Thursday, December 20, 2012

You never lack for Christmas cheer in Japan!

I don't know what it is about Christmas, but even in Japan where I believe only about 1% of the population are Christians, you get the full effect of the holiday season.  At least the Santa Claus aspects of it.  If you're inclined, you can supply all the spirituality you want.  Expect lots of Christmas music in stores, holiday displays, greeting cards for sale, colorful lights and, sometimes, even gigantic aluminum Christmas trees, tall and shiny enough to warm even Lucy Van Pelt's crabby heart.

Hamamatsu is no exception.  Sometime in November the Col. Sanders statues at the KFCs suddenly donned Santa costumes and they're all standing proudly in front of their bustling restaurants.  Expect long waits for your fried chicken and cole slaw.  The city workers strung blue lights in the trees lining the main street in front of Zaza City downtown and transformed it into a fairyland.  It's too bad there aren't that many shoppers taking it all in.  At the Entetsu department store plaza adjacent to the station there's a lighted globe and dazzling stars suspended from the high ceiling (which didn't exist when last I lived here).

Even in my little neighborhood well north of city center there are houses with blinking lights.  Some jolly soul even decorated an apartment balcony by stringing a few colorful strands along the railing.  Create Drugstore has Christmas music playing over the sound system, which I have to admit entices me to want to overspend. Only I'm generally there to buy toilet cleaner and Belgian waffles, two items that don't exactly inspire feelings of warmth and joy.  Well, maybe the waffles.  They make great stocking stuffers, too.

This year, we'll spend Christmas week in Tokyo.  We have a fancy hotel room reserved and tickets for various events.  It's not a crowded itinerary, but it is a fun one.  The last time I was in Tokyo for Christmas I enjoyed strolling solo among the young lovers out on their romantic dates in Shibuya and Harajuku.  Even there Christmas music drifted through the cold air and brake lights from all the traffic combined with Christmas illuminations and omnipresent neon signage to dazzle the eyes.  I expect more of the same, only this time I'll be one of those romantics.  Which will be very pleasant indeed.

So Christmas is all around the world.  I suppose I should spend some time decrying the encroaching commercialism of it all, but Japan is not a country that shies from commercialism.  We shop til we drop whether it's Christmas or not.  I could bemoan the lack of the holiday's true spirit, but I think that's something that resides within.  You know its meaning and it's up to you to apply it as needed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Kyoto man, 115, now world's oldest | The Japan Times Online

Kyoto man, 115, now world's oldest | The Japan Times Online

Most of the news here in Japan is of a political nature these days.  We had an election this past Sunday and the LDP won big over the DPJ.  What does this mean?  It means a new prime minister on December 26th, namely Shinzo Abe, who was prime minister not too long ago and, like everyone since Junichiro Koizumi, stunk things up big time (scandals and suicides also wracked his administration) before resigning over "health issues."  But forget all that noise.

Longevity is the thing.  Can you imagine living long enough to become a centenarian?  Or living long enough to hold the record as world's oldest?  I've always wanted to be world's smartest, or world's richest, or world's sexiest, but I would definitely settle for someday succeeding another elder as world's oldest.  There's slightly more turnover at the top of the age game than there is at the top of the Japanese government so I doubt I'd hold the title very long.  Still, you can't get enough life.  I'd outlive even the sun if I could.

Jiroemon Kimura is a miracle.  I love his glasses and his smile. He attributes his long life to eating small portions of healthy foods "without likes or dislikes."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Candidate, 94, taps funeral fund, runs for Lower House seat | The Japan Times Online

Candidate, 94, taps funeral fund, runs for Lower House seat | The Japan Times Online

This guy is amazing.  In fact, he's my new hero.  Whether he wins or not is beside the point; he has a message governments all over the world need to hear and he learned it the hard way, through bitter experience.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Finding an apartment in Japan isn't that difficult...

Especially if your fiancee is Japanese.  I'm going through the process of getting married here in Japan and part of that involves setting up housekeeping together.  My current place is one of those living room/kitchen in the entrance/shower room studio apartments.  Nice for one, not so pleasant for two.  Not so pleasant for the neighbors, that is.  One person can think, but two people have to talk.  Unless they're highly evolved telepathic super-humans who no longer need to communicate through the clumsy device of spoken language.

My first apartments here in Japan came courtesy my employers.  Nova shares in Toyohashi and Hamamatsu, my own private Idaho out in Sanarudai then another in Motohama-cho, a small place in Asahi, Chiba.  Friends helped me find my current place.  It took some doing.  I had to sign all kinds of forms, visit banks and city halls, but the friend who handled the Japanese side did the heavy lifting.  And on top of that, I had to have a third party sign on as my guarantor.  It took a month and there were some dead ends and disappointments along the way.

