Dec 4, 2007

In Which I Resolve to Keep on Studying, Despite Having Grammar Destroy My Brain, and Subsequently Gaze Upon Impressive Wooden Contraptions

At Nihon University's Funabashi campus, I realized that I've still got a long way to go.

At the store, station, or in small conversations I can usually make myself understood in Japanese in a broad, general way. Lots of hand gestures and grammatical approximations and such. In other words, I'm okay at communicating.

But this weekend, faced with the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, third level, asking me about the specifics and such of Japanese grammar, I had quite a bit of trouble. I could read everything on the test- oddly, I found the Kanji section to be the easiest. But when it came to choosing between subtly different sentences and properly using adverbs, I found myself at a loss.

I know I failed the test, and I stressed out about this for some time before hand, but oddly, now, it doesn't really bother me. If anything, I'm more motivated now to study and learn more, shoring up my grammar and such.

After having my brain liquified by the test, though, Kori and I headed out to Saitama Prefecture to the small town of Chichibu. We were meeting up with a few coworkers to attend Chichibu's annual winter festival, considered one of the best in Japan. And, it was indeed something.

We showed up in the evening, and already a bevy of stalls selling grease-laden festival food had been set up near the station. Fireworks exploded overhead at intermittent intervals, and as we exited the train platform we could hear the sounds of taiko.

But, the main draws of the festival were the floats.

Well, I don't know if I can really call them "floats," actually. When I think of a parade float in English, I think of some gaudily colored chassis that's been put on a truck. These floats were nothing like that. They were more like mobile shrines, some larger than small buildings, each pulled by a team of people in festive uniforms. The things creaked as they moved, the wood of the wheels squeaking and creaking against the frame, forming a creaking accompaniment to the sight of these huge, brightly colored vehicles.

All of this thrilled me. Not only the sight of the things, but the whole of it. The teams of people in costume pulling the things about, the fireworks, and the hugeness of the crowds. More than once we were approached by (to all appearances, drunk) Japanese people who decided that we'd be fun to speak English with. Normally, this sort of thing annoys me, but on that particular evening I was more amused than anything else.

We crashed at a coworker's place, and the next day saw it all again in the daylight. This time, the food stalls were out in force, I found myself freely indulging in eating greasy festival stuff. After sampling the street food, I now find the common stereotype that Japanese food is so healthy to be sort of laughable. Everything in sight (and smell) was something "yaki." That is, fried on a hot skillet. There was takoyaki (fried octopus), okonomiyaki (fried veggies and meat), yakitori (fried chicken), meat on sticks, sausages, sweets, and all manner of other decadence. Sure, miso soup and natto might be the ultimate in health foods, but Japan seems as adept as any place in terms of piling on the grease.

Even more people were out during the day, and the floats made an encore appearance. Convenient for me, as I'm not exactly adept at taking nighttime pictures. It was a blast, and after some time, Kori and I got back on the train for Tokyo, going through a landscape that, with its trees and hills, looked uncannily like the northwest.

Not a bad weekend in the slightest. It's not all the time that I get to have my brain melted by an academic pursuit, and then my senses overloaded with stimuli all in a 24 hour period. Life is good.
BubbleShare: Share photos - Safe Toys

Nov 23, 2007

Even Amidst the Millions, Routine

I've moved to the Tokyo area, and this is what my life is like right now-

I wake up in Funabashi, Kori's town, most mornings. Funabashi is in Chiba, but is basically one of the several towns that are indistinguishable from Tokyo. It's a place where neon alleyways and the sound of trains are never far away, where the streets run thick with pedestrians even when I come back at nearly eleven at night, and where massive blocks of concrete hold up the various train lines that criss-cross Kanto like electronic blood vessels.

Every morning, I board one of those massive, noisy electronic blood vessels and make my way out to Narita, where I work. Invariably, the train is filled with dozing commuters and dozens of travelers, slumped upon rolling suitcases, ready to leave this archipelago in favor of a jaunt away. Perhaps others are Chinese or Korean immigrants, returning home. There are sometimes a few westerners.

I work with another native English speaker, so my schedule is lighter now. In Okayama, it was only me and a Japanese man at our school. He would teach the low level classes, teaching them “what,” and “who,” and “how,” and I would teach the advanced classes. Now, I work with another American man and two Japanese women, and my schedule is more cleared out. I have more time to read and study Japanese, more time to stare at the trees and sloping temple view from my classroom, more time to make lesson plans and be lost in my thoughts.

At night, after ten when school is over, I usually return to Funabashi. Kori, is there, of course. Even after ten the trains bustle with salarymen and sleeping pedestrians, suitcase carrying travelers and commuters. I wind my way through the dark, but hardly deserted streets, and walk along the tracks. All the while, trains blustering like Kanto's blood vessels beside me as I make my way back.

I'm enjoying this, and find it remarkable that even in the world's largest city, simple routines prevail. Of course, this makes sense when one thinks about it. On the weekends, we dip into the insanity and the bustle of the metropolis, and it's amazing. Perhaps irregularities will show up. But for now, my daily system is clear- teach, commute, and return. All the while, surrounded by the bustle millions.

Nov 19, 2007

In Which I Move. Also, I Mingle With the Myriad Freaks.

About a month and a half ago, I was at a party on a boat in Tokyo harbor when someone, a guy in IT, asked me how long I'd been in Japan.

"A year," I told him.

"Oh," he replied, "so you must be getting pretty settled, then."

"Yes," I said, "which is why I'm moving."

He seemed puzzled by this, and I told him that I didn't want to be settled, that I didn't want things to become ordinary. I came here trying to get away from the ordinary, and early on in my stay I decided that if I were to keep on in Japan for more than a year, I would move to a different city. I considered Osaka and Kyoto as well, but when I visited Tokyo for the first time last March, I immediately fell in love with the place. Not only that, but I fell in love with Kori as well. The busy streets of Osaka and the temples of Kyoto were fine to visit, but I knew that I might as well go for the big one: Tokyo, a massive sprawl that I now live, comfortably, on the outskirts of.

Sayonara, Okayama

I hate, and sort of love, cleaning out apartments. On the morning of my move, the sun was brightly shining through the tower apartment that I'll probably never see again, and I was blasting Japanese hip-hop into the sunlight. The mix CD was a goodbye gift from my rap-loving coworker, and I found myself liking it a great deal. I'm continually fascinated by how Japan processes and then spits out other western, and was quite liking the bilingual hip-hop blaring from my speakers. I'd slept little the night before- partially out because I'd been out late, and partially because of excitement.

I cleaned out my place, packed up the last of my things, and sat down to way for my successor, who was quite late. When he did show up, he looked like the dead. The night before, my school's staff had thrown a goodbye party for me, and my replacement had a fair amount of booze foisted upon him. Having to move the next day, I was smart enough to avoid abject drunkenness. But, my replacement, new to Japan, seemed to have succumbed to the alcohol-soaked zombification that Japan can inflict upon foreigners.

"Here's the apartment," I said, showing him around and giving him the keys. He took in the place, and I packed away my things into a taxi. I'm actually quite happy with my replacement- I worked with him for a week, he observing my classes and me watching him teach, and I felt entirely at ease with his capabilities. My students, I know, are in good hands. However, the last I saw of him was as a bewildered, nauseous, and dead-looking foreigner. I'd been in his position a few times. It's part of the learning process, in a way.

I boarded the Shinkansen to Tokyo, and leaned back in my seat, sleeping intermittently. When I woke up, near Shizuoka, I could see Mt. Fuji massively looming up through my window. I'd never seen it before on any of my trips on the train before- it had either been cloudy, or I'd been asleep, reading, or on the other side of the train. This time, though, I woke up just in time to see the conical, snow-capped mountain looming over a bristling industrial field.

I was thrilled to be unsettled.

"So, what do you do?" "I work at the airport."

I live, now, in Narita, which is about 35 miles from Tokyo proper, and an hour away by train. It's a nice placement, actually. My school is right next to the train station, and my apartment only 15 minutes away on foot. Kori lives in Funabashi, about 45 minutes away from Narita, and fairly close in to Tokyo proper. My commute, then, is fairly good for Kanto- my work is 20 minutes away from my own place, and an hour away from my girlfriend's. I go against traffic both to and from Narita, so I can sit down and read on the train, which makes the commute pass rather quickly. Best of all, I don't have to change trains. This is the land of two hour commutes and train switches, so I have it quite good, actually.

My school overlooks downtown Narita, and from my window I've got a direct view of Nartia-San, the city's famous Buddhist temple. From my window, I can see the sloping green roof and the tall main pagoda with it's gold spire jutting from trees. It's an ideal sort of landscape view, actually. Almost all of my students are involved in some form or fashion with Narita International Airport, which serves as Tokyo's (and indeed, all of Japan's) main link with the rest of the world. Regrettably, I don't have very many kids' classes.

What I've found strange about Narita, though, is the sheer amount of foreigners. In Okayama, I did a double take when I saw another foreign person. In Narita, I can't seem to walk down the street without seeing non-Japanese people. I suppose this makes sense, what with the gigantic international airport and all.

It makes me happy, though, that my first year in Japan was in Okayama, a fairly English-free place. I was motivated to learn Japanese because of the undeniable necessity of it. Now I'm studying not only for pragmatic reasons, but also because I've discovered that I love foreign languages. I question, though, whether or not I'd have discovered this new passion if I'd initially been placed in Narita. My coworker seems to get by without speaking a word of Japanese, and that makes me slightly apprehensive that my studying may slacken a little. I don't think it will- I get far too much joy out of learning to stop.

In Okayama, I was one of two foreigners who didn't really speak Japanese. In Kanto, though, it seems normal for the westerners to not speak any Japanese. I find this really surreal, actually, the sheer amount of people who haven't really bothered with the language. So, I've gone from being the odd man out because I could only speak a little and could only have basic conversations, to being someone who's considered skilled because I can speak a little and have basic conversations. Two nights ago, a student asked me if I could read Kanji. I replied that I could read a few.

"How many is a few?" she asked.

"About 450 or so," I said, sheepishly, "But I don't know all the proper pronunciations and word combinations."

"What?! Wow!" she replied.

In Okayama, a foreigner who knew about 450 Kanji was illiterate. Here, a foreigner who knows about 450 is considered skilled.


The Panoply of Incandescent Awesomeness: In Which I Peruse The Offerings of Tokyo's Hipster Population, and Am Pleased With My Findings

The Tokyo Big Sight is rather aptly named.

