Thursday, December 26, 2013

Any list that contains Melt-Banana and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is all right by me!

MTV Iggy's Best of Japan 2013 manages to do it!  Melt-Banana posted a link to this on their Facebook feed, and I commented, "MxBx meets Kyary Pamyu Pamyu?"  Melt-Banana seemed to give the concept approval because they liked it, and so did a couple of other people.  The next person took it one step further by suggesting Melt-Banana and KPP collaborate, which I think is an idea so right on it could possibly tear the space-time continuum with how much excellence it would deliver if it should happen.  Someone else disagreed, though.  "Hell no!" came the reply from another MxBx fan, who apparently doesn't have much love in his heart for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

Or is he a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu fan who hates Melt-Banana?  Well, everyone has his or her own tastes and preferences.

But if anyone in the industry who happens to have the ability to make things happen also happens to be reading this, how about making MxBx-KPP happen?  Because that would be a happening, man!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Eve has arrived in Japan!

Incredibly, just one year after the last Christmas Eve, we have another.  It's a clear, cold day here in Shizuoka prefecture.  This morning a couple of huge crows shouting at each other greeted me as I left our apartment for work.  Christmas crows, I suppose.  I don't like to stand underneath a crow because I feel they're smart enough and wicked enough to poop on someone's head deliberately.  These two went from wire to wire, aggravating each other.

There are a lot of crows and pigeons here.  Sometimes they interact, such as the time a friend and I watched from our table at an Indian restaurant as across the street a crow murdered a pigeon by repeatedly pecking it in the abdomen.  What does this morbid memory have to do with Christmas Eve morning?  Ask the crows.

Over the weekend we watched quite a bit of Japanese television, and most of the shows we watched featured Christmas decorations.  Christmas trees, hosts and guests in Santa hats.  Even omnipresent Funasshi, that weird pear thing "yuru-kyara" ("wild character") from Funabashi, Chiba, wore a Santa hat yesterday while a sushi chef sliced a large sushi roll of some kind with kana characters inside and then a couple of pictures of Funasshi itself.

Which Funasshi ate after one of the hosts inserted it into the back of its jiggly green head.

It's hard not to be in the Christmas spirit (or some strange variation thereof) when you watch things like that.  For me, anyway.  I find the weirdness very appealing.

Anyway, I'm at the office now even though I have nothing to do.  Working on Christmas Eve is no big deal for me.  One year I worked on Christmas Day, which was odd.  Here in Japan, even though the holiday has grown in popularity, it's not an official one.  It's just fun and romantic for young couples, a time for cute costumes and pretty decorations and even seasonal music in the stores.  Next week is the big event.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Murder in Japan: Kyushu fisheries boss shot dead | The Japan Times

Kyushu fisheries boss shot dead | The Japan Times

This story really jumped out at me because "shot dead" isn't a phrase one associates with Japan or crime in Japan.  In fact, this is only the third gun death I've read about in newspapers since I moved here almost ten years ago.  The first was also gangster-related and the second was a hunting accident (a hunter mistook someone for a boar).  There may have been others that weren't publicized so I'd notice, but there you have it.

Coincidentally, murder has been on my mind since last weekend because we had a slaying right here in our town.  I don't know all the details, just what my wife translated from the television news.  I haven't been able to find any information on it online, so sorry about that.  While looking for information, I did tumble the story of wartime serial killer Seisaku Nakamura.  Local boy.  This is the first I've heard of him, so I'm not sure how many people know this dark bit of local lore.  If you read the linked article, you'll know as much as I do about him.  Considering how the USAAF bombed and burned more than half of Hamamatsu to ashes in 1945, Nakamura's crimes from a few years before probably weren't near the top of things to talk about among the ruins.

Well, I don't have any deep meaning to assign to any of this.  I doubt there is any.  Just one story creating a certain train of thoughts on a sunny and cold morning.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Melt-Banana's "Fetch" is really racking up the accolades!

Fetch, the newest release from Melt-Banana, has made a number of year-end lists for best albums of 2013.  Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #17 out of their top 20 metal albums.  I guess it would have ranked higher had it actually been a metal album (they admit as much).  Ian Martin, writing for the Japan Times, declares it the "absolute best [Japanese] album of the year."  I need to give the others in his article a listen!  At least one person on the Kansas City music scene likes itAnd Spin magazine made it their "Album of the Week" way back in September, just before its official release date.

They made it onto at least one more list, but I can't seem to find the link and I'm out of time.  Got classes to teach and all that good stuff.  Anyway, congratulations to Melt-Banana!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Some different types of pizza available here in Japan!


The first is from Shakey's Pizza in Tokyo. I think I took this photo in the Shinjuku restaurant.  There are Shakey's in Ikebukuro (a pretty large one) and Shibuya (smaller so it feels more frantic).  I believe there are other Shakey's around Tokyo, too.  The all-you-eat pizza buffet at whatever Shakey's you visit is a Tokyo bargain, but get there early. Lunchtime tends to be crowded.  Very crowded, with long lines at the pizza bar.  If your heart is set on pepperoni, be prepared for disappointment.  There have been a few times I've had to settle for similar-looking sausage pizza or even hamburger.

This is a sausage pizza and a classic Coca-Cola from Hedge, a small, American-style restaurant in the basement of Zaza City in Hamamatsu.  The pizza actually came from a pizza bakery called Popeye's Pizza in Food World, the adjacent supermarket.  I haven't been there in a good long while, but I believe both Hedge and Popeye's have closed.  That's tragic, because this was a tasty lunch option for lunch downtown, especially combined with a Coke from one of those little curvy bottles.


These last two are Happy Valley's "Pepperonia" pizza, #37 in their menu.  The soft crust has a dusting of flour, which I like, and the pepper adds a little spice to the taste.  This is the pizza I eat most often because Happy Valley is within easy walking distance of where we live now.  They also have plenty of other pizzas to choose from, plus some delicious pasta dishes.  We enjoy their salad and drink bar, too.  Pepperonia scratches my pizza itch better than just about any of the others, but I have distinctly American taste in pizza and from southwest Georgia as well, home of... well... nothing.

There are other pizza restaurants in Hamamatsu.  One closed down a while back, but it was a small place that could only acommodate maybe two or three small dining parties at a time.  It was run by a very nice guy into mixed martial arts, though, and featured excellent homemade desserts. 

Another is Pizza Garlic, out in the suburbs.  That's another one I haven't been to in some time, but they baked some outstanding pies and they once invited my bosses, my coworker and me to a summer barbecue where we had a ball trying to catch noodles running down a stream of water in some bamboo half-pipes.  You know that game.  Pizza Garlic (or Garlic Pizza) features a home-style atmosphere, too.  It literally feels as if a friendly family has opened their home to you.  I seriously recommend you find this place and try it.  The desserts are first class, too.

There's one more that has actually won awards, but I've sadly only been there once and I've completely forgotten the name.  I won't forget the delicious four-cheese pizza smothered in gorgonzola so easily, though.

Wow, I'm pizza hungry!

Electric Eel Shock joins the bill for Osaka Rock Day!

Maybe they were already on it.  I don't know.  I'm Japanese illiterate, so Electric Eel Shock may have already been on my ticket when I bought it.  What I do know is they're playing the Osaka Rock Day show with Shonen Knife and Melt-Banana, which amounts to my holy trinity of Japanese rock acts all appearing in the same place, on the same day, with the same me watching.  One reason I moved to Japan in the first place was to have greater opportunities to see bands like these.  While I've managed to make it to quite a few Melt-Banana "lives," both Shonen Knife and EES proved as elusive as the shark before now.

I'm a little concerned that in fulfilling this quest I may die soon after.  These things tend to happen.  What I want to let the fates and the universe know is I plan to stick around to see a few other bands I haven't been able to catch.  Still out there cruising beneath the waves remain Voredoms/Boredoms, OOIOO, 5678s, Puffy, Go!Go!7188, Spookey and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

Which brings me to this.  A list of bands and musicians I've seen live, both in Japan and in the US.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Bob Dylan
Statler Brothers
Tom T. Hall
Harvey Milk
The Replacements
Violent Femmes
Smoke/Opal Foxx Quartet
Dreams So Real
Red Krayola
Drivin N Cryin
Jet By Day
Built to Spill
Modest Mouse
Toy Missile

Okay, that pathetic, paltry list was meant to be more impressive but now I realize years of altered states living robbed me of memories of dozens of other acts I've seen live.  Actually, some of these I only learned I attended after the fact.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Osaka Rock Day 1/25/14

I will be attending this show.  They have a spectacular slate of bands scheduled, with the legendary Shonen Knife headlining.  Among the openers?  Another legendary band by the name of...