This time out my fiancee took over.  She started looking Monday, we discussed a place Wednesday, she looked at it Friday and we closed on it Sunday.  Yes, there's some discrimination involved.  She knows it, I know it, the realtor who handled our transaction admitted as much.  I make no excuses for my adopted country in that.  A more activist type might make an issue of it, and justifiably so.  I'm just trying to smooth the way for a spring ceremony.

Here's how it went down--  The realtor picked us up in a tiny company car just outside Hamamatsu Station, drove us a circuitous route to his office where a co-worker served us green tea.  The temperature inside was positively Hawaiian, perhaps to elicit faster agreements from the prospective renters.  My fiancee and the realtor talked for a while, he presented her with some forms which she read and carefully filled in in a matter of minutes, then another realtor presented us her credentials and read the leasing agreement to my fiancee point-by-point while my fiancee made notes in pencil and asked carefully considered questions.

The realtor informed us in her business-like tone the apartment doesn't permit pianos.  Knowing my rock star past, my fiancee asked about guitars (the day before I had floated the idea of the two of us teaming up John-and-Yoko-like with a private studio at some point in the future and true to her nature, she did not forget).

I sipped tea and observed.  My role in the ceremony involved peeling off a number of 10,000 yen notes and laying them carefully inside a plastic tray.  I counted them twice, my fiancee counted them once, the first realtor counted them again.  He presented us with a receipt that looked more like a university diploma (with a postage stamp for that extra officially legal touch) and they discussed moving companies.

It took about an hour and fifteen minutes.  Everything complete, the realtor drove us back to the station, entertaining my fiancee with stories of his own mysterious, creative wife and unconventional, heavy-smoking parents.  I laughed along whenever I understood what they were saying.  I think it was a huge relief for my fiancee to have a pleasantly pointless conversation in her native language after discussing heavy financial matters with me in English all weekend.  She's shy, but a charming chatter in her own right, and he seemed like a cheerful fellow.  It relaxed me and I enjoyed looking at the late afternoon clouds in the thinning light.

Wintery afternoons in Japan can be very lovely.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What if you're a person who came back after the 3/11 disaster?

Every so often my little Japan Times email asks me to read a story about "flyjin" or "stayjin."  Flyjin is a pejorative portmanteau coined somewhere by somebody and referring to all the ex-pats or foreigners who spent years (or months, I suppose) living on the largesse of the EFL industry, then bugged out immediately following the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and the Fukushima meltdowns.  From what I gather from the stories on Japan Times Online, this was one of those media-flogged myths and the actual exodus amounted to about 2.6 percent more than the previous, pre-disaster year.

Well, that there were more is probably a disaster-related effect, but the numbers hardly deserve a derisive term.  If someone's using it as if it were an actual phenomenon, they're not really aware of the situation, or else they're a dishonest debater.  Most people stayed.  So stayjin is the antonym for flyjin.

But what about people like me who came back to Japan in the aftermath of all the upheaval?  I know some people have plenty of names to call me, but I left almost a year before March 11, 2011, and I returned to Japan the following November.  I ended up living in Asahi, Chiba, a coastal city where the quake and tsunami both took a toll that day.  I have no idea if I saw any of the ruins.  Probably not.  Many of my students there had been personally affected and one of them lost his house and was living with his parents.  The foreign employees of the company certainly had a lot of thrilling stories to tell.  What's tragedy for some becomes just another anecdote for others.

Another teacher trained with me, more came later.  Just before I relocated, we added two more newcomers-- although one had been in Japan at least since the previous summer-- and I helped train my own replacement.  Just this past weekend my mom told me of a friend's daughter who absolutely loves Japan and plans to relocate here to study and find a job.  I'm supposed to email her sometime and give her advice, which I'm happy to do; many helped me when I first came to Japan and I feel an obligation to do the same.

So how about a positive name for people like this, people who want to live and work in this amazing country, full of wonderful people?  People who deserve better than to think the ex-pats they come to know and love take flight at the first sign of trouble.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

We weathered Typhoon Guchol...

As a veteran of many a conversation school I'm used to working through typhoons.  Lumbering along beside my bike at 9pm, the streets largely deserted, winds lashing and rain flowing horizontally, turning my umbrella inside-out, soaking me, ruining my shoes.  That's the conversation school way.

Not so with Japanese high schools.  The management called all the teachers to the main office and told us to put the kids on the buses and clear out.  Girls cheered in the hallways as everyone scrambled to evacuate.  There were long lines of students huddled under umbrellas as bus after bus rolled up and loaded them up and shipped them off.  I left about a quarter to three, bought some food and something to drink and spent a dark, noisy night at my apartment with no electricity.  The medical students in the next building threw themselves an impromptu typhoon party on the landing outside and trees danced and unknown things banged and rattled.

