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.