My entire life has been leading up to this show.  Which worries me a little, because afterwards what else will there be to keep me here?  Oh sure, love, family, friends, work, hobbies, the chance to see other shows equally as cool as this one, scientific discoveries and books to read.  But anyone could pull all that out of a hat.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Freshness Burger's burger sleeve mask

This is the second time in the last two weeks I've read stories about the burger sleeve mask at Freshness Burger.  While we go to Freshness Burger fairly often, we haven't seen anyone using the burger mask yet.  The Freshness Burger at Hamamatsu Station didn't have them the last time I was there, but that was over a month ago.  There's a chance they had them but no one was using one because no customers had bought any of the Classic Burgers.

Except I always order a Classic Cheeseburger and I didn't receive a sleeve mask.  Maybe because I'm a dude.

I think the main reason the Classic Burger sales were flat (if they truly were) isn't that women are embarrassed to be seen eating them, it's because compared to your basic McDonald's or Mos Burger burger, a Classic Burger from Freshness is huge.  As much as I love them-- they're the best chain burger you can get here in Hamamatsu-- I have to admit they're a bit awkward to eat.  I have a pretty big mouth, too.  I can easily imagine your average Japanese consumer not being able to come to grips, as it were, with a Classic Burger. 

Also, in general, restaurant portion sizes tend to be smaller in Japan and a Classic Burger just might be a few grams or calories over what both women and men want here in Japan.  If you talk to someone who's lived abroad there's a good chance you'll hear some variation on, "The difference between McDonald's in Japan and in America is our meals are smaller.  Americans have bigger sodas."  Is it true?  I don't really think so, but I haven't gone around weighing burgers and checking soda volume at home and in Japan.  It sounds good, so let's go with it.  If you order a hamburger set at a Japanese McDonald's, you're getting a lightweight burger and a decent amount of French fries, but if you order a Classic Cheeseburger set at Freshness, you get a burger that's heavier than a Quarter Pounder and an order of thick wedge-cut fries with the skins still on them.  It even fills me up, and I'm a decadent pig.

Freshness is a bit pricey, too.  I've read business reports about McDonald's same store sales being down in Japan as well, but the McDonald's here still remain packed with customers during peak hours.  Sometimes Freshness Burger is as well, but the prime location at the station is a pretty small restaurant so it may be a matter of perception.  But if you want a cheap burger meal, McDonald's is the place to go.  The point is, I'm pretty sure McDonald's has Freshness Burger beat as far as prices go, but there's no way they can compete in taste.  That suggests people prefer paying less for things even if said things aren't quite as good as slightly more expensive things.

And finally, there's convenience.  I can't imagine a more convenient location for a burger joint than right at the station, but there's also a McDonald's there, too.  If you order at Freshness Burger, you have to take your drink and tray and a little plastic number and go sit down for a while before they come out with your basket of food.  At McDonald's, you're halfway finished eating by that point.  Unless you find yourself caught up in a crush of high schoolers, McDonald's is going to be your faster option.  That means more time to catch the train, more time to shop at May One, more time to fiddle around with your cellphone.  Okay, you can to the last at Freshness Burger while you wait, but you're still going to be in the restaurant for a while longer than you would be at the McDonald's.

Anyway, that's all anecdotal stuff.  According to the report, Classic Burger sales are up 213% and Freshness Burger corporate seems to think the new burger sleeves get the credit.

Here's how I rank the burger chains--

1) Freshness Burger.  Expensive, but the tastiest.  They do seem to use fresher ingredients.  The only drawback to the Classic Cheeseburger is they cook the onions and I prefer cold, crisp, raw onions on top of my hot beef burger patty.  Freshness offers a delicious mushroom burger seasonally, too.  It's a large mushroom cap turned upside down and filled with some kind of teriyaki sauce (I think) on a bun with veggies.  Mmm!  My wife favors Freshness' fat wedge fries above all others, too.  Yes, they're good.

2) Mos Burger.  They also bring your food to you in a basket, but they're a little cheaper than Freshness Burger.  The Mos Burger teriyaki chicken sandwich isn't quite as good as the one at Freshness, but it's still a step up from the chicken filet sandwiches at McDonald's.  I like Mos Fries, too, and you usually get them hot from the fryer.  My favorite Mos Burger comes with a fat slice of tomato and some kind of chili topping, which is interesting from a taste-and-texture standpoint.

3) Burger King.  There aren't any in Hamamatsu, so I go to one in Shibuya, Tokyo.  It's pretty much what you get back home.  There may be a lot of Big Mac fans here and back home, but I find the Whopper the superior taste experience.

4) McDonald's.  To me, there's really not much difference between Japanese McDonald's and U.S. McDonald's.  Sure, Japan's features the teriyaki burger, which is pretty good if a little heavy on mayo (they somewhat make up for that with fresh lettuce) and the seasonal Tsukimi Burger (which is absolutely nuts), but the taste is the same for the standard menu.  I think the sizes are comparable, too, but I'd need to do the research and honestly, I don't care to.  Feel free to clue me in, if you like.

5) Lotteria.  I have yet to meet a person here who prefers Lotteria to any of the others.  The one time I ate at a Lotteria, it was kind of like eating reheated Mos Burger.  Sad and limp burger.  Poor Lotteria.  My heart goes out to you!

I would have included Wendy's in second place, but they're gone and I'm not sure if they're ever coming back.  And I'm not ranking any specialty burger restaurants where people craft their sandwiches with love.  Or any of those pop-up burger stands that sometimes appear during festivals and offer huge "American Burgers."  I haven't tried any of those, but I have a feeling they would totally blow my list sky-high.

Friday, November 15, 2013

You (should) learn something every day-- "The secrets behind 10 Japanese food pairings"

I came across an article on (you guessed it) Japanese food pairings today at the Japan Today website, which also linked it to where it's called "Why you should eat wasabi with your sushi-- the secrets behind 10 Japanese food pairings."  This is something I've never thought about, but Casey Baseel has the scoop and it's interesting and informative reading.

Now I don't eat all of these things, but I do eat most of them.  Right at the top of the list is one of my favorite Japanese dishes.  Wasabi has been the bane of my sushi eating life for approximately most of it, but over the past three or four years I've come to appreciate and enjoy the feeling of lit matches being shoved into my nostrils from the inside via my nasal cavities deep within my skull.  I never considered there might be a practical reason for linking pleasure and pain, but apparently there is.

The tip on seaweed in miso soup is helpful, because I love miso soup and eat it as often as I can, which, in Japan, is very often.  It's nice to know the role radish paste plays in its match with saury, but I'm going to go ahead and assume that's also why it's attached to other kinds of fish and meat as well.  We eat a lot of unagi in Hamamatsu, but ours tends to have some kind of sweet barbecue-type sauce on it, so I'm not sure if the info in this article applies in my locality.  Maybe.

Finally, and most importantly, the link between cabbage and pork cutlets.  When I eat a certain chicken dish at a certain family restaurant (it will probably be my lunch today), it comes on a bed of grilled cabbage.  And when we go to Kushitomo, the restaurant downtown where you can order a non-stop meal of various fried meats and vegetables on thin wooden sticks (in other words, heaven on earth), the main event comes with a bowl of raw cabbage leaves as an opener.  I always thought this was so you could say you had at least a little roughage with your mound of fried animal flesh, but now I understand the true reason.

Vitamin U, huh?

You might want to avoid the comments on the Japan Today version, or else pair your reading of them with a reading of Calvin and Hobbes or something similarly soothing.

We're having roast chicken for Christmas

Or, more accurately, I am, because I'm taking Christmas Day and the next day off work.  I have to use paid holidays because Japan isn't the United States and Christmas Day is just another work day where people are counting down to the real holidays, which run around New Year's.  That's fine.  My job offers enough paid days off and they know I'm a foreigner-- although I swear I never told them-- and expect to take a day or two at Christmas.  My wife, being Japanese, is not so lucky but then she doesn't celebrate Christmas, either, so she'll have to wait until her various jobs take their winter break for some time off.

This means I'll be spending the Christmas holidays alone with our Christmas tree, some gifts from home and a roast chicken ordered from Seiyu.  Seiyu is kind of like a Japanese Wal-Mart, so much so they even offer re-usable Wal-Mart shopping bags so you don't have to buy plastic and clog the plastics bin at home, make the trash collectors work an infinitesimal amount of effort harder and ruin the world with toxins and things that don't bio-degrade and all that scientific stuff I have only weird, ill-informed, piecemeal knowledge about.  We're not going into whether or not Wal-Mart has already ruined enough of the earth that this doesn't matter.  The point is, we can get a whole roast chicken for the equivalent of about eight USD.