Going there yesterday for the Tokyo Design Festa, I sort of wondered how I'd find the place after getting off the train. There was no need, really. Tokyo's gigantic conference hall fills the skyline heavily, and in yesterday's sunset I looked to it eagerly, happy that I now live in the largest urban area in the world. I'd come to the Design Festa to visit a friend of mine, a ceramics artist, who had a booth there. I went for purely personal reasons, and didn't really anticipate or think about what the rest of the outing might entail. I was pleasantly surprised.

The Big Sight, of course, is huge, and the Festa, which occurs every six months, took up a good half of it. The other half was taken up by a Dentistry convention. In the convention hall, I had to spend quite some time before I found my friend's pottery booth, and was amazed at the sheer amount of artists and displays in the offering. After saying hello to my friend and buying one of her tea cups, I set out to the rest of it.

Here's a bit of what I saw: A booth with various comical depictions of snot, extremely intricate doll houses, several graffiti murals, innumerable t-shirts, lots of girls wearing cat ear hats, a guy dressed as a leather-clad panda, another guy dressed as Winnie-the-Pooh, some very loud, abstract heavy metal videos, stained glass depicting characters from Hamlet, a guy who seemed to paint nothing but skeletal samurai, a trio of folks dressed as long-nosed aliens who walked about the hall waving and shaking everyone's hands, several grotesque horror movie monster sculptures, caricature artists, breakdancers, poets accompanied by bass players, a giant pillow made to look like curry and rice that the creators invited people to take naps on, an S&M rope-tying demonstration, three girls wearing dresses made out of balloons (think of balloon animals, but in gown form), random paintings, installment-style sculptures, traditional Thai dancing, and more goths, gothic lolitas, punks, cosplayers, and random freaks than you could swing a cat at.

The whole thing was incredible. I'm definitely going to the next one in May.

I found this all especially refreshing because I just read a book called Polite Lies by Kyoko Mori, a memoir by a Japanese woman who has since relocated to the States. I hated this book.

She has a few interesting observations to make, but for the most part I found her monochromatically negative depiction of all things Japanese to be incredibly irritating. Mori obviously had an abusive father, a depressed and tragically suicidal mother, and a complete bitch of a stepmom. However, the logical leap that she seems to make in her book is "My childhood was awful. I spent my childhood in Japan. Therefore, Japan is awful." Japan, according to Mori, is a colorless conservative, repressive place dominated by etiquette and hierarchy. This is true in some instances, but there's far more to this country than just the conservative element. Had she written about having a bad childhood, that would have been fine. But she seems to use her childhood as a referendum on an entire country, and that's quite unfair.

Walking around the Big Sight, I wondered what Mori would think of the congregation of Tokyo's freak population, whether she'd dismiss them as an aberrant minority or brothers and sisters in arms. Or perhaps she'd take a uniquely negative position and say: "Look how repressive Japan is- it turns the youth into graffiti-painting hooligans who dress up as cartoon characters and animals!"

In any case, I thought, amidst the artists weirdos, that countries, like people, are complicated. Mori's nasty simplicity, I thought, had to be wrong. If Japan can produce the fantastically weird stuff that was invading my eyes, then there was no way it could be the bland country she described. True, Japan's corporate culture and gender politics still have a long way to go, but walking around the panoply of the awesome and weird filled with hope.

And now, I live in the place that produced all of this insanity. This is going to be fun.

Oct 20, 2007

Kiddie Drama

The little boy pointed at Okayama on the map and said "You here?"

"Yes," I said.

And then he pointed at Kanto and said, "You go here?"

"Yes," I said.

His classmate stood there and just said "No," and I had to hurry them along so I could start my next children's class, which was due to begin soon.

I'm moving, in two weeks, to the Tokyo area. I'm very, very excited about this. I've enjoyed my time in Okayama, but I feel like I'm done with adventuring in this city. I'm settled, and because I'm settled, it's time to move on. From the outset, though, I considered living in more than one city here. I didn't want my Japan experience to by synonymous with Okayama, I wanted to experience more of the breadth of the country. The fact that I'll actually be in the same region as Kori is also awesome. De-longdistancing our relationship will be a wonderful, wonderful thing.

However, this means that I need to tell my students that I'm going. This is not a pleasant process. With the adults, it's pretty manageable. Many of them have said things like "good luck," or "I'll miss you." A few have seem irked (one went so far as to complain to my manager) but on the whole they all seem to understand that a foreign teacher is a person who's going to move around a lot.

Kids, though, are not so diplomatic or understanding.

Before I had this job, I never really had that much experience with kids outside of having three siblings. And, before this week, I never really had the experience of disappointing a child. I didn't really know what it would be like, but it seems that that instinctual part of the human brain that tells us to take care of the little 'uns and whatnot has been firing up. Stupid parental instincts.

It was bad on Tuesday, in the incident I described above. The kids speak only a very basic level of English, and didn't have the language skills to talk about whatever they were feeling. It was wrenching, in a way. I've been able to effectively communicate with these kids through a mix of simple English, gestures, and facial expressions. In the classroom, I built this sort of mini-language where me and the kids could communicate. Here, though, that mini-language was suddenly deficient. I very much wanted to explain things myself in Japanese, but I limit myself to English at work, and handed them an explanatory letter for their parents.

On Kori's advice, I decided to merely give the letter to the parents later in the week. This worked out much better, though there were two incidents later that were still a bit difficult. The first was on Wednesday, which was my birthday. One of my students, a little girl, came into the school with a bakery bag in her hand, and told me "happy birthday." I was touched, really. After class we opened the bag, and inside was a pumpkin custard concoction in a little Halloween coffee cup. Me and my student ate the custard together in the lobby while her mother read the letter that I gave her after class. In a few minutes, she would find out that I was leaving.

And then there was Friday.

On Friday I have a rather special class- three siblings who all used to live in the U.S. Two twin girls, eleven years old, and their brother, eight, who speak perfect English. In fact, they speak better than perfect English. These kids are smart, smart cookies. There's no international school in Okayama, but their parents very much wanted them to continue with their English education. They shopped around, and settled on me. So, instead of teaching these kids the basic stuff that I teach other kids, or the communicative stuff I teach adults, we've been doing stuff like reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The Phantom Tollbooth, books I read and loved when I was their age.

The class has been mostly successful, I think. I've had to do more work for it than any other class I have, and I'll miss them quite a bit. And, on Friday, I told them that I was moving. With these kids, I didn't think it would be right to just give them a letter for their parents.

The young one, the eight year old, then asked me a very hard question. He asked "When are you coming back?" I told him that I was moving to Kanto permanently. "So you're going forever?" he said. Having an eight year old say this to you is not fun. In fact, it's the opposite of fun. I tried my best to talk up my successor, whom I admittedly know little about.

"He's from England," I said, "he went to Oxford."

"We don't care if he went to Oxford," said one of the girls, "you're our teacher."

"And," said the other, "I don't like English people. They talk funny. And they're strict. I'm a xenophobe." ("Xenophobe" had been a vocabulary word in class.)

I tried to convince them that not all English people were strict, just like not all Americans were loud, and not all Japanese are shy. They seemed buy this but replied that English people "still talk funny." I reminded them that they still had me for two more weeks, and invited them to the school's Halloween party.

Admittedly, hearing "you're our teacher" does do wonders for one's teacher ego. If I'd told them I was leaving and they said "Okay. Whatever." I'd be a bit disappointed. But, I've never had the sensation of dealing with disappointed children before. It's a new feeling, and I don't like it. Maybe I'll be more practiced at it the next time I have to move on, but for now watching little kids point at maps or say "forever" has stressed the hell out of me.

But I'm bound for Kanto. Despite this speedbump, the future is looking nifty.

Oct 4, 2007

In Which I Once More Talk About Books. This Time- Milan Kundera.

Okay, so as much as I sometimes put on annoying airs of smarty-intellectual-ness, I've got a heart that's in love with pop culture. I mean, really- my last two posts included cartoons and video games. And, my love of pop culture seems to seep over into my bookish side every so often. For instance, nearly every time I hear the title The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I think of John Cusack in High Fidelity looking into the camera and saying;

"Hey, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I've read books like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Love in the Time of Cholera, and I think I've understood them. They're about girls, right?"

So, when I recently read Milan Kundera's big, important, existential novel, I couldn't help but think of Cusack's snarky record store owner saying the above, and going on to describe how he's just kidding, but that his favorite book is, actually, Cash: The Autobiography of Johnny Cash by Johnny Cash.

But, I'm sure you'll all be pleased to know, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, indeed, about girls. Sure, it's about a bunch of other stuff, too. But there are several bits about girls in there. Also, death and communism. In any case, it's awesome and you should read it.

There were a few things about the novel that I found oddly disconcerting, and I don't mean that in a bad way. In fact, "oddly disconcerting" here is intended as a compliment. I actually really liked how strange the book was. The two things that struck me immediately were that it was very, very light on dialogue, and that that most intriguing and active character in the book is the narrator.

When I think of stories, I usually think of people talking. In fact, I remember showing my dad a short story that I'd written once and he said, "This is just people talking. It's like CNN with aliens." In retrospect, he was right, but I find speech extremely central to written fiction. To have Kundera, then, simply describe speech are broadly paint pictures of multiple conversations gave many parts of the book a ghostly distance for me. And a "ghostly distance," like something that is "oddly disconcerting," is a good thing. I like having my expectations messed and biases challenged. I am, in general, a fan of things strange, and the distance at which Kundera constructed his characters was a strangeness that I quite liked.

However, the narrator is hardly distant. I hesitate to call the narrator Milan Kundera. While he does, indeed, present himself as the author of the book in question, meta-commenting on events a la Kurt Vonnegut, the persona of the narrator is too... I think "godly" is the right word... to be the presence of the author himself. He goes so far as to say how he created his various characters, how elements of his own life played into their creation, and even how he's digressing, and he should really get back to the story.

The active nature of the narrator also contributes to the ghostly distance through which the reader must reach for the characters. In conventional novels, the narration takes the role of environment- it is the air that the characters breath, the water they drink, the ground they walk on, etc. It is what the characters move through. In Unbearable Lightness, though, the narration is a mediation. By digressing, presenting events out of sequence, and in general making his own presence the largest in the room, the narrator is a third party between the reader and the characters. You see and hear what he shows and tells you. Yet, Kundera pulls it off grandly. He's like a stage magician who says in his act- "This is fake. My illusions are all deceptions," and who then impresses you with his performance more, not less, because of his admission.

I'm generally scornful or suspicious of dichotomies, but I do like the theme that Kundera comes up with in the book. A sort of subtitle of the book is The Unbearable Heaviness of Being, and the give and take between lightness and weight is one of the central themes of the novel.

