share. Maybe I'll start taking notes so I can enlighten both myself and my reader here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Earthquake Hilarity from the Onion...

This week, the Onion ran a funny article about the recent quake in Niigata: "Earthquake Sets Japan Back to 2147."

Most of the Onion's photos are obviously faked or posed. This one may be one or the other, or it might be an actual, legitimate photo of Japanese teens. I've never seen anyone dressed like this exactly, but Japan is home to some creative fashion explorers, so it's entirely possible that somewhere this is an actual style.

And I've seen everything from rainbow beaded dreads in Harajuku to Pikachu pajamas on a rural train platform.

Their nonchalant expressions and aggressively cute clothing fit perfectly with the caption.

The background definitely looks legit. If you're curious about how people generally dress in Japan and can decipher the blurs, you'll see that people here- like people anywhere- are actually a whole lot more boring than the stereotype.

One thing I've enjoyed lately? The return of Hang 10 shirts. An older woman I teach on Mondays often wears a striped Hang 10 tee. I did a doubletake when I saw the famous embroidered bare feet. I mean, you don't want to stare at anyone's chest, so I couldn't be sure but eventually the image resolved itself and I knew. Also, another woman wore a Hang 10 polo this week and hers obviously sported the feet.

I'd almost forgotten Hang 10, but this label brings back a lot of memories of my 1970s childhood when I often wore the same damned Hang 10 t-shirt for days at a time.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Nuclear Nervousness...

Last week there was a big quake in Niigata, one that registered a 6.8 on the Japanese scale for measuring earthquake severity. 7.0 is the highest, I believe. So you can easily understand how strong this quake was.

It did a lot of damage and there were some fatalities, too. But the thing that has a lot of people worried is the damage to the world's largest nuclear power plant, where some radioactive water actually spilled into the sea. The authorities are cleaning up the mess, but you have to wonder how something like this could happen in a safety-obsessed nation like Japan.

Except in rare cases (sometimes involving contractors with yakuza ties), Japan is not a place where people half-ass construction projects. Or much of anything for that matter. Even a house renovation features an elaborate metal framework being constructed on the building's exterior and tarps being suspended all around the site. And as the only country to have been attacked with nuclear weapons, Japan is very sensitive about this particular topic.

The "Godzilla" films are a kitschy expression of Japan's nuclear-phobia, at least in terms of the superpowers' world-ending weaponry. But Kurosawa Akira's 1990 film Yume (Dreams) features a segment titled "Mt. Fuji in Red," where a nuclear power plant near Fuji experiences a melt-down and causes the great mountain itself to erupt in torrents of deadly radiation. It's nightmarish and apocalyptic and really hits home now that I live in the same prefecture.

So combined with quake-consciousness, it's surprising to me that not only did Japan put a nuclear power plant on a fault-line, but the authorities also didn't do enough to fortify it against damage.

In order to save face and restore public confidence, you can be sure the government will expend enormous effort in fixing this problem and cleaning up the mess. But it's something that probably could've been avoided, especially in a place that's so conscientious about doing the right things in the right time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

He's Right!

I just read an interesting article in the Japan Times online edition about Matthew Fargo, an "expert on the Japanese language." Which, I guess means he's a linguist of Japanese. According to Fargo, Japanese people are far from their serious stereotype. In fact, like anyone anywhere, they're extremely funny. And I don't mean in the Lost in Translation sense of "How weird Japanese people are!"

Humor being universal, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone but a complete dumbass. And the Japanese language is perfect for creating wordplay and imagery. In America, we say "comb-over," which is obvious and boring. The Japanese phrase is "bakoda hea," a Japanese-ification of the English phrase "barcode hair." Vividly visual and also hilariously accurate.

The article then gives a few examples of how Fargo would creatively translate certain words and phrases from Japanese pop culture. For example:

And for the Space Battleship Yamato's ultimate weapon, "hado-ho," Fargo proposes the term "Undulation Cannon" to give it an authentic sci-fi feel, instead of the widely used "Wave Motion Gun," which is almost a literal translation of the Japanese.