Still, roast chicken is only a substitute for smoked turkey.  Or even oven-baked turkey.  I'll more than likely make do with yellow chicken tikka for Thanksgiving, but Christmas dinner will be said bird.  It looks from the colorful brochure as if it's coated in some kind of thick, shiny sauce-- which I could just as well do without-- but it will probably serve its purpose and make dinner that night at least a little seasonally festive.

On the Christmas shopping front, there's no such thing as "Black Friday" here.  You know, no Thanksgiving Thursday.  Shopping continues all year round, but things will reach a crescendo before the New Year's holidays.  I'm doing most of my shopping for my wife and family back home online.  It's stress-free, other than the usual "Don't buy me anything" protestations.  We're going to blend our cultures a bit, which excites me.  It means a longer holiday season, so more chances for fun together.  Also, this broadens the number of people I have to shop for.  And there are few things I enjoy more than giving gifts to loved ones.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thanksgiving turkeys in Japan

Japan does Halloween, Japan does Christmas.  Japan does a kind of weird version of Valentine's Day that seems like a scam to me.  But what Japan doesn't do is an American-style Thanksgiving Day.  That's understandable, but understanding does nothing-- nothing-- to soothe the annual turkey addiction withdrawal jitters I suffer from so fiercely at times I want to roast and eat my own feet.

Just last night I was lying in bed after a busy day, reading a book when suddenly and vividly the sense memory of my dad's turkey-juice covered fingers on Thanksgiving morning came to me and filled me with a nostalgic ache fierce and hopeless.  My dad had massive fingers, his entire hands brown and battered and strong, usually with a plastic bandage somewhere.  Each Thanksgiving he would wake up early (he woke up early most days, even in retirement, come to think of it) and take out the turkey he'd left thawing overnight in the refrigerator.  He'd prep his grill, get the coals just right and start the long process of smoking our holiday dinner.

Later in the morning, I'd go outside with him-- usually the weather would be cloudy and cool, sometimes windy as well-- and we'd open the grill and gaze at the shiny, crinkled turkey skin just a shade or two darker than dad's own and our mouths watered.  The Macy's parade was just a distraction that couldn't completely conquer the growing need for everyone in our family to devour that bird.

When Dad judged it had smoked long enough, he'd go out with a black baking pan and pull the turkey from the grill and bring it inside where it'd cool a bit and he could slice it.  Unjoint the legs and wings and set them on a white porcelain platter with pink roses and green leaves that matched our dinner plates.  Stab it with a two-pronged fork and trim along its back where the white meat sat.  Dad would cut some dark meat-- my mom's preferred selection-- from the thighs and my brothers and I would come in and peel strips off and eat them.  Juicy strips oiling our fingers and sometimes chins if we didn't pop them in our mouths just right, a kind of furtive quick motion because anything you could get away with short of actually cutting off a hunk of meat was fair game-- bits of skin, meat threads dangling, bits that fell off Dad's knife.  These you could poach.

And finally, around noon, the meal.  The sights, sounds and smells stay with me.  The taste of the stolen scraps, the moment of absolute fulfillment when we were allowed to eat-- to gorge, really-- on our legitimate portions.  But mostly I think of my father, who loved smoking a turkey for the four people who meant more to him than anything else in the world, and who had strong, weathered hands like a landscape unto themselves.

Well, you can possibly get turkey in Japan, but I haven't been able to yet.  One year I ate grilled squid for Thanksgiving after working all day at a conversation school.  One of my roommates had at the time what I still consider a brilliant idea: cooking traditional sides and substituting KFC.  That seemed as good as you could expect in Japan.  Another year, another school and some friends and I went to an all-bird meat izakaya and had chicken and duck, which was an even better substitute but still not the thing I jones for.  Turkey, dammit, real turkey. 

Others have managed it, but they seem to do mostly the oven-baked variety.  This is fantastic if that's what you grew up with.  I've tried it because my sister-in-law does her turkey that way and yeah, that's good stuff.  My brother always smokes one, too, because in this he and I are traditionalists (our middle brother experiments with fried turkeys, also nice) and what we crave is our father's smoked turkey.

The Meat Guy sells a ton o' turkey, including it seems "turducken," which should please John Madden should he ever decide to relocate here.  I don't know how many drumsticks the Meat Guy's turducken sports, though. There are also turkey subs at Subway.  In this city, at this late date and because we don't have a grill or an oven, it's looking like my choice is the izakaya, KFC or Subway.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Must go here: Harajuku lures foodies to the smoked BBQ pit | The Japan Times

I tried to read this article on a barbecue restaurant in Harajuku (Harajuku lures foodies to the smoked BBQ pit | The Japan Times) yesterday, but the Japan Times site wouldn't let me.  Now I have.  And now I have a new Tokyo destination!

While I'm largely ignorant of its culture other than in the eating of it, barbecue looms large in my family.  My mom's branch comes from North Carolina, where people take their regional sauces very seriously indeed.  I remember one family reunion up there where a distant uncle or cousin or something or other of mine (I can't keep track of all the family relationships there because they're pretty far away) brought out several jars of homemade barbecue sauce and described each.  He really knew his sauces, but I have to admit my eyes glazed over and I didn't pay much attention.  Tasting them is all that matters to me, not history or ingredients or whether or not there's vinegar or mustard or whatever as a base.

Both my older brothers really know their way around a grill and a smoker, and they've competed in a few contests.  They've never placed.  As good as they are, there are tons of people who are even better.  That boggles my mind.  My sister-in-law hosted a charity BBQ cook-off a few years back and I tried the second place dish and it just about blew my mind.  It was one of the best bits of food of any kind I've ever put in my mouth, and it was cold and had been sitting out on a table for hours.  I can't even imagine what the first place barbecue must have tasted like.  We've long enjoyed our home cooking, but a person who is seriously into barbecue is a food artisan who takes this art to a higher level.  We can only gaze up longingly and hope some shreds of pork fall off and into our mouths.

Anyway, my wife and I are supposed to be planning our New Year's trip for this year.  She doesn't have many days off and we've discussed Kyoto or Atami.  I don't know.  It may require some major concessions on my part in the coming year, but I'm thinking... Harajuku... barbecue...

Life is compromise.

Homeless in Japan

A new article in the Japan Times (McDonald's store pulls, apologizes for homeless sign | The Japan Times) has me thinking about the homeless here.  Like all industrialized countries, Japan has an income disparity.  Most people are middle class, I guess.  But a number of people-- and they seem to be largely invisible at the moment, at least to my limited perception-- have little or no income beyond what they can beg or borrow, and no homes other than a cardboard pallet in a train station or a flimsy cardboard bunker or lean-to in some back alley in the city.

Just outside Shibuya Station in Tokyo, under the train tracks near the famous Shibuya Scramble and the Hachiko Exit you can find a row of paper shanties like melancholy children's play forts, some covered over with blue plastic tarp and some open to the sky.  They're in a narrow concrete lane fenced in and a little sheltered by the raised tracks and the surrounding buildings just a minute or two from the famous 109 building, that silver cylinder packed with kids buying the latest fashions, not far from H&M and all kinds of fabulous boutiques.  But they might as well be on another planet in terms of income and viability.  When I walked that path the boxes lay uninhabited, but piled with possessions like tea pots and manga.  I went down some steps and found more boxes where people actually live.

I'd been wondering where the homeless were.  On our first trip to Japan, as I hit Tokyo solo via shinkansen, there were blue tarp shanty towns under the river bridges in Kawasaki and other neighborhoods I don't know the names of-- not exactly a welcoming sight, but pretty easy to put out of your mind when you're drunk in the electric frenzy of Kabuki-cho later at night.  When I went to Mitaka Park to visit the Ghibli Museum, there were a few men in layered clothes sleeping in the chilly October sun next to the fences around some tennis courts.

Even in Hamamatsu, there were regular faces you'd see if you lived here.  One bald guy, his head a brown, tanned dome, sitting on his bucket near Zaza City.  The woman in glasses who looked incongruously like the stereotype of a librarian but would engage others in angry shouting matches outside our school.  The friendly old man with bad teeth who would sit next to you, strike up a conversation, then ask for money in broken English.  And the old man who rushed around punching the air and muttering to himself; he always wore a hooded parka and bundled himself up in so many winter clothes in all kinds of weather he looked like an astronaut who had narrowly survived a fiery crash-landing.

