Apr 29, 2007

I'm off!

So, I'm off on a nine-day jaunt with Kori through Japan- Kyoto, Hiroshima, and maybe a few other places. We don't know yet- we're just going where our whims and the trains take us. So, no posts during that time (sadly) but when I get back there will be pics and words aplenty.
Huzzah! Adventure awaits!

Apr 26, 2007

I'm So Moved!

Wow. There was just an earthquake. Right now. While I was eating ramen. Sweet!
Nothing big, nothing fallen over- but I've finally experienced my first instance of Japan's geological shuffling. Woo!
Back to ramen now.

Apr 17, 2007

Tanuki on the Shore: Stumbling Drunk Through Takamatsu

Tanuki are mythical raccoon tricksters with giant magic balls. This sunday, there was a tanuki festival in Takamatsu, and by total chance I ended up in the middle of a big public square where everyone was wearing racoon hats. Also, I ended up completely drunk and wandering around a bunch of castle ruins. It was cool.
Sort of on a whim I ended up going to Takamatsu this weekend. No real reason- I just felt like I'd hop on a train to Shikoku and see what was there. Takamatsu is a decently sized city, and I thought I'd give it a look. Hip Hop asked me what I was doing this weekend, and asked if he could come along.
We got on an early train, and moved south through all manner of rural hills and ricefields. I'm continually surprised by how much "country" Japan seems to have. Sure, it's crowded country, with towns every ten minutes and rice fields clumped together, but it's rural nonetheless. We passed over the Honshu-Skikoku bridge, and I was quite taken with my first real view of the Inland Sea. I'd been to the Inland Sea before, of course, but only at night. Here, though, I was able to take in the full size of it, see it extending out in two directions and dotted with all manner of tiny islands. It was as if Honshu and Shikoku were dissolving, and little bits of them still floated in sea.
At the tanuki festival, of course, there were all manner of food vendors. Hip Hop looked at me rather sheepishly and asked "Do you wanna beer?" I felt a bit reticent- it was only about twelve thirty, and I didn't want to slide into some sort of reverie of daytime drunken degeneracy. But, I think that tanuki would have approved of my actions when I said "sure."
I still think it's weird to drink outside, but it's all legal here, so I guess it's not a problem.
We sat down and watched some kids doing taiko, which I'd never seen before- the closest I'd come was playing a taiko-themed arcade game (which I did quite enjoy, I might add).
Taiko is fairly neat to watch. Granted, we were watching kids, but the mixture of drumming, choreography, and shouting all makes it very much a performance, not just music. Really- if you were to listen to a recording of taiko drumming, you'd be losing about half of the experience of it. The kids had some decent chops, but I'd like to see a proper adult taiko performance sometime.
After that, a bunch of high school girls did a "raccoon dance." They were all dressed up in ears, tails, and makeup, and had I been a pedophile with a fur fetish I would have been pleased with it to no end.
We stumbled from the square, and made our way to the ruins of Takamatsu castle. The ruins (well, mainly just the base of the castle) were situated in a rather pleasant traditional garden with all manner of rocky steps, stone lanterns, and arching trees. It was nice. Hip Hop and I stumbled a few times as we drunkenly walked over the uneven stone steps, but managed to avoid falling like idiots.
Now, I don't want to sound like a total degenerate, but...
I'm quite glad that I'm now living the sort of life wherein if I find myself drunkenly stumbling about a bunch of castle ruins after watching a bunch of dancing girls dressed up as raccoons, I think that's more or less normal. I mean, it's not like I do that every day, but that's the sort of thing that being over here is all about- gallivanting around and doing random stuff like that.
We got some Udon (a Shikoku specialty) and looked at the Inland Sea for a while as we sobered up before catching a train home. I had a social engagement in Kurashiki later that night. There, I contented myself with oolong while everyone else got tipsy, and I splayed out in the wonderful sensation of knowing I'm somewhere else.