Undulation Cannon is definitely much cooler and creative. It's more fun to say, as well. That should also be a consideration when we choose our words: Is this fun to say? Do we enjoy the feel and sound of it?

There's also something in the article about Fargo's admiration for a guy named Wajiro Kon. Evidently, this guy examined modern pop culture the same way archaeologists do past cultures, and coined the term "modernology" to describe this study. Armed with that term, I now like to think of myself as an amateur modernologist.

But my favorite part is the discussion of "reversing." In America, we say "puking," which is a made-up term that otherwise would mean nothing but for the action we arbitrarily attached it to sometime in the past. In Japan, people say "reversing," which is instantly understandable, utilitarian yet funny.

And from this Fargo interview, I learned the very useful phrase, "Ribasu suru made nomu de," which means, "I'm going to drink until it comes back up (reverses)!"

Ribasu suru made nomu de. That should be on Athens' official city seal. Maybe translated into Latin.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Typhoon and an Earthquake

Typhoon Man-yi (also known as "Taifun #4," which is less exciting I suppose) swept across Japan, killing three people. The aftermath of a long rainy Saturday here in Hamamatsu consisted mostly of leafy mess on the sidewalks and in the gutters along the curbs.

All up and down White Street near my apartment, the trees shed small branches full of bright green leaves. They were festive enough that it looked more like the result of a wild party night than a storm.

This morning, a strong quake hit in Miyagi prefecture, injuring at least 40 people. Japan is the place to come when you want to feel the earth is alive. And it is alive, a living planet of constant change. I think people who live in places without earthquakes or volcanos, where rainstorms are relatively mild, feel a sense of permanence about all things.

Which is hardly true. A volcano or a flood can bring rapid change in environment, but over the course of time continents move, mountain ranges rise and wear away, rivers dig canyons and coral reefs form and die. What the earth looks like now was not always so and millions of years from now, your descendents will live on a planet that's radically different from the one you see everyday. One day the sun will expand into a red giant and consume the earth entirely.

Permanence and forever are fallacies. Nothing stays, everything goes.

The amazing thing (and maybe frightening as well) is that an earthquake can be so strong that even though it happened hundreds and hundreds of miles away, it had an almost immediate effect on people in Hamamatsu. I was sitting at my computer when the floor began to move, almost as if it were swelling and about to burst. It continued for about 10 or 15 very long seconds.

Time expands in moments like that.

But I'm safe, and so is everyone else here in Hamamatsu. As Lady Mariko says in Shogun, "It is over until it begins again."

Friday, July 13, 2007

Taifun #4...

Or typhoon, if you wish. Also known as "Man-Yi," taifun number 4 is heading for Honshu. Honshu is the island I live on here in Japan, the one in the middle with most of the famous cities you've heard of.

It's been raining for about a week now, a sort of late rainy season to replace the one we didn't have this year thanks to la Nina (although I just read something to the effect there is no la Nina this year... I don't know... what am I, a meteorologist?). And now comes Man-Yi, which has already injured at least 8 people in Okinawa and sunk a Chinese ship.

Airlines have cancelled flights, and J-Pop superstars Mr. Children scotched their planned concert at a music festival in nearby Kakegawa. Kakegawa, huh? I once ate at a fantastic garlic restaurant there with a girl I was dating, followed by a romantic stroll through the gardens of Kakegawa-jo.

But Mr. Children cancelling an appearance in a town that's practically a Hamamatsu suburb? That's actually big local news, much bigger than the rumor that a member of Smap is living temporarily in Bentenjima for the summer surfing season.

For my American reader, imagine for a moment you live in Albany, Georgia. Therefore, Mr. Children cancelling a performance in Kakegawa is roughly the equivalent of defunct boy band N'Sync backing out of a show at the Wild Adventures amusement park in Valdosta. If such a chain of events were ever to occur.