Now that I'm out in the suburbs, I don't encounter so many homeless people.  Or any at all.  That's what I mean by "invisible," although they're probably invisible in other ways as well to most people.  Finding that encampment so close to the Shibuya Scramble came as a surprise and brought a bit of reality to my touristy experience.  Even now it's strange to consider these multiple worlds.  I sit here in my office as parents arrive for a big meeting about upcoming class trips. Somewhere else there's that guy sitting on his bucket, or others wandering around Shinjuku Station, displaced for the day by all the hustle and bustle and people who have places to be in a hurry.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

October is Spookey Month: What our English Clubs taught me this week!

Yeah, I apologize for how slack this year's "October is Spookey Month" has been.  I'm usually very enthusiastic about sharing that ol' Halloween feeling with you from over here in Japan.  But this year marriage and work and my comic book blog took away a lot of my energy for exploring the strange and supernatural here, so I didn't learn as much this year.  Spookey, the band, hasn't toured or released any new music or videos in a while, and I used up the "A" material already.  So not much to tell you this Spookey Month.

But we did give our English Clubs this week a bit of a Halloween focus.  I really wanted to show them It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which we have at home on Blu-Ray, but we don't have access to a player.  Instead, we used a story about a ghost tour in Matsue:  Matsue's ghost tour still popular | The Japan Times to learn some vocabulary and have some fun talking about ghosts and monsters.  It went over very well and the students shared some insights that really impressed me.

Just about everyone nominated Sadako from Ringu as the most famous of Japanese ghosts.  When I asked this of my Tuesday and Wednesday groups, both immediately came up with her name.  The most liked seemed to be Kitaro from Hakaba no Kitaro (GeGeGe no Kitaro), a very popular choice with my Wednesday guys, who cited his helpfulness as their reason.  Hanako-san from the toilet got a mention from one student, so we'll place her a distant third in the ghost fame-popularity sweepstakes.

When we talked about kuchisake-onna, two students could tell me in English her traditional question of, "Am I beautiful/pretty?" but only one out of both clubs could guess the best reply, "You're so-so."  We had to make sure everyone knew what to say before they left because it was quite dark both nights.  I don't want to be responsible for any of my students coming to grief at kuchisake-onna's hands.  We talked a little about rokurokubi (one student brought them up and another illustrated the concept on the chalkboard, which was pretty brave of him considering how his first attempt at drawing a ghost ended up transformed into a dripping ice cream cone by one of his friends).  No one knew about Teke Teke, but when we finally got around to talking about her, they were almost all disgusted by the idea.  So I'm guessing that's either a more regional urban legend, or none of our Tuesday or Wednesday students have seen the horror movies based on the story, or have spent as much time thinking about this stuff as I have.

Out of eight students, five said they don't believe in ghosts and three said they do, but they were unanimous in the belief that graveyards are scary places.  None of them felt particularly enthused about visiting a temple at night, even in a group armed with flashlights.  I'm not sure if this is because the idea bores them (some) or creeps them out (the others).  As to why we're sometimes afraid of even familiar surroundings in the dark, most agreed it's because of the unknown.  We just don't know what might be lurking around even in our own houses when the lights are out.  Two students cited instinct, as in "People have an instinctual fear of the dark."  One student mentioned the safety issue-- you simply can't see what's around you, so you might trip over something and injure yourself.  Practical.

I asked why Sadako and most Japanese ghosts wear white.  One student said this is because dead people wear white at their funerals.

And they all agreed there aren't any decent commercial haunted houses in Shizuoka prefecture.  I guess that's a matter of taste, but since they're more the target audience than I am, I'm going to defer to their opinion.

Finally, when writing about ghosts, one student revealed he's more interested in UFOs.  I think we should do a club activity based on that sometime in the near future.

So, to make up the general crappiness of my own Halloween blog celebration, here's a link to a 2006 blog entry by someone else about a supposedly-cursed Kleenex commercial from the 1980s!  I don't know who Moroha is, but this is truly some cool stuff!  I just wish I'd known about it sooner, because it would have been interesting to see if our English Clubs knew anything about it.  Nice job, Moroha, and thanks for posting that!

Monday, October 28, 2013

October is Spookey Month: A frightful day out in Kawasaki | The Japan Times

A frightful day out in Kawasaki | The Japan Times

This event was so cool even an idiot like me has heard of some of its DJs.  Too bad we missed it. Actually, considering the weather last weekend, I'd be surprised if this parade happened this year.  I hope it did.

Your day-to-day life here in Japan can be pretty boring.  The Internet phenomenon of "Meanwhile, in Japan..." with some outrageous photo that purports to show that Japan is some kind of hallucinatory maelstrom of the strange and unusual is only so much bullshit.  Exaggeration, cherry-picking, confirmation bias and all that.  Kyary Pamyu Pamyu isn't popping through everyone's windows at night with her back-up dancers, there are no nationwide lotteries for students in junior high classes to kill each other off and most kids are too exhausted from school, club activities and cram schools to do much giant robot piloting or sword-fighting against demons from another universe.  Trust me, most of the time you're not missing a whole lot.

But when things do happen here, you find that in Japan the fun is unlike what you'll find anywhere else.  The live shows I've been to here have been by and large better than the ones I went to back home (although we tore it up on the dance floor every New Year's Eve in Athens, Georgia, and I miss that a lot every December).  And there are these Halloween parades that, if these photos are to be trusted, look like a pure delight.  So if you have a chance to take part in one of these events, you really should.  There's Halloween done in your home country's style, and then there's Japanese Halloween, which must be the coolest of the Halloweens.

The rest of the time it's work and dinner with family and watching TV and going to the supermarket.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

October is Spookey Month: Some neat Japanese beliefs: You may find mei mystifying | The Japan Times

You may find mei mystifying | The Japan Times

This is a timely Halloween-related article by Mark Schreiber in that it covers the language of some Japanese beliefs, or superstitions.  I tend to favor the former term because of a folklore class I took years ago where my instructor taught the word "superstition" is a bit loaded.  Or has negative connotations.  I can't remember which aspect she stressed the most, but the point she made while discussing nomenclature-- that as a folklorist, your job is not to judge belief but simply to catalog it and research to understand its origins and meanings-- has stuck with me.  Schreiber's linguistic explanation of the Japanese word meishin just makes me long for that classroom again.  I'd love to discuss some of Schreiber's examples with that professor. She was very cool and open to turning the class into a forum for sharing because she absolutely loved what she was doing.

She made us read some fascinating books, too, all of which I kept after the semester instead of selling them back for beer money the way I did with almost every other required text.

My starting point for studying folklore was my lifelong fascination with "friend of a friend" tales.  You know, urban legends.  My friends and I grew up absolutely believing in Halloween apples with razor blades in them and hippie babysitters cooking infants in the oven.  Sometimes I think I really screwed up my life by not pursuing this interest on a professional level, rather than as just a hobby.  I'm not saying I'd have contributed much to the field, but I would have at least satisfied my curiosity and gotten paid to do so.

My favorite Japanese urban legend is Hanako and her haunted toilet, but just about any belief interests me.  Number-related ones.  Good luck finding an examination room labeled #4 at a Japanese clinic.  But other numbers have significance, too, and whenever I meet a new one, I try to find out as much as I can about it.

For example, just yesterday my wife and I were discussing the lousy weather and how it had her down.  She's working her butt off at three jobs and she's just plain tired.  Some of this she ascribed to this being her unlucky 33rd year.  The year you turn 33 is one of those ill-omened years.  Why is your 33rd year considered unlucky?  Is it any 365-day period before and after the birthday itself, or is it only the year in which you actually turn 33?

I'm disappointed we didn't have a chance to go into all that because we had other, more pressing things to discuss, but this belief is ingrained enough in her family her mom asked her to delay our wedding for one year to avoid the 33rd year misfortune.  That was news to me.  I knew, though, we chose our anniversary date to avoid inauspicious ones, which you can read about more in Schreiber's article.

In the meantime, make sure you have a full tank of gas if you and your partner park out at Lover's Lane, and if you have a Doberman as your animal companion, check its mouth in case of choking.  If you're in Japan, you should probably just stay out of school restrooms altogether.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fourth Annual October is Spookey Month: Japanese ghosts!

Halloween is the time for ghost stories, right? Well, in Japan, I believe that time is actually late summer, around the O-Bon holidays. But for our purposes, October is prime ghost time. I'm no expert on Japan or Japanese culture by any means, but I have watched a lot of Japanese horror stories on TV, enough to know Japanese horror is pretty different from what we're used to in North America and possibly Europe. Japanese ghost lore differs from what I grew up with as well. How?