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Apr 11, 2007

Springtime Snowblood: In Which I Lose All Feeling In My Legs

In John Dower's Embracing Defeat, Dower describes how during WWII, the sakura was appropriated as a propaganda image. The Japanese government extolled their citizens to die like gracefully falling cherry blossoms, likening carnage to a gentle spring.
Riding around on sunday I couldn't help but think that this was a wholly ridiculous image. Cherry blossoms are about as threatening as marshmellow peeps. Damn pretty, though. The flurries and waves did sort of resemble a bloodstained snow, though- a storm of capillaries and veins.
Monday, a student invited me to a Japanese tea ceremony. I was actually sort of leery about this- I was worried about whether or not I'd commit some huge breach of etiquette at the tea ceremony. and also about the professionalism of consorting with students outside of class. My company doesn't care about this sort of thing, but while I want to be friendly, I don't want to be too friendly- I always want it to be a teacher/student relationship.
The particular student who invited me along was an older lady who's learning English because both of her kids speak it. I also suspect that she just sort of likes foreigners. She was very "buddy-buddy" with my predecessor and I think she wants to find something like that again. She also seemed to be trying to foist her daughter on me, but more on that in a bit.
I met my student, her friend, and her daughter on monday morning, and was initially surprised to see that they were all wearing kimonos. Then I thought- of course they're wearing kimonos. If you own a kimono, I think, then you probably crack that sucker out whenever you get a chance- such as going to a tea ceremony.
My student's friend spoke no English, however her daughter was very high level. I have to confess that when I meet new people, I unconciously start gauging their English abilities. She was quite good- I'd put her in a high level class if given the option.
Then she asked me my most hated question here in Japan-
"Do you have a girlfriend?"
"No, I don't."
This was followed by second most hated question-
"Do you like Japanese girls?"
Oh how I loath this question. Loath it. Loath it on an HunterSThompsonian scale, in fact. I usually want to respond with something like "Do you like American boys? How about Chinese boys? What about boys from Portugal or Mozambique? How about them? How about Mongolian, Egptian, or Brazilian boys? How about them? Let's fetishize nationality more! Yeah, baby- that funny passport totally revs my engines! Oh yeah! Your cultural background is different from mine- HOT!" Such sarcasm would probably be lost on most Japanese people, and in the interest of politness I usually just say "sometimes."
But, I digress.
My old lady student and her friend were doing the whole "let's hang back several feet and let them talk to each other alone" thing, leaving me with the daughter. She kept asking me all about America, and I kept telling here stuff. I sort of got sick of the whole "Woooo! You're from America!" conversation, but tried my best to be pleasant.
When we got to the garden where the tea ceremony was to be held, I was surrounded by several very short old ladies in kimonos, sort of milling about and chatting with each other. So, picture this: A bunch of short old ladies in kimonos milling about in a pleasant little garden. Sticking out of the geriatric, silken-clad throng is a six foot tall white dude in a leather jacket with dark stubble. I was really, really intimidated and self concious. I asked my student if it was okay that I wasn't wearing a kimono or a suit or anything and she just laughed at me and told me it was fine. We milled about in the garden for a while, and evntually went into the tea house.
Now, try this-
Get on your knees. and make surt that your feet aren't crossed. Now, sit back so your ass is directly above your feet. Try to keep as upright as possible. Put your hands in your lap. Try to look all calm and whatnot. That is how one has to sit during a tea ceremony. It's called seisa, and it's quite painful over a long period of time.
So, I was sitting there with all sorts of interesting pain going back and forth in my legs, and I can say pretty confidently that the only thing that kept me from changing my posture was pride. Pure, stupid, pride. The Pride that Marcellus Wallace described as a "sting."
Surrounded by little old ladies who seemed quite comfortable sitting that way, there was no way I was going to change my position. If lots and lots of tiny grey women could endure that, then sure enough, I could, too.
So, I just let my skewed sense of pride do it's work while I sat there in a bamboo-matted house bowing a lot while various tea bowls were passed around. The tea itself was actually quite tasty. In fact, it was incredibly tasty. I want to learn how to make green tea like that, such was its niftyness.
The tea ceremony itself was neat, though I didn't know what was going on as it was all in Japanese. My student's daughter explained to me later that it was all about spring, and the wonderfulness thereof. The teahouse was a quite nice space- it used a lot of polished branches in its timbers rather than worked beams, which was nicely naturalistic. There was also a heavily stylized calligraphic banner that was written in such rapid-seeming brushwork that I couldn't pick out even the radicals (i.e., component parts) of the Kanji.
When the ceremony was over, my student' daughter asked me if my legs were in any pain. I said yes, I couldn't feel them at all. It was a weird mixture of pain and non-feeling. My student and her daughter laughed and, much to my surprise. Immediately started massaging my feet and calves. I was sort of taken aback by this- it's not every day that one gets a leg massage from a mother and daughter simultaneously whilst in a tiny, traditional Japanese tea house. It was sort of weird, but they seemed to think that it was the most hilarious thing ever. I struggled to get up with my non-feeling legs, and sort of wondered what all the old ladies in kimonos were making of the scene.
I had a Japanese lesson later, so my student and her daughter were sad to see me go. It was fun, definitely the sort of cultural experience that I wanted to have. Now I just need to find a good gree tea recipe...