Since we didn't get a rainy season this year, we could really use the rain. Not the wind-caused destruction, of course. Or the flooding or mudslides. But definitely the rain. And there's at least one other positive to it beyond the much-needed precipitation- if you're lucky you might see a woman wearing a kimono walking under an umbrella.

I can think of a few more quintessential Japanese images... but not many.

Monday, July 9, 2007

What's Hot at My School: Billy's Boot Camp

Over the past few months, the TV has been increasingly jammed up with commercials for Billy's Boot Camp, the workout DVDs starring Billy Blanks and putting a group of toned and fit young people through an intense series of calisthenics. I don't object to its content or its frequency; there's one scene where Billy gets up close to one of his "students," and she has a rippling, washboard tummy that's a marvel of human fitness and female muscularity. It's all about aesthetics.

Not a bad way to start or end my day.

I can't speak for the rest of Japan, but Billy's certainly invaded the consciousness of students at my school. For the past 2 weeks, his workout has been a major topic of discussion in the little warm-up conversations we do before jumping into the lessons proper.

Me: What's up with you?

Student: Do you know... Billy's workout?

Me (impersonating Japanese commercial narrator): BEELY'S BOOTO CAMP!

And everyone laughs, either because I'm hilarious or I'm such a dumbass and they're being polite.

Several of our students, including one guy in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (who should already be fit by my imprecise reckoning, being that he's a military man and all) have either bought the Billy's Boot Camp DVD set, or borrowed it, or else know several other people who own it. Last night, a college girl told a class of her and her sister's attempt at working out the Billy Blanks way.

She believes it must be an effective workout because it left her with aching muscles the next day, so she's ready to try it again.

Another student warned, "Be careful, or you will become muscle woman." But after a few more minutes of discussion, she was sold on Billy's Boot Camp as well.

The biggest concern is that it's expensive and they won't use it. Which is a legitimate concern, because we all crack up everytime a student reports a friend bought the DVDs... and then didn't use them, or gave up after one workout.

So it seems some things are international. Like most places, Japan tends to be a trend or fad-driven society. In America we have our Emo Phillips obsessives and our Platypus Man nostalgia craze, and in Japan they have Billy Blanks. Personally, I'd be ecstatic to come up with something that would blow up like this over here.

And... I'm seriously thinking about giving this "boot camp" a try.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Random Conversations!

The conventional wisdom is that Japanese people are shy. In fact, many Japanese will tell you as much. For some reason, I always make a point to tell my outgoing, talkative students just how non-shy they actually are.

Which usually leads to the student pointing at her nose and saying, "Me? No, I am shy!"

But I suppose it depends on the situation. For example, as I was crossing the bridge over the Hamanako outlet after my Bentenjima class, I ran into (as I frequently do that time of day) small clusters of... small people. Elementary school students wearing their yellow plastic hardhats for safety, many of them carrying umbrellas because it was sprinkling rain.

As I was catching up to a couple of little girls, I decided to cross the street to 1) avoid frightening them with my bald gaijin monstrosity and 2) to avoid the awkwardness of having to find a way around them, since their short legs were no match for my long ones and they were taking up valuable real estate. Up ahead, a cluster of boys began playing the fool, and loudly.

When I glanced over, one of them was doing some sort of acrobatic dance move on the far sidewalk. They saw me and started shouting, "Hello! Hello! Hello!"

"Hello," I shouted back.

The dancing kid stopped and shouted something like, "Hellohowareyounicetomeetyou!"

"Nice to meet you! I'm fine!" I answered. "And you?"

He clutched at his face in surprise as they all started cackling with laughter. His English exhausted, there ended his first conversation with a foreigner.

Earlier tonight, as I was waiting for the #9 bus, someone started speaking to me. I turned and saw a couple of young guys. One was short and slender, with a face full of hardwear and a stubbly beard, and the other was a bit stockier and wearing a do-rag.

"Nice to meet you," said the hardware-faced guy.

"Nice style," the other guy said, waving his hand up and down to show that he admired my pinstripe trousers and black Chuck Taylors. "You have nice fashion."

"Thanks," I said.