Well, read this article and you'll know as much about it as I do.  When I read it, my main concern was in identifying what category Sadako of Ringu and Kayako of Ju-on fame fall into.  I've come to the conclusion they're both of the onryo, female ghosts who were abused in life.

There are two things about Japanese ghosts that really disturb me.  One is their behavior is often completely bizarre, and the other is they often turn up uninvited to your house. 

As we see in the Ringu and Ju-on films, onryo tend to crawl along the ground, but in other horror shorts, they perform extremely strange movements or inexplicable rituals before they strike.  In one short film I've watched several times, a group of ghosts in a Japanese inn loudly eat uncooked rice and swing their long, black Sadako-like hair to and fro before they do whatever it is they do to the protagonist, a high school girl unfortunate enough to wake up among her sleeping classmates to witness this bizarre spectacle.  When you sleep alone on a futon right after watching this, you're bound to have some crazy dreams of your own.  Stories like these seem to operate more on the logic of dreams than that of the waking world.  Even if that old stand-by revenge is the ghost's ultimate motive, the specific event emphasize the alien, even arbitrary, behavior of ghosts.  After all, as supernatural beings they exist outside life as we know it, so why should they be bound by familiar social mores or ?events set in motion, proceed along paths that are entirely strange to me when I'm awake and rational, but feel very familiar in times I've woken in the middle of the night from some frightening dream.

And unlike poltergeists or other Western-style ghosts, confined to a specific place such as a haunted house or a graveyard, a few Japanese ghosts have a tendency to roam around freely, and even show up uninvited to your house or apartment.  There's another short where a ghost keeps ringing the doorbell at a modern, well-lit apartment before letting herself in.  Other Japanese ghost tales are geographical in nature (Hanako in the toilet, the haunted inn the main character in Banana Yoshimoto's Hard-Boiled visits, the Miyazaki house in Ju-on just to name two), but you can never be sure the ghosts are going to stay where they belong.  So after experiencing this kind of horror, which appears to violate the rules we ex-pats have learned growing up, you can't comfort yourself with the old "If you hadn't visited the hotel/house/abandoned mental hospital, you'd have been just fine" story logic found in Western horror.

That's why if you're tired of slashers and "found footage" poltergeist flicks, you should spend some time on YouTube watching Japanese horror shorts, which you can find in the dozens.  The original Ju-on short about two girls meeting disaster while feeding rabbits at their school is probably still available there.  It's exactly what I'm talking about-- frightening because of its mix of the banal and the strange.

Fourth Annual October is Spookey Month: a video by the band that inspired my annual Halloween holiday tradition

This band is from right here in Hamamatsu.  They seem to be on the inactive list of late, but here's hoping they'll re-emerge soon with some new music.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fourth Annual October is Spookey Month: Does Halloween exist in Japan?

"Does Halloween exist in Japan?" or "Do people in Japan celebrate Halloween?"  People ask me variations on this question occasionally.  And by "people," I mean friends and relatives back home.  I'm not expert; I just live here.  The answer is, "Yes."

My first year living here, the local Toys-R-Us put a photo display in their front window of kids in Halloween costumes.  They also sold plastic or foam pumpkins and costumes for kids and adults.  The following fall, the teachers and some students of the conversation school where I worked had a Halloween costume party at a restaurant.  Later, I learned from some newspaper articles of police worries about costumed trouble-makers in Tokyo, but I don't think these people caused much mayhem that year. 

The next place I work always put a plastic jack-o-lantern out filled with cookies and candy on Halloween, and I passed out candy in my kid and adult classes.  If the students in a particular lesson had a high enough English level, we'd engage in a little season-appropriate discussion, usually about Halloween traditions and what costumes they'd wear if they went trick-or-treating.  One college student on her way to a semester in Canada really hoped she'd get to attend a Halloween party.

Another conversation school I briefly worked after that holds an annual Halloween party for its kid students and the instructors are all required to attend and wear costumes as well as supervise fun events.  I don't have any objections to that kind of thing although I changed jobs months before having to take part.  I think this is pretty common for conversation schools that like to include some exposure to foreign culture along with language studies.  A friend and his wife run their own school here and I think they either allow or encourage the kids to wear costumes on October 31st. 

Last year, a few students at the school where I currently work begged us to introduce a Halloween theme to our lessons the last week of the month, but it was already too late for us to do anything.  I did give out candy in our English Club, though, and we discussed the best way to kill various monsters. 

This year, there's apparently an event called "Sexy Halloween" in Nagoya.  And I've heard Tokyo Disneyland, which is also celebrating its 30th anniversary, has Halloween decorations.  I'm going to go ahead and assume Universal Studios Japan is doing the same thing, too.

Supermarkets have Halloween candy available, too.  Some even have special displays.  Seiyu, which recently sold Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, also sells costumes and decorations.  And, of course, Freshness Burger and Baskin-Robbins decorate.  Well, Freshness Burger did as recently as four years ago-- fake cobwebs and colorful jack-o-lantern posters.  Baskin-Robbins sells Halloween ice cream flavors, which we've already talked about.

So it seems Halloween is making inroads.  And why not?  I don't think I'm telling you anything too controversial when I declare Japan the top cosplay country in the world.  Haunted house attractions like the one that used to be in the basement of Zaza City here in Hamamatsu have a perennial appeal, and most of the kids I've taught know who Jason is and all about his hockey mask.  I've never seen any trick-or-treating here, though.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fourth Annual October is Spookey Month: Baskin-Robbins' Halloween flavors hit Japan again!

I grew up eating "ice milk," which is the pre-1980s name for what we now call low-fat ice cream.  That's why any trip to my hometown's Baskin-Robbins was a major treat.  Fatty ice cream is more delicious than any other kind.

Hamamatsu has at least 4 Baskin-Robbins stores, or, as they're known here in Japan, just "Thirty-One."  One not far from my old apartment in Sanaru-dai, one each in the two major malls in the suburbs and a central location right downtown in Zaza City, where it is now officially Halloween.

I can't read very many Japanese characters, so I'm not sure what those flavors are, but they're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky.  They're all together ooky.  An ice cream Halloween!

Melt-Banana: Being 'stupid' isn't so bad when it comes to touring | The Japan Times

Melt-Banana: Being 'stupid' isn't so bad when it comes to touring | The Japan Times

This is a fantastic interview with Melt-Banana.  As a veteran of playing shows for no people myself, it's fun to read about their early days with four people up front, or playing mostly for the venue's owner and the other bands on the bill.  They've been hardcore tour monsters for so long, I imagine they have thousands of anecdotes stored up about shows large and small.  With their newest album, "Fetch," now available and another North American tour in the offing, it's time to take another look at one of my favorite bands courtesy Yako, Agata and interviewer Ian Martin.

Their dedication, motivations and laser focus come across quite well in this chat.  The 3/11 earthquake/tsunami rattled them, just as it did everyone, but here they come again.  I'm going to miss Rika bouncing away in front of her amp (this interview is the first I've read that actively engages her absence at any length), but we've all come this far together and there's no point in backing out now, with all this challenging new music on the way.  I'm one of those fans in favor of bands evolving their sound and trying new things, and from what I've heard so far, "Fetch" is something special.

Oh, and their basic niceness.  When you feel like you have to play to those four people because they came out specifically to see you, that's nice.  I've seen this in action firsthand in my few, brief interactions with them at shows, although I'm way too shy to ask for a photo or any of that jazz.  Just seeing Yako talk to a couple of late-arriving fans and put them on the list so they could get into a sold-out show even though the entire thing grew out of a misunderstanding with the door guy remains a highlight and all I did was stand nearby and watch as it happened.  They also take the time to "like" even my lame comments on their Facebook feed. 

They are nice.

Usually I spend October blogging about Japanese monsters and ghosts, but this year October features two holidays.  One is the "Fetch" release date-- my copy should be heading my way as I type-- and the other is our more traditional, end-of-the-month horror fest.  We'll be dealing with "Fetch" as soon as it gets here and then we'll visit some haunted houses or invite ghosts into our apartment for a little talk.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My all-time favorite name for an ice cream bar

And it was soooo good!

SMAP has a new member!

We were at the supermarket the other day and saw this sign.  It seems SMAP has expanded its roster with a new member.

Who is this new guy?  I feel I've seen his face somewhere before...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Watashi no chīsana yūjin ni aisatsu

This little person-- I'm guessing it's a she-- was on our door Sunday morning.  Very curious about what I was doing, too.  By the time we came back, she was gone.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sometimes you're just in the mood to ride a Hello Kitty bus

I think this was in Shinjuku.  It was last year.  The bus dazzled my eyes and did something to my mind.

