Dec 31, 2008

2008: Most Awesomest Year Ever

I've thought about it for a bit, and I really don't think it's an exaggeration to proclaim that 2008 is the single Most Awesomest Year I've ever had. Yes, it was so awesome it made English grammar contort itself.

This was the year in which I hung out in the biggest city in the world, made an eye-opening trip to China, took up cycling, hiked in Korea and saw the DMZ, saw Kabuki for the first time, learned tons of Japanese in an awesome class, took (and possibly passed) the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, saw snow-covered sumo wrestlers throw beans at people, saw more than a few giant Buddhas, played lots of frisbee, appreciated the giant temple that's right by my apartment, read a bunch of brilliant authors for the first time, made some awesome friends, and decided what sort of career I want later in life. All in all, it was exceedingly kickass. A few memorable pictures:

This statue of a wandering monk is towards the back of Narita-San, the temple I live near. There are myriad statues of monks, Buddhas, and gods throughout the temple, either on pedestals or worked into the rocks. It's the second largest Buddhist temple in Japan, and it's become a place I quite love, particularly at night when all of the shadows make everything look menacing. This picture was taken in March when Japan's iconic sakura were out.

Some rather enthusiastic participants at Kawasaki's annual springtime fertility festival.

Kawasaki's Buddhist temple on the same day as the Shinto penis festival. The Buddhist temple was a bit more sedate than the nearby Shinto shrine, but still bustling.

A view of Zhouzhuang, a water village just outside Shanghai.

Shanghai's unmistakable Pudong skyline by night. Seeing all of the newness, all of the development, commerce and newly built infrastructure was amazing. All the while, antiquated red flags flapped in the wind.

I took this pictures while surrounded by the noise, lights, and heat of Narita's summer festival. The wooden wagon, called a dashi, was pulled up the hill by a team of enthusiastic (and somewhat tipsy) Naritans, all the while cheered on by the crowds.

Things made by enthusiastic Japanese Star Wars fans have tons more life in them than anything made by Lucasfilm.

Seoul's statue of Admiral Ye Sun Sin, the man who helped to thwart Toyotomi Hideyoshi's plans for a conquest of Korea. And he did it with turtle ships, some of the first marine armor ever created. The whole of Korea was great. If anything, I got the satisfaction of learning to read (though not necessarily understand) Hangeul.

Unfortunately, I don't really have an pictures of the place that has meant the most to me this past year: Tokyo. I don't bother to bring my camera with me when I go into town, though I should probably get a few shots of the place before I leave. Admittedly, I love Tokyo so much mainly because I don't have to live there. I live out in Narita, an hour away from Tokyo station, and the Metropolis is mainly my playground on the weekend. But what a playground it is. Whenever I get off the train I'm enthusiastic about doing stuff, about not having to be a teacher in the suburbs anymore- instead I get to be a city guy for a bit. I've got a month and a half left of this awesome place, and I know I'll miss it terribly.

But missing it is entirely necessary. In 2009 I'm starting my career.

Dec 29, 2008

In Which I Get a Personal Stereophonic Device

I bought an iPod yesterday. Not "a new" iPod, mind you- I bought an iPod for the first time ever. It's the first personal stereo that I've owned in twelve years. The last time I had one I was a black-clad, sideburn-sporting teenager equally obsessed with Kurt Cobain and Mozart. It was a battered up old Walkman, a taped together mass of black plastic that I kept stocked with classical mix tapes, Led Zepplin, and 90s alternative. I don't remember how I got it, the earphones were dodgy, and I had to sort of jiggle it sometimes to make it work. I either lost it or it broke- I don't really remember, and never bothered to replace it.

Not that I don't like music, mind you. I love the stuff, and in the intervening years have cultivated a fairly large collection of LPs, CDs, mp3s, and even casette tapes, the majority of which are stored back in the States. In my old demi-house (it was more of a duplex than an apartment) I was quite proud of my stereo with my shelf of nicely retro LPs, kept my CDs stocked prominently in my living room, and went to concerts often. But, I never got an iPod. Part of the reason was money- they aren't cheap after all. I also listened to a lot of music on cheap and easy-to-aquire vinyl that could never be stored on a digital device. Another issue, though, was that I never really thought of myself as someone who owned such a device. It was just an immutable fact about me- I have black hair, brown eyes, and don't own a personal sterophonic device.