Do-rag held out his hand and we shook. "Nice to meet you," he said, then told me his name. We each introduced ourselves.

"Why you came to Japan?" Do-rag asked.

"I like Japan."

"Oh. What do you do here?"

"English teacher."

"How long you been in Japan?" Hardware asked.

"Oh, about 3 years."

"In Hamamatsu?" Do-rag asked.


"Long time."

"Uh huh. It's a nice city, though."

He asked me about my school and we talked about it for a few minutes. I told him where it was. Then they got down to business. Hardware opened his bag and pulled out some super-slick full-color flyers for a live show at "Club Klan" near the Hamamatsu Station. They explained that they're both dj's and that a local ALT will be singing.

"It's an international party," Hardware assured me.

"Cool, cool," I said trying to decide if I was going to attend or not. 10pm, Friday night. 2200 yen for the show and a drink (pretty typical of local shows in Japan), but 500 yen off with the flyer. Some hip, young women interested in bald foreigners, maybe a chance to make some friends with some musical creativity and experimentalism. A possibility.

"How you like Japanese girls?" Do-rag asked.

"Oh, they're great. I like them a lot."

They seemed pleased with that answer, nodding and laughing.

"You have a girlfriend?"

"I did."

"What happen?"

"We broke up a couple of months ago."


"Oh yeah."

More knowing laughter.

Then Hardware spoke up: "I haven't had sex in one year."

"Oh man, that's difficult," I told him reassuringly. Thanks for the information, jack. Speaking of...

"Only masturbating everyday," joked Do-rag, making a fist and pantomiming the act of self-pleasuring.

"It's a necessity," I agreed, laughing.

Then we said our goodbyes and they went off to pass out more flyers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Eel City, Japan!

Hamamatsu is next to Lake Hamana (Hamana-ko), where a popular catch is unagi, or fresh water eel. This geographic reality makes unagi the local specialty here. Well, that and the fact that unagi is very tasty. Unagi meat has an extremely mild fishy taste but is incredibly tender.

It's grilled in a sticky, slightly sweet-and-tangy sauce (it tastes a little like barbecue) and served over rice, but there are variations in the specifics beyond that. And because you can get it fresh here every day, the area around Hamana-ko is famous for the abundance and quality of its unagi restaurants.

So much so that it'd be ridiculous to visit Hamamatsu for any length of time and not sample unagi. There are so many excellent places to try this dish, it's difficult to put a name to the best or most representative. The most famous one is located next to the Meitetsu Hotel, just across from Hamamatsu Station.

As famous as it is, I've forgotten the name, but it's very easy to find, next to the corner along the sidewalk. If you're in town for an hour or so, take time to walk across and have lunch or dinner there.

The food is delicious, the staff is friendly (when I went there with my then-girlfriend, she translated for me their concerns I wouldn't like their unagi). But... it's a little expensive! I guess with reputation comes a price.

The reason I'm on this unagi kick is I recently tried the other eel-related specialty that put Hamamatsu on the culinary map... unagi pie.

Which is not a pie at all. Instead, it's a very dry, crispy cracker or cookie. It's made from powdered unagi bones and while that doesn't sound very appetizing, the unagi pie itself is actually pretty nice. Like many Japanese sweets, its sugary qualities are very slight indeed. Just enough to recognize, with a taste somewhat similar to caramel popcorn.

Or like that old cereal Super Sugar Crisps, minus some of the tooth-rottingly overwhelming sugar load. You know the one, right? The one with the bear who sounds like Bing Crosby and can't get enough of Super Sugar Crisps.

Because he's a junkie.

One of our students is attending college in Kamloops, Canada (greatest city name of all time, by the way... now a breakfast cereal endorsed by Cameron Diaz!). She came back for summer vacation and before she returned to British Columbia, she kindly left a box of unagi pie for everyone at my school.

Unagi pie holds such a special place in Hamamatsu's heart that people will actually tour the local factories that make it. If someone takes a vacation here and goes back to their office, unagi pie is the obligatory gift of choice.