Monday, September 9, 2013

U.S. JET teacher features in 3/11 film | The Japan Times

U.S. JET teacher features in 3/11 film | The Japan Times

I never met Taylor Anderson, who was among the many lost to the March 11, 2011 tsunami here in Japan.  So many died that day it feels strange to single one person out, a stranger at that.  From our safe little house in the United States, my mom and I watched the news unfold that day and over the next few and we fretted and worried about a lot of people, about an entire country.

Later, after I returned to Japan, I lived for a short time (about four months) in a coastal city where several died and at least one of my students lost his house.  It seemed we felt tremblors ever week there.  Unsteady ground to start a second life in Japan.  Hard to find your feet.  The trainers in the main office talked of the 3/11 quake and tsunami pretty often and references to it turned up in company literature, especially around the first anniversary.  Strange to go from viewing something practically through a telescope to walking places where it happened.

Anyway, Taylor Anderson's story was one of many taking place that day.  As I've said, I never met her, so all I have to go on are the photos shown on TV and reminisces from people who did know her here in Japan. My sense of her is she was a person really getting the most out of her experience.  I find it easy to admire her.  Would I have ever made 50 personalized cards for my students' graduation?  I doubt it.  When I think of someone who would do something so simple but so lovely like that, I can't help but wish I were more like her.

It's easy to wish, but it's the doing that's the thing, isn't it?  Whether you're an ALT in Japan, or just someone reading this, make the most of wherever you are.  Do a little extra to help here and there. Be involved in your own life rather than just a passive observer.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Tokyoites celebrate triumphant 2020 Olympic bid | The Japan Times

Tokyoites celebrate triumphant 2020 Olympic bid | The Japan Times

People are happy.  I was in Georgia when Atlanta got the nod for the 1996 Games and I don't remember a reaction like this.  Then again, I can't even remember when the IOC announced Atlanta.  Prior to the 1992 Games, I guess.  Well, judging from the images on TV last night, Japan is ready to throw an Olympics party in 2020.  More than ready.

The three finalist cities each could have used this good news.  It's an especially tough break for Madrid, which has missed out on three in a row now.  I consider Spanish my second language (or at least Language 1.5) so there's an emotional connection there.  I feel a little bit of the heartbreak being felt by everyone there who put in long hours and hard work in the hopes of attracting the Olympics.  On the other hand, I live in Japan where the nation has weathered a major natural disaster and an ongoing human-made one as a result and I feel a very strong soul-connection here, too.

Now the real work begins.  I would not want to live in Tokyo itself.  Being roughly 200 miles away is close enough.  The government has to build a lot of Olympics infrastructure and it's going to be very noisy and inconvenient in places around where they've planned the venues.  Preparations will dominate news stories more and more as the opening date comes closer.  Then two blazing weeks of hoopla.  After that, the clean up.

There's no doubt in my mind Tokyo will put on some impressive games.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Congratulations, Tokyo!

Woke up this morning to find a friend on my Facebook feed congratulating Tokyo for winning its bid to host the 2020 Olympics.  Which means I was wrong the other day.  That's fine.  I've been wrong before, I'll be wrong again.  I'm just happy I didn't put any money on Madrid.

This will be huge news here in Japan this week.  Just the announcement inspired a TV show my wife and I watched last night where a panel of celebrities discussed whether or not Tokyo would get to host the Olympics.  Their conclusion, unsurprisingly, was, "Yes, Tokyo is the best candidate and therefore will win."

Well.  Here we go.

Friday, September 6, 2013

First single from Melt-Banana's latest!

Here it is, "The Hive," the first single from Melt-Banana's upcoming album fetch.  This song may continue too much of what we call "melody" in the traditional sense for some fans-- I'm guessing. because there's an element to any band's following that is resistant to any change and bands like Melt-Banana are already enough out of the mainstream they attract this in droves-- but judging from my first listen, the band builds on the more accessible elements of its last album, Bambi's Dilemma, while still offering enough of their characteristic propulsive beats and sonic weirdness the sound remains instantly recognizable.

In less pretentious terms-- I like it.  I like it a lot.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Experts uncertain about Tokyo bid | The Japan Times

Experts uncertain about Tokyo bid | The Japan Times

The outlook for Tokyo as host of the 2020 Olympics is not so sunny at the moment.  Tokyo seemed to be the front-runner over the summer but with the Fukushima nuclear disaster continuing like a drunk uncle determined to ruin a family reunion it seems the International Olympic Committee will favor staying elsewhere for the next sports holidays.

I'm covering my own concerns with a bit of glibness (this is my way), but this whole Fukushima mess is a worry.  Watching the initial accident from the US, I felt our media took an alarmist view.  I'd have to go back and watch video to decide now if I was wrong then.  But as we've all learned since, the situation was and remains a lot worse than the power company and government let on.  I'm not too surprised at how this information has been a slow leak itself.  I don't blame Japan as an entity for this.  This isn't unique.  This is how officials do things just about everywhere.  There are many reasons and a few of them are even nice ones, but the end result is always the same.

The three choices this time all feature their drawbacks, but a civil war next door or radiation leaking into the sea both seem insurmountable.  So my guess is Madrid, the one with mostly economic troubles, will host the games this time.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

More twisters touch down in Kanto | The Japan Times

More twisters touch down in Kanto | The Japan Times

Our Tuesday English Club did a discussion activity based on the tornado that hit Saitama earlier in the week and here we go again.  The main photo in this latest article shows a flooded street in Nagoya, which is the next largest city to the west.  Practically our next-door neighbor.

We live up in the hills, so I don't think we have much danger of flooding here.  Last night you could smell the rain as it approached, that musty, wet odor that fills the nostrils.  Later, the rain fell hard, loudly banging on our roof.  It woke me and I groggily thought about leaks and the possibility of waking up in the morning to no electricity, but I wasn't worried enough to lose much sleep over it.

But more tornados?  Japan is becoming a lot like home to me in more than one way.

JET alumni: Advocates for Japan | The Japan Times

JET alumni: Advocates for Japan | The Japan Times

I don't know how effective the JET program is in its mission to increase English proficiency here in Japan. Seriously.  I'm not about to knock the JET program.  I'm just telling you I haven't looked at any figures on its effectiveness.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must believe in it, since he's planning to expand the program.

Good idea?  Bad idea?  My gut feeling is-- and I'm writing this as an English teacher in Japan with an admitted bias-- it's a very good idea.  Let others debate with stats and quotes.  On a day-to-day basis, the teachers I work with and I knock ourselves out to put lessons across and get kids speaking and understanding English.  It's in my nature to hope for and expect similar situations at other schools where these JETs will work.  Most importantly, I'm simply in favor of people in all countries learning (or trying to learn, even in a half-assed way) second, third or even fourth languages.  Language learning in general is a positive thing.  If nothing else, it teaches you to appreciate how lucky you are to have natural abilities in your native language.  And I advocate to any young person interested in doing so to give Japan a try for a year.

Check these guys out in the link above.  It's fun reading about people who came over, had a ball, then went back, did a few things only to return to Japan in another capacity.  The people in this Japan Times article about JET alumni are success stories, and that's fun, too.

I think Japan is a fine place to live.  I came over with a big conversation school chain that shall remain nameless, but I flirted with the JET program.  The reason I didn't apply to be a JET is simple-- I missed the deadline and I didn't want to wait another year for the next one.  I found a faster way.  Within six months I had a working visa and a job in Japan and I've been here on and off ever since.  My experiences here have been overwhelmingly positive.  Maybe I've lived a charmed existence.

At the very least, it can't hurt to look into the JET program and decide for yourself if it's something to do.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Tin Man's throne: the rise and fall of a Roppongi royal | The Japan Times

Tin Man's throne: the rise and fall of a Roppongi royal | The Japan Times

What goes on, what goes on!  This is a fascinating story. 

As you've probably gathered, I'm not a Roppongi person, not a nightclubber.  For people who do love the Roppongi nightlife, I don't frown upon such activities.  You know, dancing, hook-ups and all that stuff.  Not even the occasional use of illicit substances that may or may not be mind-altering.  I'm not judging at all. 

There was a time when I could dance all night, consume massive quantities and do a little mutual touching with similarly inclined strangers, but I was always what we disparagingly refer to as a "hipster" these days.  I wasn't into dressing up in designer brands and hunting down the newest club beats when I wanted to get sweaty.  I wore cheap t-shirts or gas station shirts I bought with friends at the flea market and I wanted 80s hits played ironically, the occasional Madonna or Michael Jackson track slipped in sincerely and a whole lot of rock and roll, funk and straight up R&B. 