Now, I generally don't like dichotomies, because all too often they're extremely facile. For instance, I believe that the political landscape is far more complicated then a simple dichotomy between "liberal and conservative." There are gradations and irregularities that such categories cannot take into account.

However, Kundera introduces his dichotomy as something that entails complexity and conflict from the outset. And, his seems to be a tool for understanding the world, not the thing of understanding itself. And, I found myself curiously identifying with Kundera's characterization of lightness and weight, and how they can both be destructive in their own way. An excess of responsibility or a complete lack of boundaries can both be stultifying. The novel seems to be crying for this existential middle ground, which I like, actually.

But, the best written part of the book, and what I really want to talk about, was Kundera's bit on kitsch.

I've always been fascinated by propaganda posters, both from the U.S. and abroad. Communist propaganda, in particular, is particularly fascinating. Everyone in Communist propaganda, it seems, has been injected with a certain mixture of steeliness and joy. Everyone has their shovels or pitchforks or whatever other agrarian/industrial instruments that they happen to use, and seem just thrilled to be whatever they're doing. They people are all bathed in this sort of golden light of stoical worker productivity that seems to suffuse everything. Do a search for "soviet propaganda" and you'll probably get a ton of examples of what I mean.

Anyway, Kundera has a great summation for this. "Kitsch," he says, "is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word; kitsch excludes everything from it's purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence." And later, "When the heart speaks, the mind feels it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart remains supreme. Kundera goes on to say that there's all manner of kitsch- Communist kitsch, American kitsch, liberal kitsch, conservative kitsch, Christian kitsch, etc. Kitsch, he admits, is inescapable.

I like this characterization of kitsch and propaganda, and when I was reading it, I couldn't help but think that there, of course, would also be Japanese kitsch. Mentioning this to Kori a while back she said, "Well, yeah. Do you think Hello Kitty ever takes a shit?" I have to agree that she doesn't. Hello Kitty, I think, lives a gleefully shitless existence.

But, I think that there are different degrees of kitsch, and, to take Kundera's idea a bit further, I think that the differences in degrees have to do with how the kitsch in question relates to shit.

In the world of Hello Kitty, there is no shit. None. Hello Kitty lives in an improbable universe where shit never needs to be denied because it is never even produced. So, I think I'll call the first degree of kitsch Hello Kitty kitsch. This type of kitsch is basically harmless, and easily subverted.

But there is another, worse form of kitsch. In those old Soviet propaganda posters, workers seem overjoyed simply by the fact that they have a sickle or hammer to grip. Their work, it seems produces nothing but energy and joy. It seems that one merely has to grip a tool, and rays of joy will emanate from it.

But obviously, industry and agriculture require toil. Work is a world of sweat and blood and shit, and those old propaganda posters take away all of the sweat and blood and shit and replace them, as if by cruel alchemy, with an indistinct joy.

This kitsch, this propaganda kitsch, is dangerous. In the world of Hello Kitty, one simply does not think of shit. In the world of propaganda, though, shit is the enemy, and, when it appears in the real world, an aberration. Propaganda kitsch, I think, is the type of kitsch that tells you that killing your personal life for the sake of your job is admirable, that breaking the veneer harmonious loyalty by dissenting is something worthy of shame, and that sexual quirks are sources of guilt. This is the kitsch of those old Soviet posters, and the kitsch of religion and self-help books. This kitsch is the sort of thing that is something actively contrary to what it means to being a balanced human being.

But, much like Kundera, I'm digressing a lot. I could go on and on about Kundera's other asides and digressions, riffing on what he says and whatnot. But, instead of that I'm just going to recommend the book. I don't agree with all of the ideas and conclusions that Kundera comes to, but The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a high-quality mind-tickler. I can see myself reading it again, which doesn't happen often with books.

Also, it's about girls.

Sep 20, 2007

In Which I Watch Anime

I'd sort of forgotten that anime existed.

This is somewhat ironic, given that I'm in Japan and all. I mean, this is where anime comes from, and it's sort of a big deal here. Yet, this weekend I had a grand old time watching cartoons and eating Thai noodles while hungover. Carbs and cartoons (along with hydration) are probably my favorite anti-hangover recipe. The next day was even worse- having no plans until the evening, I stayed in intermittently practicing Kanji and watching Full Metal Alchemist. I could even tell myself that watching anime constitutes some sort of Japanese language practice.

Which is true to an extent. I can recognize a small percentage of what the characters are saying, but, like American TV, anime characters don't talk like real people. Imagine someone who learned English from a combination of Spongebob Squarepants, Star Trek, and The Simpsons. They'd sound entirely strange and socially inappropriate, but would probably be fairly entertaining in the right context.

But anyway, I'm addicted to the stuff. This will probably pass, but for the time being, I can't get enough of it. This is probably because I'm just thrilled that I can understand maybe 10% of what the characters are saying. When studying Japanese, I find it rewarding even to be able to go outside and read signs. If I can read and understand everything on a sign or placard, or understand everything in an audio announcement, or even pick up on people's conversations, I'm thrilled.

Having a supply of sugary, addictive, geeky, hyperactive media-crack all in precisely the language that I'm studying makes the process all the more rewarding. Not only is it a forum in which I can listen to Japanese, it's a forum in which I can listen to Japanese that has explosions and robots. And nothing quite spices up an academic pursuit like explosions and robots.

Anyway, here's what I've been watching:

Full Metal Alchemist
I've seen a bit of this, but it was dubbed in English, and it's what I spent most of yesterday watching. I'm convinced that the people who made this show are actual alchemist who know how to transmute pure awesome into cartoon form. I like the fantasy style that they've gone for here- it has a sort of 18th century, vaguely steampunk-esque look. Prussian style military uniforms, mechanical arms, giant guns, and mandala-like alchemy circles all combine in a way that just works, visually. The show also balances the super-cute and super-dark aspects of anime pretty well- I'll probably finish the series soonish.

One Piece
This what I was watching during a hangover. The main character is a Reed-Richards style stretchy-man, and another guy fights with three swords simultaneously- two in his hands, one in his teeth. It's a completely brain-free pirate show, so I imagine that it could also be good after a few shots of rum.

Last Exile
I haven't seen much of this one, but damn it's pretty.

Read Or Die
The characters in this one have a rather cool superpower- they're telekinetic, but only with paper. So, they basically use origami to fight bad guys. Tres nifty.

I'm a little worried because there seems to be an endless supply of this stuff. Stupid shiny, beguiling pop culture and its addictive ways...

Sep 6, 2007

There and Back Again

I once had a student tell me that "Asakusa is for foreigners." I think he's right, but... most of the people who mill about one of Tokyo's most touristy districts are Japanese tourist, snapping pictures and buying plastic trinkets. But, it's sort of neat anyway, what with the big gate and all the rickshas and all.
To the left, is the lovely and wonderful Kori, and with her is Joseph, who came over for a whirlwind tour of Japan after I did a quick trip to the states.
Also pictured are Joseph, Josh, Eric, and myself smoking cigars in Portland, giving ourselves delicious mouth cancer at Sydney and Pete's wedding.
Bumming around the touristy crush of Asakusa and going to one of the two best weddings that I've every attended were two parts of a long vacation that consisted of me going to the States for many festivities, doing Tokyo with Kori and Joseph, and then hosting Joseph down at my place in Okayama. It was good to get off work for a while, see old friends, and be reminded how great it is to be over here. Some random snippets from the trip, as well as pictures of Asakusa and Kamakura:

Really, they should have been playing NWA

"This music," said the teenager, "has no dick."
And he was right. It didn't have a dick.
I was sitting in seat 39A of an NWA flight out of Narita, waiting to go back to Portland, and all the while my brain was in pain whilst the same three muzak songs were piped through the airplane. The two teenage brothers sitting next to me, though, made it all worth it with their perfect assessment of the soundtrack. The audiophonic accompaniment had all the verve and life of a Ken doll.
I find it a little weird, actually- airplanes, when you think about it, are pretty cool. We pile a bunch of humans into a metal tube and shoot it through the sky so it can transverse half the world in a day. Air travel is a wonder of modernity- the ancients would have shit themselves with amazement if they saw an airplane, and yet we fill these giant, superspeedy things with music that conveys exactly none of the awesomeness of transversing an ocean in a single day.
In fact, the whole experience of flying seems designed to be banal, boring, and beige. The food is bland, the movies are edited, and on this flight they closed the exterior windows midway through, rendering it impossible to look at the ocean or clouds.
I guess I shouldn't gripe- when I got to Portland Joseph asked me how my flight was. "Boring," I said.
"Oh good," he replied, "I've been on exciting flights. You don't want that."
Which is a good point, I suppose. But that doesn't give muzak any more dick.

Big Chilled

We were piled into Joseph's new (used) car, and on the way to the wedding Katie said "I feel like we're in that one movie where they all get together because someone dies and they're all older."
"The Big Chill?" I said.
"Yeah. Except without the dying." I've only seen bits of The Big Chill when it's been on TV, and Joseph had never seen it, but it seemed to be an accurate description. We were all older (well not truly old. I'm 26, and I like to think that's still young) but it had been some time since we'd all been in one place.
I've been in Japan (obviously), Joseph in Eugene, Katie and Michael in D.C., Lisa, Syd and Pete in Portland, Eric and Steph in Boston. I'd been away from the states for ten months, and hadn't seen most people for more than a year. I wondered what it would be like. Would it, I wondered, be this really dramatic thing where everyone has changed immensely and is now utterly unrecognizable? Would my old friends and acquaintances be different people, older shadows of the ones whom I used to know?
No, not at all. Stepping into the wedding party, I was actually amazed by how similar everyone was. Certainly, there have been some sizable changes (I mean, Syd and Pete got married- that has to count as some kind of change) but I was pretty awestruck by the fact that I was able to walk into the room and all of a sudden I was snapped back into relationships that I'd been away from. I dare say, it rocked.
Nicotine, I hate to say, is awesome. I used to smoke, and am very glad that I've given it up. In Japan, everyone smokes and I'm proud that despite the easy availability of cigarettes and constant offers from coworkers, I've resisted the seductive lure of tobacco. But, Eric proposed we all light up cigars at the wedding, and I just had to take part. And, it was a really intense tobacco high. I hate to admit it, but I loved it. So tasty and cancerous. Now that I'm back here, I'm looking at the omnipresent cigarette vending machines with more suspicion than ever.
Anyway, now that I'm 26 and two sets of my friends are married, I've discovered that weddings are actually tons of fun when you actually know the people who are getting married. I hated them when I was a kid- Weddings were all about sitting quietly at the kids table.
Now, weddings are all about hanging with friends and celebrating lovey-ness in the midst of an open bar. Screw childhood nostalgia- adulthood is awesome.