By the way, salt water eel is anago. I've also eaten that, with their little heads gazing up at me, their mouths opening and closing as they tried to breath life into organs that were no longer there.

Speaking of obligatory gifts, if you're Japanese and you go for a trip, it's customary for you to bring "omiyage" (oh-me-ah-gay) for your coworkers. Omiyage usually consists of food and most local giftshops sell nice boxes of local treats. For example, Hamamatsu' unagi pie or Kyoto's o-manju (small buns with sweet bean paste inside). Japanese vacationers returning from Hawaii usually gift their coworkers with macadamia candy, and if they've been to Vancouver, they usually bring small bottles of maple syrup. Those coming back from Australia bring fried koala or chocolate covered kangaroo testicles, while those who've spent time in Detroit bring marzipan bullets.

In our classes we usually translate omiyage as "souvenir." Yesterday in Bentenjima, we had a short discussion all about this concept. Is souvenir the best translation? Usually a souvenir is simply something one buys to remember a special vacation, such as a Disney t-shirt, a googly-eyed pecan or a glass bong.

We decided gift is a much better translation, closer to the spirit of the actual custom. On the other hand, who am I to go against years of ESL wisdom? We'll probably still say souvenir.

Happy Birthday, America!

Yes, happy birthday to my home country. Even though your true birthday is September 17, 1787, when the Constitution was finally ratified. As vital as the Declaration of Independence is, the Bill of Rights is a much greater political document, a listing of your rights as an American, rights granted all U.S. citizens not by the government but by the dint of their having been born on the planet earth.

In 1948, the United Nations produced another great document delineating the concept of universal human rights with the same basis- these are yours simply by your having been born.

Although some people mistakenly believe them to be so, these rights are not granted by any political body or government, nor are they privileges. They cannot legally be taken from you. You cannot even give them away.

It is on this base that my own political consciousness was founded and also my belief that any system, be it political, religious or merely social- or corruption of such- that is not derived from or does not uphold these concepts is invalid.

So on this Independence Day, celebrate your freedom.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Eating Fried Food on Sticks...

Sunday night, I went to Kushitomo with some friends celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary (and apparently the 10-year anniversary of the UK's return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule). Kushitomo is a small restuarant on Sakanamachi-dori, downtown Hamamatsu. Their specialty is fried food on sticks.

On my last night in Hamamatsu- during my first visit to Japan way back in 2003- these same friends and I went there, and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had during those incredibly fun two weeks.

Like then, we sat on pillows around a low table in a semi-private tatami room. The servers brought us several courses of fried things- fish, chicken, pork, asparagus, ginger, cheese croquettes, crab, shrimp. Even small eggs. At Kushitomo, you can get a special set where they'll bring wave after wave of food until you tell them, "Stop."

For dessert we had fried bananas on sticks, whose seemingly benign exterior crusts held mouth-destroyingly molten interiors. And to soothe our injuries, bowls of some kind of delicious fruit sherbet.

By the time we finished, the little glazed cups on our table were stuffed with thin wooden skewers with dried crumbs of fried batter clinging to them. Similar crumbs covered my socks.

It was fun eating delicious fried food and making fun of Die Hard movies, then walking back up the long hill to Hirosawa-cho, my old neighborhood. I bought today's lunch at the Takamachi 7-11 convenience store, my first visit back to one of my regular shopping haunts since the day I dragged my heavy suitcases that far before giving up and having them call a taxi for me on the day I left my Nova life behind for good.

In a few weeks, I'll be leaving Sanaru-dai behind, too, and moving into a newer, high-rise apartment closer to the downtown area. I'll really miss Sanaru-dai. It's quiet, had trees and little coffee shops. It's one of Hamamatsu's nicest neighborhoods.

The new place will probably be more concrete and less pretty or homey. But the apartment won't be as run-down as this one, with its sagging, soft spots on the floors, scuffed tatami and dull brown walls. And its frequent plumbing problems.

Being downtown will re-engage me with the most vibrant and active part of Hamamatsu, and get me out and around more.