To get my fill of this stuff, I find karaoke the most efficient provider these days, and the last time I drank a beer I fell asleep about an hour later.  I'm still up for live shows, but most of the ones I'm interested in take place on nights before workdays and very far away in Nagoya, Tokyo or Osaka.  When I was in my 20s, I could have shown up, caught the last shinkansen back and work the next morning feeling a little muzzy but available.  At twice that age, there's no way.  It would take me two days to recover, so I can't be bothered unless I can check into a hotel and make it an overnight trip.  Besides, my wife cannot bear cigarette smoke and I don't want to subject her to that kind of unpleasantness.  I can't have fun when she's feeling miserable.  To sum up, these days I'm a very boring person at night. I like to read or watch a movie or just watch my wife do Sudoku.

Let the kids have their fun while they're able.  That's my motto.  On the other hand, I can't resist a sordid story of people slipping along the edges of legality.

Never write about Roppongi?  My second blog entry on the area today.  But no more.  Back to other kinds of foolishness.

Tokyo: How would you describe Roppongi in one word? | The Japan Times

Tokyo: How would you describe Roppongi in one word? | The Japan Times

You may or may not have noticed I never write about Roppongi.  I've spent plenty of time in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Akihabara and even Ikebukuro, but I rarely go to Roppongi.  I think I've been there twice, once with a friend at night.  We went to a yakiniku restaurant and then a couple of tiny bars owned by friends of hers where we had fun with an intimate group of people who all knew each other extremely well.  The second time was just passing through during the day after visiting a museum.

All I know of Roppongi is what I've read in the papers.  Foreigners getting arrested for drugs.  That's the stereotype supported by that kind of reportage.  I skip the Roppongi section in the guidebooks.  This is why I have a slightly negative view of Roppongi and why it doesn't really interest me.  I have to say the last comment in this Japan Times article is very mature for a seventeen year old, and very well-stated for any age. That person is a lot smarter than I am, that's for sure!

Family Restaurants in Japan

We don't exactly have a family, but we go to family restaurants a lot.  They're casual, sometimes the food is delicious and we like them.  Our favorite is probably Gusto, but we spend most of our time at Joyfull.

Joyfull has several advantages over Gusto.  The first is the food is a lot cheaper.  The second is we don't have to drive as far, or we can even walk if the weather is pleasant.  And while the menu choices can't compare in variety even to Denny's, Joyfull features a free-refill drink bar for which they give you free tickets each time you eat there.  We also like the Joyfull "Classic Chocolate Cake," which is almost a brownie wedge and topped with a thick, fudge-like coating and sprinkled with a little powdered sugar.

Besides Joyfull and Gusto, we like Royal Host and Denny's.  Denny's is a classic choice in Japan and hanging out there became such a past time for high school students at one point they even coined the verb deniru, literally meaning, "do Denny's," or to hang out there.  I learned that from a slang book; I've yet to hear anyone actually say it and it probably died out a long time ago.  Hanging at Denny's has not, however.  Royal Host has the best food out of all the family restaurants we've been to, but it's a bit pricey.

We tried Jonathan's in Tokyo, but we were less than impressed.  You may feel otherwise.  There's one in Harajuku that I think makes a fine place to regroup, breathe a little, drink some coffee or tea and then hit the crowds again.

Saizeriya is worth stopping at if you feel the need to try family restaurant dining as well.  It's supposed to be an Italian restaurant, I think, but it feels more like a step up from Joyfull.

What else is there?  I've eaten at TGI Fridays in both Shibuya and Ikebukuro and stuffed my face with American-sized portions of food.  And there are probably many more I've never even heard of.

Then there's this guy.

Check him out.  He's looking at you!

Big Boy has a drink bar... I think.  What I know for certain is Big Boy has some pretty good shoestring fries.  Order a basket and share with friends.  Shoot, order two!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Miyazaki retiring, says Studio Ghibli chief | The Japan Times

Miyazaki retiring, says Studio Ghibli chief | The Japan Times

I wonder what retirement in this case truly means.  Have we heard the last of Hayao Miyazaki?  I doubt it.  If we have, I'd say he's made several definitive statements during his career and doesn't owe anyone a thing at this point.  But considering his artistic achievements over the years and the joy he's given millions of movie-goers, we owe Miyazaki a massive world-wide round of applause and a very loud, "Arigato gozaimashita, Miyazaki-sensei!"

Here's a little personal anecdote concerning Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.  My father had Alzheimer's in his final years and lost a lot of his ability to comprehend television and movies.  Lack of effect.  Even baseball no longer interested him.  I can't say why, exactly, but a doctor could probably describe it very well.  I think it was because the images no longer connected in any meaningful way.  We as a family knew this was a sign he was going away from us little by little.

At the time I had no real interest in anime and certainly no plan to move to Japan, hadn't even seriously considered it.  I did, however, read a number of extremely positive reviews for the latest Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away.  Roger Ebert, in particular, gushed over it and convinced me I had to see it.  For whatever reason, I put it off until it left the theaters in Athens.  One weekend I visited my parents in Albany and saw in the newspaper the local movie house still had Spirited Away.  My dad and I decided to go see it.  He didn't care anything about Spirited Away and probably couldn't even have pronounced its Japanese title if you spotted him the Chihiru and the Kamikakushi.  He wanted to go simply because I wanted to go.

Even in his prime years, ol' Dad could rarely make it through a movie in a dark theater without falling asleep, and considering his mental state at the time, I just assumed I'd watch the movie and he'd have a nice nap and then we'd go get a snack or something.  It had happened before, many times.  When I was too young to see Blade Runner, rated R, my dad, whose idea of a great movie was Blazing Saddles (I agree with him, naturally) took me and slept through it.  He did these things he wasn't interested in because he was that kind of dad.  My brothers played sports and that took up a lot of his time, but I liked weird movies and he tried to indulge me when he could, and he did so gladly.  In the Alzheimer's days, I really tried to make every moment with him count, too.  Just having him near me was extremely important.  Less than a year later, I'd be living on the other side of the world.

So off we went and the most interesting thing happened.  About halfway into the movie, I checked on him to see if he'd fallen asleep.  I saw his eyes glinting in the screen light.  They were wide open.  Unblinking.  His expression reminded me of years before, when he was healthy in body and mind, and my parents and I went to Disney World.  Out of all the attractions we rode the one he got the most out of was the horse-drawn trolley on Main Street, U.S.A.  It made a huge impression on him.  If we'd traveled all that way simply to have a horse pull us in a trolley, he'd have considered it a successful vacation.

Watching Spirited Away, with its rich colors and vividly-realized fantasy environment, the huge magical bath house full of talking frogs, radish spirits and bumbling heads, Dad wore the same look.  The engaged trolley expression.  I was so caught up in the movie I can't be sure he stayed awake for its entire running time.  And not knowing what went on in his mind I can't really be certain he got a whole lot out of the story.  Something about it captured his attention for an extended period, though, which rarely happened that year.  I asked him afterwards if he'd enjoyed it and he told me he had.  That was about the extent of our conversation on Spirited Away.  We probably went to Subway for a late lunch after that (that man loved his Subway), but we could just as easily have headed home.  I don't remember that part of the day.

But I will never forget that look, his expression there in the half-light.  I think about that and I'm happy we went to see Spirited Away together.  As lovely a movie as it is on its on, it will always have an extra meaningfulness for me because it provided one of my last happy Dad memories.

Melt-Banana at Club Heavy Sick, Hatagaya, April 29, 2012

These are pretty awful but they document the last Melt-Banana show I saw with Rika on bass. This was a very nice weekend, everything going extremely well, perhaps even perfectly. Here's Heavy Sick, just a two or three minute walk from my hotel:

Let's see if we've come to the right place.  We have--

Sold out! Oh no!  But what's this?

I bought my ticket the day before because I've never been to a Melt-Banana show that hasn't sold out.  It was nerve-wracking cutting it even that close, but the end result was I got to hang out with some really cool people and experience some music I wouldn't have under other circumstances while buying my ticket to the Melt-Banana show.  So it pays to keep yourself open for new kinds of fun.

But at least one other couple had the good fortune of getting involved in a language mix-up with the door person and having Yako herself come out of Heavy Sick and add them to the audience list.  That made everyone feel good.  Added a positive vibe to an already ultra-smooth evening.

Heavy Sick is very small.

Here are images from the show itself.