Now With 100% More Lunar Eclipse!

Eugene is entrapping.
It was easy to live there. Very, very easy, actually. I had an alright job, good friends, a nice house, an okay car, etc. There was enough beer, fun, and sex to keep things interesting, and it took a fair amount of effort and willpower to leave. In retrospect, leaving Eugene was a little like getting out of bed in the morning when you're especially drowsy: you know you should get out of it, you would theoretically like to go do other stuff and such, but it's just too damn easy and comfortable. So, you linger.
I lingered in Eugene. Longer than I should have, really. I was eager to go back, but also a little apprehensive given my attitude about the place. Not the people, mind you (I love you, Eugene folks! You're awesome!) but the place itself. It seems that plenty of people have tried to get away, only to be sucked back into it, their attempts at escape frustrated by their own desire to stay. It's like the mythical land of Faerie or something. Hell, it even looks like the mythical land of Faerie, what with all the hippies and such.
The first thing I did was revisit the dysfunctional (but charming!) local bookstore where I used to work. It was the same old messy place with all manner of books on the floor, the same mess that I spent three years dealing with. Going in there made me quite glad that I'd left. I was worried that some latent flare of nostalgia would spring up amidst the books and whatnot, but instead I just felt relieved that I'm now in Japan. Weird.
At Joseph's place, we had a nice little get together wherein some of us stayed up to watch the total lunar eclipse. I think it's a bit fitting that my international comings and goings should be accompanied by trippy celestial phenomena. I'm just awesome like that.

Akihabara! Your One-Stop Choice for Hitler Dolls and Anime Boobies!

So, Joseph hopped on a plane with me to Japan, and Kori and I spent a few days bumming around the Tokyo area. I'd asked Kori to take care of hotel arrangements, what with her knowing Tokyo and speaking Japanese far better than me. The first night, she was unable to meet up with us because of work, and took it upon herself to book me and Joseph in a capsule hotel in Akihabara. Yes, my girlfriend's idea of humor is sticking her boyfriend into a small, confined space nestled in the otaku capital of the world. Funny girl, her.
Seriously, though, it was kind of awesome. Staying in a capsule was one of the many cultural experiences that I'd hoped to have here. It was a bit odd, but honestly it was less like sleeping in a cyberpunkian techno-coffin and more like camping. Except without the campfire. And in the morning you shower with a bunch of old, naked, grunting, hungover Japanese businessmen. And there's TV. But, other than that, it was a lot like camping.
Joseph and I hit Akihabara the next day, and it was a good deal of geeky fun. We checked out a bunch of shops that were redolent with action figures ranging from the awesome (Darth Vader as a samurai) to the kitschy (three foot high KISS dolls) to the downright strange (a lovingly sculpted foot-tall Hitler doll that was selling for an obscene amount of yen). And, of course, there were tons of soft-core porn figurines. Nearly every shop had model kits for robots and aliens in the front, and statues of mostly (or sometimes entirely) naked anime girls in the back. Before coming to Japan, I would have never really thought of action figures as a pornographic medium, but I suppose there's no limits to the inventiveness of the human spirit. Or something. Or maybe otaku are just insanely deprived of sex.
But anyway, we found an arcade.
Back in Eugene, Joseph and I devoted a rather ridiculous amount of time to playing Soul Calibur. First, it was Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast, and then SCII on the PS2. There were countless nights when we'd stay up far too late, drinking beer, and shouting things at each other like "Astaroth wants a hug!" (if we were playing as Astaroth) or "Fear my marshmallows!" (for Sophitia) or "Disco biscuit!" (for Maxi. I forget why this made sense.)
Anyway, we found an arcade, and it had SCIII. And, even though we were in the middle of an arcade and surrounded by Japanese gamer geeks, it was a lot like old times. Astaroth did indeed want a hug.
Joseph and I met up with Kori, and we proceeded to bum around the city a bit, get drunk, and go to karaoke.
I've already written about Japan's permissiveness with regards to drinking and the awesomeness of Karaoke, but it was nice to do it with an old friend. Even better, seeing someone who had never been to Japan before get acquainted with it was quite the interesting experience. A lot of Japan has become normal for me, so it was a nice change of perspective to see Joseph look at everything for the first time.

Kamakura: Giant Buddha Statues Are Really Growing On Me

Later, the three of us went a bit south of Tokyo to Kamakura, wherin there are a few nifty temples and shrines. Like Nara, Kamakura has a Daibuttsu (Great Buddha) but theirs is smaller than the Nara Buddha, and also outside. As an added bonus, though, we were able to go inside the Daibuttsu, which was every bit as cramped, hot, and dark as you can imagine being inside a big metal statue in summer would be. Nifty, though.
We also made a stop at Kamakura's Hase-Dera, a temple full of, among other things, a huge amount of Jizo statues.. Kori informed us that the statues were dedicated to the lives of either stillborn babies or aborted fetuses. Given that abortion is completely permitted in Japan, I found such a dedication to be rather curious. The tiny statues were oddly compelling in their uniformity, though.
From a Western, Catholic-raised (but now secular) perspective, I find this a little curious. All of the statues depicted Jizo, the same figure and were lined up in identical rows. In a Catholic church, there's just as much iconography, but the holy figures are presented in a singular manner. Surely you'd never see row upon row of Virgin Marys lined up like the Bodhisattva was. Anyway, secular guy that I was, I found the rows upon rows of the Hell-dedicated saint oddly aesthetically pleasing.

In Which I'm Still Here

Before leaving I was mildly worried that when I got back to Portland, I'd end up missing everyone and everything all over again. I'd put a fair amount of effort over here into staving off homesickness and such, and had no desire to feel it bursting back onto the scene.
But, visiting actually had the opposite effect. Everything, everyone, was still there. Everyone was as awesome as ever, and Portland's still standing. My friends are all their stellar selves, irony and indie rock still rule the day in the City of Roses. Awesome.
I know, of course, that people change and whatnot- that there will be things that happen while I'm away that I won't be able to take part in. But, I don't really believe the phrase "you can't go home again." Home always changes, of course, but everything does.
Now that I'm back, I'm happier more than ever that I'm abroad. I know that I've changed for the better (this got mentioned a few times in Portland) and now that I've gone back to that which I feel is rooted, I'm all the more enthusiastic about going on flights of fancy out in the world.

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Aug 25, 2007

America-Bound (for a time)

So, I'm going to the States for a couple of days, then coming back to Japan. This might be a little weird- I thought that my time here in Japan would be a singular, uninterrupted journey. Instead, I'm going home and then coming back. It kind of weirdly underscores the fact that I live here now...

Aug 18, 2007

"In junior high school, I hated English..."

Multiple times now, I've had students tell me that in junior high and high school they "hated English." This is almost always followed by a qualification that now they actually like English, mostly because they now feel they can actually speak it.

I would love to sit in on a Japanese English class. From what I've heard from my students and coworkers, the general quality is not especially great. The teacher explains grammar in Japanese, the students listen, and then they have to fill out a regimen of worksheets and tests. One of my coworkers said to me that if I was curious, he could show me. He proceeded to write the phrase "I have a pen" on the board, and began muttering in Japanese about the technicalities of grammar, labeling the various words with technical parts of speech, affecting a bored manner, and speaking no English whatsoever except for the phrase "I have a pen." "That," he said to me, "is why companies like ours exist."

While school districts here do employ native speakers via the JET Program, apparently a lot of those teachers are merely assistants in classrooms, giving examples of native pronunciation and intonation and not providing too much to the overall lesson. Also, lots of them apparently travel from school to school on a regular basis, leaving students little time to use their English with a native speaker.

I do know that locally, the school board in Kurashiki has been trying to get native speakers who are proper English teachers, but I don't know what kind of degree of success they've had. Nevertheless, I'm glad for their efforts. I'm sure that there are dedicated Japanese English teachers out there who try their damndest to teach well. In fact, I know there are, I work with a few. But, I think that broad changes to infrastructure, like what Kurashiki is trying to do, need to happen in order for real change to take place.

Hearing about my students' previous experiences with language, I can't help but think of my own high school French classes. I don't know how similar it was to a Japanese classroom, but I do remember quite a lot in the way of worksheets, wrote memorization, tests, etc. There were sometimes speaking activities, but not often.

And, I remember being bored to tears by French. I hated it. Hated, hated, hated it. The only D that I've ever received was in high school French, and I think it stemmed from the fact that I could not find a reason to give a pair of dingo's kidneys about the language. French, for me, was writing out all of the different conjugations of "etre" in my workbook. It had nothing to do with communication or talking to people.

Now, I can read French alright and passively understand a lot of it. But I can't communicate with it. I can't speak or write it, really, or express my own ideas. (Though maybe someday I'll fix that…) After some three and a half years of it, I can't do what a French three and a half year old could do. That's saying a lot, I think.

I find it fascinating and curious that language classes like my French class and English classes in Japan so often miss out on the whole point of language: communication. Language, after all, is not some mystical, weird, abstract thing that is valuable in and of itself. Language is valuable because it facilitates communication. And, in the development of communication lies the development of language.

I'm steadily getting better at Japanese because I have to use it on a regular basis to do entirely normal things like going to the store or getting a haircut. Those banal, regular things that require a basic level of human communication are what make the language real for me. Worksheets, memorization, or sundry busywork could never do that.

When I'm at work, I try to make things as "real" as possible in a communicative sense. Exercises and such are still artificial, but it's always my goal to make the students actually use English as much as possible, something that's rather new for some of them, even though they've been "studying" it for years. But of course, I'm only one guy at an eikaiwa who's trying to put in some good work. There are just as many native teachers, I think, who work at eikaiwas and don't give a shit how well they teach their students. For many of them, they talk about teaching merely as a means to an end viz living in Japan for a year. That's a shame, really.

If Japan really wants to speak English (and the demand is there) then there's got to be some kind of grand shift in how it's taught. I hope more school districts follow Kurashiki's lead, and there has to be something that companies such as mine could do to boost the quality of native teachers. Encouraging teachers to stay on for more than a year would probably help quite a bit.

In any case, I'm fascinated by the twists and turns of the educational and linguistic infrastructure here. Now, when I see examples of so-called "Engrish," I can't help but think about the culture and pedagogy that produced them, and how those things might change.

Aug 10, 2007

The Great Happiness Space: "We sell fake love relationships."