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Apr 1, 2007

I Swear, I Only Listen to Bright Eyes Ironically. Really.

I really like Irony. I like it so much, I just capitalized it.
Back home in the Usa, sarcasm was basically a constant fixture of my speech- and working in a dysfuntional (but charming!) local bookstore with a bunch hipster/geek types was exactly the environment where this sort of thing flourished. I don't think I went a whole day without making fun of Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, or Nora Roberts. No, I've never read any of them- but we mercilessly skewered them anyway, even as we sold half-priced copies of their paperbacks.
Here, though, things are different. Obviously they are, otherwise I wouldn't be writing about it.
Many people mentioned that most Japanese people don't have much a sense of sarcasm, culturally. I sort of thought that this was some sort of fatuous generalization- I mean, who couldn't have a sense of sarcasm and irony? It's innate, right? Right?
Well, no. It's not. Being perpetually sarcastic and ironic, it seems, is basically the province of snooty effete intellectual types and cantankerous old people. My old job had both, and I include myself in the first category.
Here, though, my sarcasm runs right into the face of my job- I mean, I'm dealing with people who need to be introduced to basic stuff like the passive voice. My most advanced students struggle with euphemisms. Sarcasm is so high up the communicative ladder (especially my own style of dry sarcasm that sometimes even confuses other native speakers) that I need to turn it almost completely off when I talk to students.
Broad stuff is okay. Really, really broad stuff- like claiming that it's a wonderfully sunny day when in fact it's raining outside. That works. However, subtlety doesn't really make it's way through the communicative wall.
I've resorted to (gasp!) having to say exactly what I mean without resorting to wit, euphemisms, guile, or intonation. My words have been forced to, as directly as possible, correlate precisely to what is going on in my head. While this may seem intuitive to some, I find such unshaded and direct communication to be exceedingly strange. Even though I've gotten much better at it, I'm still not used to speaking without my old friend Irony.
I'm sort of worried about this.
I mean, it's bad enough that I like Belle and Sebastian and U2, twin pillars of rock-'n-roll earnestness. It's worrisome to think that perhaps when I get back I'm going to be this overly earnest, utterly sappy, irony-free bag of sincerity. I imagine myself as going from this smiling, funny, occasionally witty guy to the worst sort of overly earnest "sensitive" guy. You know- the sort of person who listens to Bright Eyes. I think of myself soulfully, earnestly, and humorously pouring out my feelings without a white of self-awareness and I sort of cringe a little.
Though such a thing is not likely. If anything, this is probably a good thing. Perhaps, sometimes, I was too ironic, too sarcastic. Perhaps, sometimes, it was a crutch and now I'm learning to walk without it.
When I speak with native speakers I'm still the same old sarcastic person that I always was- mostly. I still love irony dearly- and I mean that sincerely.