And there you have it.  I have no idea what Rika is up to these days, but Melt-Banana is a duo.  We saw them next on Christmas Day the same year.  They played most of the same songs from this set.  Sorry my photos are so lousy this time around.  I'd blame the camera but it was all me.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Two more old Melt-Banana photos...

I took these at Shibuya O-Nest but I can't for the life of me remember when. 2009? That seems about right. There's a blog post on it around here somewhere and maybe some video as well.

Melt-Banana may have a new album this fall.  Well, yes, it turns out they do indeed.  It's called fetch and it's due in in October.  Now that they're officially a duo, I'm anxious to hear if their sound has mutated as a result.  The band will tour North America in support of the album's release.  They're calling it the "2 do what 2 fetch" North American Tour 2013, and I'm sure it will be a soul-changing event for those of you lucky enough to attend. Here's the schedule:

10-16 Vancouver at The Biltmore Cabaret (CANADA)
10-17 Seattle at Chop Suey (WA, USA)
10-18 Portland at Dante’s (OR, USA)
10-19 Boise at Nuerolux (ID, USA)
10-20 Salt Lake City at Urban Lounge (UT, USA)
10-21 Denver at The Larimer Lounge (CO, USA)
10-23 Minneapolis at Triple Rock Social Club (MN, USA)
10-24 Milwaukee at The Cactus Club (WI, USA)
10-25 Grand Rapids at The Pyramid Scheme (MI, USA)
10-26 Cleveland at Grog Shop (OH, USA)
10-27 Chicago at Double Door (IL, USA)
10-28 Pontiac at The Crofoot Ballroom (MI, USA)
10-29 Toronto at Lee's Palace (CANADA)
10-31 Philadelphia at Union Transfer (PA, USA)

11-01 Brooklyn at Saint Vitus (NY, USA)
11-02 Providence at AS220 (RI, USA)
11-03 Boston at The Sinclair (MA, USA)
11-04 Washington, D.C. at Black Cat - Backstage (DC, USA)
11-05 Chapel Hill at Local 506 (NC, USA)
11-06 Atlanta at 529 (GA, USA)
11-08 Dallas at Club Dada (TX, USA)
11-09 Austin at Fun Fun Fun Festival (TX, USA)
11-11 Albuquerque at Launchpad (NM, USA)
11-12 Phoenix at Last Exit (AZ. USA)
11-13 Los Angeles at The Troubadour (CA, USA)
11-14 San Deigo at The Casbah (CA, USA)
11-15 Pomona at The Glasshouse (CA, USA)
11-16 Oakland at The Oakland Metro Operahouse (CA, USA)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Big typhoon heads toward Kyushu | The Japan Times

Big typhoon heads toward Kyushu | The Japan Times

When it's Friday and I hear the words "taifun" and "Do-yobi" tossed about, I always do a quick Google weather search to see if a typhoon is coming.  There have been 15 typhoons so far this year, with one on its way to Kyushu at this moment.  This isn't to say it will affect Hamamatsu, but since it affects school operations if it does, we have to be aware of the possibility.

The students, of course, anticipate typhoon days the way we used to snow or ice days in Georgia.  A typhoon coming through Shizuoka prefecture means school closings, either cancelling an afternoon schedule or an entire day's worth.  For teachers it means making sure the kids get home quickly and, most importantly, safely.  Then we get to go home.  As adults, how we manage that is our own look out.

This is different from when I worked at conversation schools.  Typhoon days for eikaiwa can mean increased class loads from people who stayed home from work who have lesson tickets to use.  Yeah, too dangerous to go to work or proper school, perfect for brushing up on your language skills.  At my last conversation school, we had a set schedule every week which didn't change for typhoons, although students had more freedom to cancel and make the day up another time.  That's sensible.  We teachers still had to get there, although if situations proved dangerous enough we might have been asked to stay home.

That never happened, so I walked or rode my bike in some interesting gales.  The first was in Toyohashi, which is a windy city to begin with.  The rain that day slashed horizontally, soaking me from shoulders to shoes.  I spent the morning with wet pants and squishy socks.  My umbrella only kept my bald head dry.  The windows to our branch looked more like the glass sides of aquariums without fish.  We might as well have been in Nemo's Nautilus.  Another time, in Hamamatsu, I left work on a stormy night and found the streets eerily, apocalyptically empty.  Traffic lights signaling to no one when to stop or when to go, swaying, unseen shutters banging or awnings flapping loudly.  All that natural energy from wind and rain contrasting with the still streets.  It felt movie-like, or like a particularly atmospheric first-person video game I'd played where you had to accomplish your mission in a trailer park threatened by a tornado (if I'm remembering correctly).

These days typhoons usually mean I spend an afternoon and night without power.  This has happened twice last year, both times typhoons scored bulls-eyes on Shizuoka.  I'm predicting it will happen again this year, but with two of us being affected.

Stressed expats need, but oft sidestep real help: therapist | The Japan Times

Stressed expats need, but oft sidestep real help: therapist | The Japan Times

Moving to Japan often sounds cool.  If you're like me, you've had a lifelong fascination with Japan so living there seems the ideal way to explore the culture firsthand.  Or else you're fresh out of college and spending a year teaching English in Japan looks like a fun way to make some money, meet some friends and experience a little living-- the kind of stuff you can talk about when you get back to Australia, Canada, the UK or even the little ol' United States.  There are also people just passing through for business reasons, or military deployment.  Out of all of these people, a few from each batch really settle in and become lifers.  Ex-pats.  They build lives here in Japan and have little need or desire to move back to their original countries.

Whatever your motivation for coming here, you have to be aware that Japan-- while cool and awesome and even boring and banal-- can be a hard place to adjust to.  I've been here on and off for ten years, I have a full-time job with benefits and, best of all, a wonderful wife.  I've carved out my own little niche here, and I'm happy with it and how my life is going.  And yet even I run into things I just don't like, or freak me out.  Taibatsu, for example.  People working long hours out of obligation (although there are probably a lot of people who work those endless days because they just love doing it).  Kids in cram schools until 10pm then doping off at regular school the next day, with "sleeping" as their heart's desire and hobby.  To live here you have to learn to roll with this stuff and understand the way things happen back home isn't necessarily the "correct" way and everything else just weird variations of real life but rather the correct way for people to do things here.

People make their accommodation to life here in different ways.  Ex-pats clump together, which is only natural for people sharing an experience and the common bond of nationality or cultural background.  And language.  Don't discount the importance of being able to speak English at your natural speaking speed and with your full vocabulary.  In my city, there's a very active ex-pat social scene where a lot of people know each other and throw barbecues and have meet-ups.  But they also get involved in their Japanese communities, engaging with their neighbors, joining in festivals.  A group here organizes beach clean-ups.  Some people completely immerse themselves in Japan, pursuing traditional arts, learning hundreds of kanji and taking proficiency tests.

For me, the adjustment deal involved hitting Tokyo alone as often as possible and learning the fashion and musical groups.  I'm kind of a "half-in/half-out" person, very independent, resistant to schedules and calendar dates marked with ink.  I don't take naturally to groups and I'm happiest reading or creating art or just puttering around with a blog or editing a little movie.  Or watching movies, since I'm a cinema buff.  I observe life around me and I'm content most of the time.  But some of my best times have been just doing things spontaneously, just walking into a restaurant I've never tried before, or getting totally lost in Shibuya or Ikebukuro.  Finding myself in a surging mass of bodies at a rock show in some tiny, out-of-the-way venue, having gotten there on my own.  Walking with a friend down an alley in Kyoto on a miserably wet and cold October day and accepting the gift of umbrellas from a kind stranger in a car.  Deciding with my wife on the spur of the moment to rent a boat and cruise around Lake Hamana on a choppy day.

When you come-- and if you're interested in doing so, I highly recommend it, especially if you've read this blog post this far hoping for a little epiphany on the matter-- you have to find your own way.  I certainly don't recommend you isolate yourself, which is very easy to do if you're a little afraid.  Japan rewards those who try, those who go out and look for things.  But above all, if you find yourself down or angry a lot of the time, don't hold it in.  Seek professional help.  I even did that at one point, a few months of phone therapy with a very empathetic therapist.

It's completely okay to feel stressed.  It's not a sign you're doing things wrong here, just a sign you're human like everyone else.  A lot of people are stressed.  Hang in there, seek out what you need here and enjoy yourself.  Not everyone gets to move overseas.  You're really a very lucky person.

Some old pics I snapped of some of Melt-Banana in action...

Found these today looking for old videos I made. They're Melt-Banana performing at Earthdom in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo in 2007 or 2008. I kind of like these.

I'm not a fan of myself as a photographer, but I will always be a fan of Melt-Banana.