Do you want to see something weirdly interesting yet very depressing? Oh yes you do!
I recently watched The Great Happiness Space, (link mildly NSFW) a documentary about an Osaka host club, and found it both surreal and utterly familiar. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of host/hostess clubs, they are places where people pay attractive members of the opposite sex tons of money to talk, drink, sing, etc. with them. They are not fronts for brothels. There are fronts for brothels in Japan, but those are very different. These places really do make tons of money just selling time with people.
It seems that if something can exist, it can be sold. And Japan is one of the most consumerist countries on earth. If it can be sold, someone here is probably buying. Quite the grim little film here about the power of money, sleaze, and blind, pitiable dreams. Have fun.

Jul 31, 2007

In Which the LDP Gets Trounced. Woo!

For the past year, Shinzo Abe's cabinet has at least been entertaining.
Well, entertaining in a horrible sort of way.
One of them had to apologize for calling women "breeding machines," another said that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "couldn't have been helped," and still another hung himself before he could be investigated for corruption charges. And of course there's the matter of tons of missing pension documents, something that's given Japan's old people one more thing to be cantankerous about. The Japanese cabinet lately has been a sort of tragic comedy of errors that begs to be mocked by someone like John Stewart. Of course, he's busy mocking our own government. But, for the local Japanese John Stewart types, the past year has been the sort of pure comedy gold that only comes from utter political incompetence.
And on Sunday, Abe's party got their ass kicked. I'm very happy about this.
The party that's dominated Japanese politics for decades now is the Liberal Democratic Party, an entity that brings to mind Voltaire's description of the Holy Roman Empire. Just as that Germanic landmass was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, the LDP is certainly not liberal, not especially democratic, and not really a party either.
Instead, it's a mass of factions and interest groups held together by a common (though not always coherent) conservative political ideology, and a network of political relationships, convenient alliances, favors, and vague nationalism. It's certainly not as right-wing as the various splinter groups in Japan (like the guys I saw in Osaka), but it's certainly not progressive. I don't pretend that legislation can dictate culture, but I certainly don't think that the LDP's decades-long reign has helped Japan with regards to stuff like women's rights, workers getting overtime pay, or the institution of more reasonable working hours. I do think that Japan is changing, and have every confidence (I admit, maybe naively) that it will. And, I think that one of the key things that needs to happen for Japan to liberalize is for the LDP to get knocked around a bit.
Which is just what happened yesterday.
The opposition party, the more liberal Democratic Party of Japan, now controls the parliament's weaker upper house. They can't force Abe to resign (though at this time, there's pressure for him to do so) but they certainly can make the LDP's life more difficult. Again, I don't think that culture can necessarily be legislated, and I don't think that this is the be-all and end-all of what needs to happen in Japan. But nevertheless, I'm quite happy about it.
It'll take a while. It might take a long while. But right now, I do think that Japan is on the right track.

Jul 20, 2007

In Which I Get Hit By a Car

So, there's this stereotype in Japan that people from Okayama are bad drivers.
It turns out this is true, as one of them hit me last night.
I was on my bike, crossing a narrow street, and all of a sudden a car turned, suddenly, and hit me as I was in the crosswalk and he was rounding the intersection. Fortunately for me, he hit the back of my bike and not my leg, and I proceeded to go flying off of my bike.
You know that thing they say about time slowing down when you're filled with adrenaline? Quite accurate, actually. It was probably just a few seconds, but from the moment the car hit my bike, time really did seem to slow down in all of the typical ways that they say it does. I fell/leapt from my bike, freeing my leg from the space between my ride and the car. In front of me was the sidewalk, and I successfully managed to land there rather than on the street in the path of the car. My left hip (which still hurts a bit) hit first, followed slowly/quickly by my left arm and right hand. I managed to tuck my head, though. The expanse of my back and shoulders took the rest of the weight of the fall, and I'm somewhat proud of my reflexes, as they ensured that my skull did not hit sidewalk.
I watched the car slide a bit more into my bike, which is a gratefully sturdy machine until it eventually stopped. I lay there in the glare of the headlights, covered in a spontaneous sweat, and found myself suddenly very, very pissed off.
More than anything else, I was angry. I wasn't worried about broken bones or bleeding, I wasn't thinking about any of that. The only thing I wanted to do was to physically retaliate against the man who'd done this to me, the man who was emerging from his car at that moment.
He opened the door and said something frantically in Japanese that I couldn't understand, and then stopped suddenly when he saw I was a foreigner. I don't know what I looked like at that point- I probably looked angry as I forced my left leg to cooperate.
(In retrospect, this guy was probably scared out of his mind. He'd hit a guy, which is bad enough, but that guy happened to be a six-foot pissed of white dude. Foreigners seem to make people nervous often enough- I imagine that an angry, bloody foreigner would be even more cause for alarm.)
He seemed like a normal business guy, maybe in his forties. His shirt was undone and his tie hanging loose, and he looked like he'd just come off of one of Japan's typically long days at work. He looked at me and nervously said,
"Nihongo...?" Meaning, "Japanese." I told him that I study Japanese but don't know a lot. He asked if I was alright. I said "I don't know, maybe."
And, at this point, I really, really wanted to punch him.
He'd hit me with his car, after all. I'd been thrown to the ground and bloodied up because of him, and I wanted to physically retaliate. Perhaps I'd hit him in the neck or throw him down on the same sidewalk that I fell onto- my imagination was not keeping up with the kind of violence that I wanted to commit.
But I didn't, of course.
I think it was the language barrier that stayed my hand. As soon as he said "Nihongo...?" I was put into a frame of mind where I had to think. Speaking the Japanese I know doesn't require much thinking, but I still need to put myself in a specific mental place in order to do it, if that makes any sense. Because I had to go to that specific mental place and say something, even a simple something, in Japanese, my more reasonable parts won out.
And, after I said "I don't know, maybe." He got in his car and drove away. In an abstract, moral sense I was glad, am still glad, that I didn't retaliate. But in a more visceral, emotional way I still wish that I'd done something to him, even though I know that it would probably not have been wise.
I went home and washed up. I'm fine- just a few cuts, though my left hip still feels sort of weird. Nasty cut on the right hand though- it'll be fun to explain to students.
Goddamn Okayama drivers. They really do suck.

Jul 8, 2007

How I Got All Culture Shocked Even Though I Tried To Be All Stoic About It, and Have Subsequently Decided That I Don't Mind Being an Outsider

So, a flashback-
Back in the days of high school, I had this system. This was ten years ago- I thought that the lyrics of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were basically the most profound thing, and spent a fair amount of time spouting pseudo-deep anti-profundities with other members of the speech and debate team. One of these pseudo-deep anti-profundities was the Emotional Fiat System.
I can't take credit for inventing the name. The name was the invention of one of my debate teammates, but we both had a hand in the tenants of the system. Also, I'm pretty sure that it was invented during statistics class. The basic idea was that sufficient intelligence could trump emotion in all manners.
Emotion and such, we thought, was for the weak. It was for those people who were too dumb to see through to the truth, too lacking in will to mentally discipline themselves. We believed (or thought we believed) that we could train our minds to always experience a feeling of detatched bliss, always float above the world in a state of Vulcan-like perfection. I think we might have even used the word "ubermensch" unironically when talking about this.
Obviously, we wised up. I haven't kept in touch with my former comrade in stoicism, but I'm pretty sure the Emotional Fiat System went flying out the when I decided that kissing girls is totally cooler than making pretentious pronoucements. After that, I was just confused a lot.
Anyway, that's the type of thing that I like to look back on with a bemused mixture of humor, irony, and wistfulness. You know the various campy emotions contained in Wonder Years voiceovers? That's how I like to think of the Emotional Fiat System.
I think of myself as an emotionally mature person, but part of me is still that weird little speech and debate geek who thought he could get over everything by thinking. For instance, there was a part of me that really believed that I could beat homesickness just by thinking about it. Really. I thought, that if I just kept being cognizant of homesickness as a phenomena, it would never occur to me.
This strategy does not work. At all.
At least this time, I've kept open the possiblity that I could become homesick.
But, that's not really what I wanted to write about. I've already written about homesickness in general, and it's kind of a dull topic as it is. I suppose what I want to say is that, despite my best efforts, despite all my rationalizing, despite the fact that I thought about this phenomena, I got really homesick, and was very, very culture shocked when I got here.
I can only really adequately reflect upon this in retrospect. It's quite strange to think that I went through all sorts of times and episodes where I had no idea that I was having an emotional reaction to an alien environment. There were all sorts of times when I felt strange, was in a bad mood, or depressed, and I thought that it was something sourceless or groundless. I know now that I had a bit of trouble adapting to living in a foreign place, which is something that happens to everyone. Given that prior to this experience I'd never ventured outside of the U.S., that compounded the whole experience.
I'm alright now. But, I remember having all of my strengths kicked out from under me. My sense of humor- useless. Sarcasm doesn't work here. My way of speaking -articulate by American standards, but speedy and incomprehensible to Japanese. Too many colloquialisms and big words. The fact that I'm well-read- doesn't matter. I was illiterate when I got here.
So, for a while, I thought that those strengths were gone. I thought that everything that made me a talented person was irrelevant given the circumstances, and that other, ephemeral, undefined skills were needed to succeed here. In particular, I thought that I was an idiot because I could neither speak nor read Japanese. At present, I'm one of the only foreigners that I know who doesn't have more than day-to-day fluency (All of my coworkers speak Japanese, as well as a few other foreign friends). Plenty of other people can have conversations. I can do stuff like go shopping and order things. For quite a while I thought I was a sort of pariah for my lack of language skills- it was as if I was some sort of intruder or uninvited guest, that my ignorance was something hateable. Not only was I an intruder, but a stupid intruder, a barbarian, lower in intelligence than Faulkner's idiot man-child.
Which, of course, was a load of bullshit.
Most foreigners here don't speak Japanese. The fact that most everyone in Okayama-Kurashiki does is rather freakish. Also, Japanese is not some incomprehensible super-difficult code of mystery that foreigners can't learn. The spoken language is actually really easy, Hiragana and Katakana quite simple compared to the Roman alphabet, and even Kanji starts to make sense when you study it a bit and see it all the time.
Studying Japanese, having the bits of the language fall into place, was something that reminded me that I could do this, that I was not an idiot, and that I did, indeed, have skills.
So they came back- My sense of humor? Hey, I can't use baroque sarcasm, but I can still make my students laugh with weird stuff and over the top humor. I'm still a funny guy. My way of speaking? If I can make big, weird sentences and whatnot than I can definitely be concise and understandable to non native speakers. The fact that I'm well read? I love to learn stuff already, so that definitely makes learning about the language and culture much easier. I'm also dorking out over Japanese history. Last night a student of mine and I talked all about Japanese folktales. It was great.
It's odd, though, thinking that all of the lousy parts of moving to a foreign country are a step on the way to this kind of thing. I'm having a great time, but integral to having a great time now is having a less-than-great time then. Every so often, I think to myself "Wow, I'm in Japan," and exult in that fact.
Now, I actually sort of enjoy being a foreigner. That might sound a bit strange, and there might come a time when I get sick of the sensation, but now I actually like the fact that I'm an outsider. I'm looking out my apartment window right now, and I can see all manner of cars, a few bicycles, and some people in the nearby parking lot. All of those people are having a normal Sunday, doing things that they would do on their day off. Lucky me, though, I'm having an adventure. I'm in a place where I'm challenged and bothered and aggravated and inspired by everyday things, much more so, I think, than any of the folks presently within my field of vision.
I like that, actually. And I like to think that right now, somewhere in Portland or Eugene, some Japanese exchange student is looking out their window onto a normal American day, all the while struggling with English and a strange culture, and all the while loving it. I hope that's happening right now. I'm sure it is, actually.