Recently, though, I've been going on this tear of musical geekery. It's been great. For whatever reason, I've started aquiring new albums at a fairly rapid pace, and I'm quite simply not in my apartment enough to enjoy them all. I've also taken up jogging, and figured that music would be nice while I did that. So, yesterday, I picked up a silver iPod nano in Shibuya. I was weirdly reluctant for a bit to get one, but fortunately a friend of mine was on hand to goad me into it.

Anyway, these things are awesome. I guess everyone has known that for a while ago, what with the Walkman and its descendants being popular for something over twenty years now. You know that stock sci-fi scene where someone gets zapped back into the past and then impressed cavemen with something simple like a lighter? Well, right now I feel like that caveman- I'm impressed and awed by something that everyone else has been aware of and enjoying for quite some time now. But, it's great- I didn't have to listen to insufferable muzak jingles at the supermarket this weekend. Instead, I listened to Vampire Weekend while I picked out vegetables, and was completely exhuberant about it.

So, what are you guys listening to right now? I'm caught up in full on music fandom and would love some suggestions. Right now I've been listening to Girl Talk, Vampire Weekend (who I've already mentioned), the new David Byrne and Brian Eno album, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem and Frightened Rabbit. I've also given Chinese Democracy a couple of listens, which I feel like I should be embarrassed about, but whatever.

So... suggestions?

Dec 23, 2008

Better Than Palanquins

Palanquins are silly. Sillier even than the most outsized of SUVs. As much as one can display conspicuous consumption today with a stupidly large car, that pales in comparison to being carted around by two or more humans whilst inside a gold box. And, it was precisely these monstrosities of wealth that a friend and I were looking at this weekend, at a special exhibit at the Edo Tokyo Museum.

The whole display was a showcase of indulgence. What we were looking at were the playthings for the very rich, objects that only a sliver of the population actually utilized. I pointed this out to my friend and she said, "Yes, but the rich were the ones who made all the decisions and started all of the wars." I can't really argue with that. But still, looking at playthings and status symbols is not wholly satisfying. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy them- I did. Just that looking at such a tiny sliver privileged life for so long tends to provoke a bit of irritation at the decadence.

One amusing thing, though- towards the end of the palanquin exhibit, there was a showcase full of objects that belonged to a princess whose things were on display. Amongst them were a laquerware basin and towel rack which looked like, well, a basin and towel rack. There were also helpful little labels that said "basin" and "towel rack" in English. Nevertheless, this older woman decided to help us out by pointing at the objects, and mime washing one's face and using a towel. This was really rather endearing, her making sure that we foreigners understood what the objects were. On the other hand, presuming that we were ignorant of such basic objects such as a basin was a bit patronizing. It was sort of sweet of her, nonetheless.

We ventured out of the palanquin exhibit, into and through a gift shop selling bowls for over ten thousand yen, and up into the normal exhibition hall wherein I lots of stuff far more interesting that the feudal equivalent of SUVs resided.

Like books. Books that were printed with old style woodblock presses, books bound together with strings and lavishly decorated on the covers and inside with all manner of illustrations. These were the publishing products of a feudal society and a direct descendant of mass media. Also impressive were the woodblocks- mass produced bits of adornment and entertainment, made in great numbers and sold to the public. There was likewise a whole exhibit about coinage and currency, of which there were apparently several kinds in the Edo era, in addition to using rice as a currency. I wondered how inflation worked back then, and at what rates the different currencies were transferable to each other.

These things, books, prints and coins, were about ideas and communication, commerce and the popular sentiment of a place. Seeing these old examples of popular culture, the direct descendants of manga, newspapers, and publishing houses, inspired me far more than any relic of a gilded, idle life. These things were products of a vibrant society, not just a tiny minority.

The next day I got into an IM conversation with an old friend of mine, and he mentioned that he'd been reading up on the Heian period, and would have loved to have been a noble back then. I mentioned that I was far more interested in Japan's modern era, and studying the rapid rate of modernization in the Meiji period could be instructive with regards to the speedy modernization happening now in other parts of the world. He replied with something about the importance of beauty and poetry and whatnot.