In my old town of Toyohashi over 123,000 people had to evacuate because the river levels surged ahead of the typhoon's approach and from the rainfall.  The typhoon came right through here, a mighty guest making its presence known, overturning the household routine.  A great big jerk of a guest, unwanted and barely tolerated.

I watched it for a while until it started to bore me.  The sky had a dark gray luminosity like the fading glow-in-the-dark hands on a bedside clock but I could see the now useless electrical tower looming over our apartment complex like something out of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds after the simple cold virus killed all the Martians.  I fell asleep at some point only to wake up around 2am to a strange calm.  All was quiet.  I stumbled to my window and saw stars with ragged clouds just above the building-rimmed horizon.

The power came on around 7am this morning, and everything returned to whatever it is that passes for normal around here.  A small tree lost a measure of its height, the leafy broken trunk blocking the small parking lot across from my building.  More green leaves, startling against the concrete, choked the gutters along the streets. But once I left the neighborhood and reached the road that runs past the school where I work there were the usual uniformed students hauling ass up and down the hill, threatening pedestrians with injury and death.  Just another day!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Japan really does have the best toilets!

Kristin Wong, writing for the Heart Beat at Living on MSN, reports about some very special toilets in Gunma prefecture.  They're at a temple and you can flush away an unwanted marriage.  Sounds good to me.  It's one of those stereotypically hacky observations, but Japan really does lead the world in toilet technology.  And, apparently, toilet spirituality.

I haven't been to this temple, but now I'm curious enough to start thinking about a trip there.  I think it's hilarious someone has actually intended to use the religious toilets for their more material world function-- dropping off loads.  Or whizzing.  Not out of any disrespect for anyone's belief, but because of a family story, one that gets retold every few years and never fails to generate a few laughs.

Many years ago, my middle brother took a dump in a display toilet at a Sears store.  He'd only recently been potty trained and it seemed to him like a reasonable thing to do.  He probably wasn't the first kid to make that mistake, probably wasn't the last.  You put a toilet on display and sooner or later, someone's going to use it.  It's heartening to know even adults do this occasionally.  That's why you should clearly and carefully mark which toilets are for use, which are for display and which are for filing for divorce or losing weight.  Proper signage helps.

My current toilet isn't as Space Age as some I've experienced here, what with the heated seats and the washlet functions and the flushing sound effects and what have you.  The toilet in my last apartment looked ready to give Captain Kirk's command chair on the old NCC-1701 Enterprise a run for its money in terms of luxurious, highly-functional seating.  I didn't live in that apartment long enough to take advantage of all the buttons, but the heated seat made poop times a lot more comfortable during the winter.  The toilet I'm pooping in now is merely the heated seat kind, with an adjustable on-off knob.  Very simple.  Very boring.

When I first came to Japan with a group of rookie English teachers, the company that hired us put us up in a decent business hotel in Dotonbori, Osaka.  This place had the William Gibson cyber-punk toilets of every Japanophile's dreams.  My fondest memory of that weekend was when this young dude from Arkansas-- who'd recently given up a job as a homicide detective on a small town police force-- came downstairs the next morning and reported his new-found love for bidets.

"I never thought I'd use one of them," he admitted in wonderment, "but now that I have I gotta admit-- I like the bidet function.  Man, I hope they have one of those on the toilet in my apartment.  I'll definitely be using the heck out of that thing."

I'm paraphrasing, but his sentiments gave me new respect for the guy, and he was already a pretty decent person to hang out with.  I wonder whatever happened to him.  I imagine if you've been a police detective you can handle pretty much anything life throws at you, especially English conversation classes, which are some of the easiest things in the world to teach.  Get with the right school and you won't find a cushier job and you end up learning a lot about Japan, too.  It's ridiculously easy, but some do botch it.  A few months later our school hosted a guy who didn't survive the first day on the job-- and so was born a minor legend in our area-- but I'm sure the police detective did just fine.

As for me, I didn't have cause to use the bidet function on a Japanese toilet until a few years later, over a New Year's visit to Tokyo.  Hotel Listel in Shinjuku.  That was the place.  Great little business hotel, just a bit far from the station, which is why I switched to the Sakura Hotel/Hostel chain; the one I usually stay at is a stop or two down from Shinjuku station and about a 2 minute walk from Hatagaya station.

I still recommend Hotel Listel, though.  Clean, efficient rooms and an excellent breakfast buffet.  And incredible toilets.  After doing my business, I remembered my detective friend and his open-minded approach to personal hygiene and gave the bidet a whirl.  I wasn't quite as impressed, but it wasn't what I expected.  Actually, I have no idea what I expected.

Friday, June 8, 2012