Jun 28, 2007

It All Made Perfect Sense at the Time...

If you who ever wanted to know what kind of stuff gets written on the whiteboard in an EFL class, here you go.
I know, it's a terrible quality image, but for those of you squinting, the large letters are the remnants of a hangman game in which the answer was "serial killer," the top-right collection of dead stick figures is an illustration of the word "massacre," and the two questions in the upper left are "What is Esperanto?" and "Why was it made?"
I had a very good reason for putting all of this on the board, it all made tons of sense in context. Really. I take my job seriously, and I swear that all of those things led, bit-by-bit, to increased fluency for the student.
But the larger point is that I get paid to occasionally draw dead stick figures. Ah, life is good.

Jun 5, 2007

Kyoto, Reprise: Hall of the Rice Goddess, Rocks of Insanity

In Shinto mythology, Inari is the goddess (well, sometimes also the god) of grains, particularly rice. As you can imagine, such a deity gained a fair amount of popularity in Japan, where rice is more or less omnipresent. The goddess was usually portrayed as having kitsune (fox) attendents, figures that are also some of the cooler parts of Japanese myth. In Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is very much suited to the goddesses' popularity and importance, and is one of the niftier places that I've been to in Japan.
From the outset, the shrine seemed very much like other places that I'd seen in Kyoto before- a large torii just in front of the entrance, with various small altar-like buildings scattered about. There were, of course, people clapping and ringing the bells in front of the altars, several statues of kitsune (foxes) and the general feeling of both peace and business that seems to pervade Japanese religious sites. I found the kitsune particularly interesting. Their statues were almost all arranged in pairs, one of which was clutching a parchment in its mouth, the other holding a ball. I still don't know the significance or symbolism of this.
As Kori and I went up the hillside, though, we eventually found the entrance to the torii tunnel. The paths up the hill were amazing. It was a grey, cloudy, day and the inside of the torii tunnel was suffused with a faint grey-orange light. We climbed upwards, into it, a grandly yonic tunnel. We also noticed that apparently all of the torii that lined the path were apparently volunteer donations, each of them bearing the name of an individual, company, or government group. It was sort of amusing to find intermittent katakana among the kanji, markings of things of foreign origin amid something that was very distinctly Japanese. There were intermittent breaks along the way, the path lined with stone foxes and various altars. Upon reaching the summit we saw a collection of graveyards, the headstones piled against each other, a crowded necropolis attended to by foxes. Other statues were there as well- lions and horses, almost all outfitted with red drapery, all watching the dead on a hill.
I think I enjoyed Fushimi Inari precisely because I knew nothing about it before I got there. I knew that it was "a bunch of torii on a hill," and that was about it. To go into something with no expectations whatsoever and then be astounded by it was quite the nifty experience. Like Himeji castle, the shrine demonstrated quite a lot of what I think is neat and interesting about Japanese aesthetics and architecture. The shrine was a wonderful and unique mix of grandness and simplicity that I find uniquely cool.
And speaking of architechture, Kyoto Station is awesome.
Yes, the Japan Rails Kyoto Station. In a city full of temples, shrines, castles, etc., one of the most interesting and awesome buildings is the train station. Kori and I met up with her brother and cousin, who were visiting Japan, and as we made our way back to our hostel, we took a bit of time to explore the station. It's a remarkable public space, really.
It's massive, to begin with. Which makes sense, it's one of the bigger cities in Japan, and the station is also filled with all manner of shops, restaurants, cafes, and whatnot. But the architechture is all niftily modern. It's not the sort of modern architechture that looks too slick, too new. It's convincingly futuristic, if that makes any sense. Seriously. One could imagine spaceships docking there.
But, the best part of it, is a massive flight of stairs.
The station, it seems, is built next to a hillside, on on the top of said hillside is this sort of miniature garden/terrace thing. Leading up to it is a pair of escalators, but right alongside the escalators is a long, long, and very wide flight of stairs dotted with various modern sculptures. Dan, Kori's brother, pointed out that this was an awesome addition, because the stairs invited people to sit on them. And he was right. Looking down from the terrace we could se several groups of people lounging about, sitting, chatting, drinking coffee, etc., on the stairs. The stairway itself was a very nice public space worked into the side of a hypermodern building. In a country like Japan, where it is sometimes quite hard to find a place in public to sit down, I really, really admired the massive lounging area.
So, between Fushimi Inari and Kyoto Station, it had been a day of awesomeness in architecture. The next day, though, yeilded not as much architectural awesome. The following day we made our way to Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple, probably Kyoto's most famous spot.
Someone once described Kinkakuji as "historical bling." I like that description. It's a well known sight, probably the most well known temple in Kyoto, but, damn, it's a silly building.
A really, really silly building.
Something Kori and I talked about a few times was how Buddhism, which is supposedly all about simplicity, withdrawl from worldly concerns, contemplation, etc., has so many blinged-out temples.
Seriously- Buddhist places seem to be awash with gold, statues, incense, tapestries, and various other bits and trinkets that seem distinctly non-unworldly. It's probably just good old religious grandiosity at work. When one thinks about all the gold and statues in relation to the stained glass and incense in a Catholic church, it doesn't seem too unusual.
But Kinkakujin is sort of in a class of it's own.
Make no mistake, the building is actually somewhat anticlimactic. It doesn't exactly leap out and amaze you with it's golden grandiosity. It's not ugly, by any means. But it does seem to mistake its own excess for aesthetics. Kinkakuji is of a category of things that are both banal and amazingly opulent. Things like Hummers, diamonds, and most pornography- it's an amazing feat of construction, something polished and perfect and lustrous to the point that it's lifeless.
What's additionally funny about the golden temple is that it's reconstructed. In 1950 an insane monk burnt the place down and what stands now is a modern reconstruction. I couldn't find anywhere on the grounds of the Temple that acknowledged this little detail.
Kori found the perfect metaphor for the structure- it's an elephant. Like an absurd white elephant given as a tasteless joke or a real, outsized elephant, Kinkakuji is an opulent beast. Perhaps the insane monk merely had a moment of Buddhist clarity.
Close to Kinkakuji was the Ryoanji temple, which I liked much better. While still packed with tourists, this temple wasn't as insanely opulent and hectic as its golden neighbor. The main feature of Ryoanji is a famous Zen rock garden. There are fifteen stones in the garden, and supposedly one cannot see them all at once. It is said that if you can see all of the stones simultaneously, it's a sign of having attained Nirvana. I tried this, and indeed could only see fourteen. Silly zen rocks and their stealthy ways.
Kori also suggested that perhaps one of the monks hanging out her was getting all meditative, contemplating the rock garden, could suddenly see all fifteen of the rocks at once. Poof! Enlightenment! In a fit of sudden realization, the monk got up, walked to nearby Kinkakuji, decided that giant gold buildings really weren't all that Buddhist after all, and torched down in a fit of insane enlightenment. This story probably isn't true, but I sort of want it to be.
In the Ryoanji temple's rock garden, it was sort of odd to see how many people were looking at a simple collection of stones. The rock garden isn't especially big or thrilling, but it is well known, and it was sort of interesting and absurd to see how many people (myself included) came to simply sit and look at rocks. But they were very nice rocks, which could possibly drive one to insanity or Nirvana.
In our case it drove us to karaoke. Kori's brother and cousin had never experienced the joys of this pasttime before, so we had a grand old time belting out Journey songs after taking in all that shiny/contemplative history stuff. Yes, Kyoto was nifty. Now, where to next...