I can't dispute that such things- beauty, poetry, adornment- are nice. I do, after all, rather like seeing temples, shrines, screens, and statuary, things which are hardly practical in the strictest sense. Yet, I want to look at history with a practical, not just an aesthetic eye. I want to see how problems were solved, how goals were persued, how technology was applied, how organizations were administed, and what the result of it all was. A book, after all, is just a book. But seeing the Edo era prints called into mind an entire infrastructure that would have to exist to sustain such things. If books were popular enough to be printed and sold, then that means literacy was widespread. It also means that the economic and agricultural structure of society (even though it's often called "feudal") had to be efficient enough to support sizable (albeit, still minority) non-agrarian specialist population. That is highly cool to find out about.

For better or worse, I've also started thinking about broad-based societal phenomenon in a professionally curious way. As I continue to review political science, I'm more and more seeing myself as someone who will be entangled with the infrastructure and workings of societies. And that means knowing about industry, media, and commerce. These things are sizable and engaging, and soon I'm hoping to see such things in more than just an amateur fashion.

Dec 19, 2008

Christmastime in Japan

I like Christmas. That might come as a surprise to some of the people who know me, as there are lots of things about it that annoy the hell out of me. For the most part, I agree with everything that noted atheist/drunkard Christopher Hitchens has to say in this rather characteristic column. It is indeed a nightmare of consumerism, stress, religiosity, and vulgarity. But, on the whole, it's worth it. It gives everyone a few days off at the end of the year, drives the economy a bit, and gives us yet another reason to consume grossly obese birds. Also, I like the Nutcracker Suite and the novelty of having an indoor tree.

Well, it's more than that. I remember when I shared an apartment with an old girlfriend and we agreed to get a tree. Neither of us believed, and neither of us cared much for the family stress that we'd have to endure come Christmas Eve and Day. But still, be got ourselves a tree and set it up in our apartment, festooning it with a few ornaments and lights. Even though our relationship didn't last, I remember looking at that tree and thinking to myself "This is real- we actually have a connection. We got ourselves a goddamn tree." I remember looking at it and thinking "this is my home now." It was a feeling that was fleeting, but wonderful, and all because of something as simple proping up an evergreen in one's living room. In other words, I know I can't escape the emotional connection that I have with this holiday- it is something that is fairly ingrained in me, and I will probably acknowledge Christmas in much the same way that I acknowledge Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Indepedence Day in my own way.

Now, as much of a distaste as I have for religion in general, I tend to prefer the religious trappings of Christmas to the secular ones. Really- I'm not being ironic here. I'd take a nativity scene over Frosty the Snowman any day, and vastly prefer O Holy Night to any such dreck as Winter Wonderland. I suppose the reason for this is that the religious stuff seems to come from a real place on the part of the creators. This is not to say that relgious stuff can't be ingenuine or kitsch (it most certainly can). What I mean is that the non-secular trappings of Christmas are generally more real, emotion-laden, and unmediated than the non-religious kinds. And, even as a devout humanist I'm capable of enjoying such things on an aesthetic level. Much in the same way that I admire Dante, I also admire Adeste Fidelis.

Which brings me to Japan...

There is Christmas in Japan. Oh my, is there ever Christmas in Japan. But, Japan is not a Christian country. Nor is it particularly Buddhist or Shinto. Based on conversations I've had here, it seems that Japan has ceremony without devotion, and secularism without abstention from ceremony. A very intelligent and articulate student of mine said to me "When we are at the temple we are Buddhist, when we are at the shrine we are Shinto, and on Christmas we are Christian." I can't say that she speaks for the entire population, to be sure, but her words stuck with me.

I think that she's wrong on the last point, though- while Christmas is most certainly in the air here, there is nothing particularly Christian about it. It's a season and time of naked consumerism, a festival of lights and shopping that culminates in the consumption of fried chicken, cake, and subsequent sexual coupling. I'm not kidding- "Christmas Cake" is a popular confection here, and students are surprised when I tell them that it's utterly absent in the U.S. Likewise, KFC has somehow gotten itself brand-identified as Christmas food in Japan. I have to applaud whatever evil marketing genius is responsible for that. And, somehow, Christmas has turned into a popular date night, where young Japanese couples spirt off to love hotels and celebrate Jesus' birthday by fucking the shit out each other. While I think Jesus, hippy-type that he was, would probably be amused by this course of action, it is a little weird. There is a Christmas-themed love hotel near my apatment that is quite the sight to behold. The whole place, year-round, is decked out with wreaths, lights, candy canes, Santa, etc. And here, all that stuff means "let's do it."