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May 28, 2007

Osaka, Encore

So, this blog is in danger of becoming a "Log of Places I Went With Kori," given that that's basically what this post, the last post, and the Tokyo post are. And given that we're doing Kyoto again this weekend, that's probably what the next post will also be about. I do feel vaguely odd about this- as this particular installment of Diesel Sweeties points out, it is a little weird to blog about one's girlfriend on a regular basis. But, given that she's done the same thing to me, I think it's all good.
Also, I feel compelled to point out to ya'll that yes, I have a girlfriend, it's awesome, I'm in love, everything's nifty, and the world is full of awesome. Everything is kickass with Kori, and I might as well just go out and say it rather than being all coy about it.
We checked out Osaka last weekend, which was quite nice for me, since my only experience of the city was via a work trip that was colored by a drunked haze brought on by my superior. So, it was nice to go back and actually see the city.
In Osaka, we made our way to Amerika-Mura, or America Town. It's a nice area, full of various types of nifty shops, hip places, young people, graffiti, etc. Walking around Amerika-Mura is a nice reminder (at least for me, who lives in Okayama) that Japan does, indeed, have some really cool, hip, weird, people in it. For quite a while, Kori and I just sat in a public square people watching whilst eating tako-yaki, Osaka's regional specialty. There were groups of girls in matching wigs, kids dressed up in hip-hop regalia, punk and goth types, and various other wandering fashion plates. It was Sunday, and we wondered how all of these people looked during the work week. For instance, there's this one guy who works behind the counter at the Circle K by my apartment, who has this bizzare quasi-shaved head-it's shaved around most of it, but still long in the back with this sort of dyed crest-thing coming up in the back. But, I've only ever seen him in his orange and blue Circle K uniform, selling me onigiri and bad bento. I thought of that weird-haired guy, briefly, whilst we watched various other weird-haired people parade around us. We wandered around a bit and eventually found Osaka's Umeda Sky Tower, a rather impressive glass-and-metal structure that offered a nice panoramic view of the city- the pictures from the top of a skyscraper are from the Umeda Sky Tower. Tres nifty.
But, what I really want to talk about is Osaka Castle.
Osaka-Jo is sort of funny- it's been burnt and rebuilt a bunch of times, which is sort of admirable in a Pheonix-style way. It's also just sort of comical- the place seems cursed, almost, to get destroyed every so often. I wouldn't be surprised if a freak earthquake or metor took out parts of the main tower in the next couple of years.
Anyway, the place is pretty neat. From the outside, Osaka-Jo sort of resembles Okayama-Jo with its black-and-gold casement. A very nice and helpful tour guide on the approach mentioned to us that when Tokugawa rebuit the castle, he didn't really build it for war. He built it, as the guide put it, as "a symbol of his authority."
That's putting it mildly. With the black casing, the gold ornamentation, the gilt tigers rampant on the uppermost part of the tower, the gleaming fish on the roof, all say "I'm Tokugawa, bitches!" I imagine the shogun basking in SnoopDogg-ian splendor, surrounded by scantily-clad attendants and wearing enormous, gaudy, gold chains in some sort of sumtuously decadent chambers. Tokugawa- medieval gangster warlord, showing off his bling to his opponents and underlings.
Upon entrance the castle lost any appearnce of gold-clad history, and instead revealed itself to be an entirely modern museum style building. Sure there were lots of maps, dioramas, historical videos, timelines, etc. All sorts of educational, PBS style stuff. Stuff that probably was really, really edifying. But none of that stuff, no matter how wonderfully educational, was not nearly as cool as the displays of samurai armor.
Now, I'm 26 years old, and I like to think of myself as what is generally known as an "adult." I can do adult things like pay bills and use credit cards. I've got a job and wear a tie on a regular basis. I'm pretty freakin' grown up.
But damn are swords cool. I know, I know. War is bad, etc. But, whatever. There's still a part of me that's an adolescent who thinks swords and armor are awesome. In fact, I have this sneaking suspicion that I've actually become more adolescent in the last few years. Being secure in one's adulthood allows for a sort of revelling in kiddy stuff. It's sort of like guys who are secure enough in their masculinity and not hung up on macho bullshit that they're man enough to hold their girlfriend's purse. That kind of stuff- being assured enough of something that you don't have to prove it all the time. Am I making sense? No, probably not. But, anyway...
And helmets and armor and spears and bows and cannons and gauntlets and more swords! It was pretty frikken' cool. (Regrettably, there was a prohibition on taking pictures inside. Sorry, guys.) The various suits of armor did look pretty outlandish, and a lot of it pretty impractical. I thought that such things as giant sets of antlers jutting from a helmet was purely the province of fantasy illustration, but apparently there really were people who were batshit insane enough to go into battle with deer parts on their head. There were also a remarkable number of masks on the helmets, all of which probably made the wearer look all the more frightening to his opponents.
I thought about this looking at the armor, and imagined that the average foot soldier was probably just some guy conscripted from rice fields and given a sharpened stick or something. But the samurai, the guys wearing this crazy armor, were trained, well-equipped, usually mounted dudes who, as Kori put it, "looked like gods." There were probably all kinds of guys who dropped their spear, ran in terror, and then got mowed down by a guy on a horse wearing scary animal parts as a hat.
The top of Osaka-Jo offered a nice view of the surrounding greenspace and the city, as well as a close up of some of the blinged-out fish things that are all over the castle's roof. We climbed down, and found a pleasant plum grove near the castle, and sat by the moat for a while.
Travelling is of course wonderful. I'm constantly intoxicated by the fact that there's a plethora of things and places here that I've never seen before. But travelling with someone is far better. I'm glad that now when I venture out into Japan, Kori's there and we can bounce our various opinions and ideas off of each other. We made our way back to Amerika-Mura, and found a fashionable Italian/Chinese (?!) restaurant.
Sitting there, I was reminded that Japan is indeed a rather hip country. Okayama isn't exactly the epicenter of coolness, so it was quite the breath of proverbial fresh air to eat in a place that had a small amount of coolness to it.
I had to say goodbye to Kori so we could catch our respective last trains to Okayama and Tokyo, but fortunately we're seeing each other again soon. I mean, this country isn't too huge. The prefectures are about the size of American counties, and the whole thing is filled with supertrains that zap you anywhere quite quickly.
So, it's back to Kyoto soon. It'll rock.

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May 8, 2007

Kyoto-Okayama-Kurashiki-Takamatsu-Miyajima-Onomichi-Innoshima: Trekking Through Kansai and the Inland Sea

We found the brontosaurus...
Admittedly, there's no such thing as a brotosaurus. It's a collasal mistake. But, it's become oh so iconic, and the statue was made with the same iconic incorrect sauropod back and tail posture. Oddly enough, the statue also looked weirdly albino and rather pissed off. But, we found the brontosaurus. It was like a prize, a treasure in the woods.
We won.
We totally won.

At the end of April and start of May there are a series of national holidays known as Golden Week. Along with the New Year's Holidays it's one of the major vacation periods in Japan. This past Golden Week Kori and I both had time off, and kriss-krossed Kansai and the Inland Sea area. There were deer, a brontosaurus, various temples, rain, cable cars, a lack of monkeys, telegrams, and rainy paths.
It rocked, and I do so like things that rock.

Kyoto: Oh My God! It's Full of History!
I felt a slight twinge of (eventually unwarrented) disappointment when I stepped into Kyoto.
Kyoto carries all sorts of expectations- it was spared the fires of WWII, and retains all manner stuff culturally important to Japan. It was the old capital prior to the Tokugawa Shogunate, houses the old Imperial Palace, and has more temples than you can swing a either a proverbial cat or stick at.
That being said, there is a certain rather silly part of the brain the expects to find some idyllic old-style city when one gets off the train. With all the hype about temples and shrines, one half-expects to see warriors in full samurai regalia walking wooden streets. One thinks of all manner of Japanese cultural signifiers/stereotypes- geta-wearing monks, silent, still geisha, Shinto priests in rather tall hats. One thinks of all those iconic/sterotypical images, and can't help but expect them, just a little, when one steps into the streets of Kyoto.
But kyoto has none of that.
Kyoto is a perfectly modern city. It has taxis, streetlamps, and everything. There are cars, convenience stores, and even pavement. All of the infrastructure and bustle one finds in the commercial/industrial cornocopia that is modern Japan.
One cannot help but be, every so slightly, disappointed that there is not some katana-wielding samurai warrior patrolling the streets when one disembarks into the urban landscape. Even though I knew very well that modern Kyoto is, well, modern, some irrepressable part of my brain still expected to find something like that here. I was both right and wrong in this feeling.
Wrong because of Kyoto's obvious modernity, but absolutely correct in that there is no shortage of connections to the past in Kyoto. I have every intention of going back, for I do not think that we adequately took in very much of it.
Kori and disembarked, made our way to our hostel, and then proceeded to get lost on the (entirely modern) bus system. However, such a turn was not entirely disappointing. Having a vague idea of where we were, we got off and looked for this one hill that, according to Kori, had nifty stuff on it.
We didn't find it.
We didn't find it because we got distracted by some random shrine by the side of the road. I don't remember which one of us said "What's that?" but we eventually found ourselves exploring some random, dark Shinto shrine in the middle of a wooded area. We climbed about, poking around the various altars and monuments, maybe trespassing. In the dark the altars and the statues of the gods took on an invitingly ominous quality, and I saw that there was an altar to kitsune, Shinto fox spirits.
"Tricksters," I said, "shapeshifters."
"They bring you money," replied Kori.
I wondered for a moment how one could get in good with such financially beneficient animistic entities. But, I was soon distracted by more important matters. Important matters that I will not describe to you, and that you will have to use your twisted imagination to envision.
We eventually made our way down the hill and into Kyoto's nighttime downtown. The streets of Kyoto are a bustling, bright grid at night- checkerboard city blocks and straight streets, all lit up. It's oddly beautiful, all those various people walking about at night as if it were day. We found a basement restaurant, ate pork and shrimp, and made flexible plans for the next day.
The next day, we made our way to the Kiyomizu-dera, one of Kyoto's more well known wonders. One thing that was quite nifty about Kyoto, is that it seems to be a city of lots of little wonders rather than just a few big ones. As we made our way to the Kiyomizu-dera (quite the big wonder) we were distracted by a temple, a cemetary, steps up a hillside, and an old pagoda in the woods. Kyoto seems to have all sorts of little things to tempt you away from the path, socketed away within it.
We continued to make our way to the massive Buddhist temple through the greenspace surrounding it, eventually coming to a fountainlike stream where several people were engaged in the watery purification ritual that one does prior to entering a Japanese holy place. We made our way up the pathway, and approached the main entrance sideways. The towering orange/red and white buildings were suitably impressive against the sky.
The Kiyomizudera is a wood structure on the side of a cliff, and during the holidays it was packed with tourists. I briefly wondered how the old wood building was doing, if all of these people walking about on this old Buddhist temple would strain its timbers. One can't help but think stuff like that. I've included several pictures of the Kiyomizudera- I think they offer a better description that I can give right now.
After the Kiyomizudera we walked around several narrow streets, found several small temples and shrines, saw people in kimonos and makeup who may or may not have been real geisha, and I know that I must go back to Kyoto, because I didn't see nearly enough of it.

Okayama, Kurashiki and Takamatsu: "Perfectly Reconstructed"
So, a lot of Japanese castles were destroyed in WWII. And, a lot of them have been rebuilt. I think this is a good thing. Better to rebuild something beautiful than let it be forgotten. Okayama Castle, known as U-Jo, or "Crow Castle" was one of these. Now, the outside of U-Jo is actually quite cool looking. Like its avian namesake, the castle is black, starkly different from most white Japanese castles. The roofs are also set with these golden dragon-fish things, which are somewhere between tasteful and gaudy. Outside the main entrance there was a nice little blurb about the history of Okayama Castle, the end bit being about how it was destroyed in WWII and then "perfectly reconstructed" in the sixties.
Now, every single person who's been inside has told me that as badass looking as U-Jo is from the outside, the inside is quite boring. But, Kori and I decided to see for ourselves.
Guess what? It is boring. While every other Japanese castle might seem slightly wimpy after seeing the massive construct that is Himeji-Jo, Okayama-Jo disappoints a bit, what with having an elevator and souvenir shop inside. I suppose the elevator is helpful for elderly people and those with disabilities, but it does somewhat compromise the "perfectly reconstructed" feel.
In any case, the inside of Okayama castle is a little cheesy. Everyone whom I've talked to has said that it's not really worth it, and they are all absolutely right. The outside is still fairly cool looking, though.
I showed Kori around Kurashiki and we made a jaunt over to Takamatsu as well. In Takamatsu, we did nothing, simply walked around near the water, looking at boats on the shoreline. Doing nothing, though, was quite the good use of a day.

Hiroshima and Miyajima: "...And Then We Went On A Cable Car!"
When I was a kid, I was afraid of nukes.
I have this very clear memory of watching the news with my dad, and there was some stock image of an ICBM on the news. It was some Cold War report all about American-Russian relations, probably nothing too unique or special. But, I asked my dad what it was, and he told me all about it. He told me about nuclear weapons, he got out the atlas and showed me the Soviet Union, gave me a little history lesson about the Cold War, and then told me that a single warhead could probably destroy the entire city of Portland.
He scared the shit out of me.
I remember being filled with apocolyptic fear, and was convinced that there was a Soviet missile with the words "PORTLAND, OR" written on the side of it. I was also convinced that one of my sister's dolls came alive at night and killed people, but that's another more Chucky-flavored neurosis.
Anyway, when the Berlin Wall came down when I was in elementary school, the first thing that popped into my mind was relief. "Well," I thought, "that means they're going to get rid of all the nukes, right?" Hahahahaha! What a silly little-child mind I had!
I'm older now, and less paranoid, but still a little frightened of nuclear weapons. Granted, I'm frightened of them in a more abstract, adult way- for instance I'm worried that North Korea might sell nukes as an act of economic desperation. Or that some India and Pakistan could launch a nuclear exchange. Or that someone could get their hands on one of the old, unaccounted for, Soviet nukes. I'm not paralyzed with fear or anything, but the political scientist in me still thinks about it. And that political scientist in me, I know, was born while watching a news report and seeing stock footage of and ICBM and cringing in fear at a father's explanation.
Which brings me to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima is actually a wonderful city, and I was impressed with a fair amount of its urban planning and engineering. But, you can't really talk about it without talking about how it was destroyed over half a century ago. The Atomic Bomb Dome is the city's iconic image, and even the word "Hiroshima" has become a synonym for the potential horrors of modern war.
Now, this does need to be put in context- more people died in both the Tokyo firebombing and the battle of Okinowa than in the Hiroshima blast. And, the Japanese atrocities in Asia and the Pacific firmly put Japan in the "agressor" rather than "victim" category when it comes to WWII.
To call the atomic bomb "unique" is a bit of an understatement. Obviously, the world changed then. It changed to the extent that forty odd years later, some random kid in Portland would be afraid of the exact same thing happening later. Moreover, the bombing is a symbol that war, in and of itself, is an evil thing. I'm hardly a pacifist, and I think that at times in history war has been a necessary evil. But, in the final analysis, it is simply humans killing humans writ large. Hiroshima is a reminder of that.
But I digress. A lot.
We got off one of Hirshima's many eminently pleasant streetcars and right there in front of us was the hollow shell of the Atomic Bomb Dome. The Dome itself sits on a river and is surrounded by various trees, which swayed in the wind that particular day. We snapped some pictures of the Dome, and also looked at the other people who were also snapping pictures of the dome. We walked around the Peace Park, seeing the various monuments and whatnot displayed about it.
Of course there was the Peace Arch, but I was also intrigued by two other memorials. One was a memorial to Sasaki Sadako, the world's most famous victim of the atomic bomb. Around the monument were variuos cases filled with folded paper cranes of various colors and sizes in glass cases that had been sent by children all over the world. I was struck by this because I remember reading the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes when I was in elementary school. I also remember that my school actually folded one thousand cranes as part of a history unit about nuclear weapons, and, as I went to a Catholic school, a gesture of peace. We made one thousand cranes, and put them up in a gigantic mobile in the school's main staircase. The cranes were arranged in colorful bands, green over blue over purple. At the top was a single gold crane that our pricipal, a nun, had folded herself. I wondered if the cranes that my school had folded were ever sent here to join the other children's folded gestures. Kori and I both took turns to ring the crane-shaped bell at Sadako's memorial, and I thought for a moment how many less famous children suffered the same fate as her.
Nearby was another memorial that I found less inspiring. Less inspiring because of its presentation, not its subject matter. It was a memorial to child laborers who had died in Hiroshima when the bomb exploded. I found it troubling because the recorded message that blared through the air at the monument talked about how they "gave their lives and their youths for their country," a hedging phrase that rankled me a bit. "So basically they were child slaves," said Kori. "Yeah," I said. Back in the States, I do get annoyed when people try to sanitize history- leaving out or moving too fast past the unpleasant bits, or the bits that shows our contries have blood on their hands, is merely an excercise in nationalistic dishonesty. When people say that the American Civil War wasn't about slavery, or try to apologize or rationalize stuff like Japanese-American internment, I cringe. And I cringe when it happens here in Japan, too, both at hedging, tentative monuments such as this, and whenever Abe Shinzo tries to pander to conservatives by denying atrocities in WWII.
I'm digressing again! My god there's lots of stuff about WWII in this post.
Fortunately, the inside of the actual museum didn't engage in such troublesome, hedging language. If anything, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the museum. I was surprised both by the fact that it didn't ignore Japanese militarism during the war, and was also very explicitly anti-nuclear. I suppose it makes sense that a museum in a city that's been nuked would take such an explcit stance, but given the apolitical stance that historical exhibits in the U.S. ususally take, I was surprised nonetheless.
There were all manner of war artifacts in the museum, but what I found most interesting was a wall of telegrams. Apparently, various mayors of Hiroshima have made it a tradition that every time there is a public nuclear test, the mayor sends a telegram of protest to that country's ambassador calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The wall was covered in messages written in Japanese and English addressed to various ambassadors of the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain, and France. I looked for, but couldn't find, the telegrams to the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors, and wondered what sort of tone the telegram to the North Korean ambassador took.
The next day, by train and then ferry, we were soon in Miyajima. I expected Miyajima to be a tourist trap, to have a few interesting sites, to maybe have a nice seaside path. And it did indeed have all of those things. But I was not expecting the deer.
Lots of deer. Tame deer. Deer for whome a guy with a cart sold stuff labeled "deer food." They were all over the place, right in the seaside walkways, when we got off the ferry. Chasing children, begging, lounging under trees.
Miyajima itself has that sort of stagey, tourist-friendly feel that many destinations in Japan seem to have. A friend of Kori's rather cynically described it as "having no soul." I don't really dislike this feeling per se- it didn't really detract from my enjoyment of taking the ferry, seeing the Otorii, or looking admiring the shrine. There is, however, this inescapable feeling that you're doing something prescribed, recommended, and safe. Perhaps it was the business of the Golden Week holiday that contributed to this feeling. In any case, it was neither a positive nor negative feeling, and I liked the sites just the same.
Walking about the Itsukushima Shrine, I sort of wondered about the place's particular status as both a religious place and a tourist attraction. Certainly most of the people there seemed to be tourists, out travelling during the holidays and seeing what famous sites Japan has to offer. But, the place was still recognizable as a religious area. There were still monks and such walking around.
I'm not a religious person- I like to call myself a "devout agnostic" and as much as the label "humanist" rankles me I think that it sometimes applies. Nevertheless, I can understand how people would find religion philosophically or psychologically useful, and, filthy non-believer that I am, I try to respect that. So, it was sort of a weird thinking about how this place (and also the Kiyomizu-dera before it) was a holy place, and I was wandering about it with a camera. Sure, there were also hordes of Japanese people wandering about with cameras, but I couldn't help but think about the weird juxtaposition at the time.
After the shrine we made our way up a hill to a cable car station which took us to the top of the island. Cable cars, I think, are much more like a carnival ride or something than a real means of conveyance. At least it seems that way. Getting on them you think "Woo-hoo! I'm on a cable car!" It was nifty. Anyway, got to near the top, hiked to the summit, and didn't see any monkeys. Which was a bit too bad, as Miyajima is known for having wild monkeys. But, it's not a zoo. They're animals that can come and go as they please, and if they don't feel like being out in full view of people, that's their own monkey perogative. Anyway, there were no monkeys. But there was an awesome view of the Inland Sea.
And we got to go on a cable car.

Innoshima: The Dinosaur at the End of the Journey
The second to last day before the end of Golden Week Kori and I headed out to a town called Onomichi, between Okayama and Hiroshima. Onomichi is notable in that there is a highway that extends out between it and Imabari, a town on Shikoku. This highway winds through several small islands in the middle of the Inland Sea, crossing all manner of bridges water.
There were no famous monuments here, no tourist attractions. There were almost no people as well. But, I loved being there still, for different reasons. It had been a long time since I'd wandered through rainy woods, and looking out from the top of the island and then descending the tree-covered slope in the rain with Kori reminded me of Oregon. My jeans and shoes were soaked, my hat and hoodie drenched, and I was covered in sweat from walking uphill. It was exhilarating. I didn't realize how much I missed hiking.
We made our way up to the top of the central mountain, found a curious shrine there. It was simply a stone tablet carved with some kind of image that I couldn't decipher. Standing on the rocks above everything else we saw boats and farmland, several greenhouses, and swathes of grey water dotted with boats. And islands. All around us in the grey mists were other islands, islands that looked so close we could have thrown stones at them. I wondered what this are would have been like years ago, the Inland Sea dotted with wooden fishing boats. We slid, jumped and walked down, going through dense trails and wet undergrowth. The final descent was a steep slope that let us out amidst a farm, curiously empty. Orange and lemon trees hung in rows in the greyness, and Kori pilfered some cumquats, which I'd never eaten before. We found the shoreline to be a still, sandy shore. Maybe it was the holidays, or maybe it was normal, but Innoshima seemed oddly bereft of other people. We saw the odd car and a single old man by the surf, but for the most part we were alone in the stillness.
We walked along the shore, hungry now, and suddenly from the foliage was the white neck of the dinosaur. Kori had mentioned that she'd heard about this dinosaur- that someone had told her that one of the islands in the Inland Sea had a giant statue of a brontosaurus on it. We'd mentioned this bit of trivia earlier in the morning, and had forgotten it as we hiked through the greenery. But there it was, neck rising upwards and glaring through the moist sky across the grey water.
"We found the dinosaur!" one of us said. It was quite rewarding finding this random bit on a random island that we'd talked about earlier. What were the chances that Innoshima would have had it? By complete dumb luck we found it.
Like I said, it was as if we'd won something.
We won.
We went back to Onomichi and ate yakinikku for dinner, the meat crackling inside a table-mounted fire. I was sad to see her go the next day, and it was odd returning to the work routine.
Now, I'm sitting here in my apartment typing and I can't wait to get out of Okayama again. We're meeting to Osaka this weekend. It'll rock- and I do so like things that rock.

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