In any case, it's a curious and obnoxious sensation, seeing all of this. I was walking today in one of the Chiba suburbs where I teach, and plinky, midi-like versions of Christmas carols were being piped through the street's PA system. I wondered how many of the bent old women actually knew the lyrics of, or much cared for, the treacle that was being pumped into their public space. I noticed that all of them were generic holiday tunes only about winter, snow, jingle bells, and Rudolph. Nothing at all religious or devotional, nothing with an emotional core.

Why? Because here Christmas is even more shallow, more consumer-oriented, more superficial than in the U.S. In the U.S. Christmas is a main festival of western civilization, and here it is merely an unofficial holiday that's all about shiny things and buying stuff. And Japan is nakedly unapologetic about that. There is no patina of devotion or meaning to it, no veneer of greater significance, no pretension of importance. Only lights, gifts, and empty adornment.

I don't disapprove of this, mind you. I believe that Japan has every right to adopt our shallow gestures and use them for it's own benefit. Yet, I feel a bit of nostalgia for the emotional core of it all, of seeing my Catholic father's genuine joy at the holiday, of hearing Linus earnestly intone the Gospel of Luke at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

To be sure, the nonbeliever in me can't complain- I would gladly see the entire relgion that venerates Christmas consigned to the dustbin of history. Yet, I balk at the emptiness of yet another repitition of idiotic non-songs such as Jingle Bells. Here in Japan there is a shell and surface, but nothing behind that blinking lights.

Dec 15, 2008

Knowledge is Nifty!

For some reason, I sort of like getting up early. There's a sense of purpose to it.

Two weeks ago, I got up early and peeled myself out of bed to go to Nihon University to take the third level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. It was quite the thing. I'd taken the test before, last year, and failed. But last year I really should have taken a much lower level. Last year was kind of like being trampled by an angry rhino that was made out of language. This year was much better, and I may have even actually passed the thing. Even if I didn't pass, though, it was an awesome experience because of the mental place that it put me in.

I've been studying for my entire time in Japan, but I been studied far more intensely than normal the week before the test, and loved it. Absolutely loving it. I studied so much that I got a sort of high off of it. Really. For the entire week beforehand I'd made myself do little else with my free time, and while I definitely couldn't keep up that level of work all the time, it was great while it lasted. Finding stuff out, seeing how systems work, looking at a pile of information and seeing how it all fits together is one of the most pleasurable sensations ever. To suddenly understand something new, to have a new skill or ability, to see the world in a new way- that is a niftier aquisition than any new object.

Seriously. Knowing stuff rocks.

Anyway, nerdy knowledge junky that I am, the test gave me a focus and reason for my studies. I'm fairly goal-oriented, and something like the test is just the sort of thing that can make me work and act in such a way that I wouldn't be able to under normal circumstances. Also, the experience of the test was wonderful compared to last year. Like I said, last year's examinating trampled me handily. This time, though, I actually understood almost everything that was on it. I didn't know all of the vocabulary, and on some of the finer points of grammar I had to guess, but even in questions where I didn't know the specifics of the language mechanics I was still able to understand what the sentence was about. That's a fairly big deal, and comparing that with last year's experience gave me an awesome feeling of progress.

Afterwards I joined a bunch of friends (several of whom had also taken the test) and we commemorated our academic endeavors by getting absolutely trashed on Brazilian sugar-cane booze. Fun times.

Come February, I've another test to prepare for- the U.S. Foreign Service Officer Exam. While I'm still studying Japanese for the fun and immediate utility of it, I'm also refreshing my knowledge of political science. Yay studying! Yay knowing stuff! Yay!

Dec 3, 2008

Aspiring to 61%

I've been pacing around my apartment a lot, listening to Japanesepod101, sitting with my textbooks on trains and in coffee shops, and have given myself a temporary respite from studying political science. During my breaks at work I've closed the door to my classroom and am reviewing grammar and testing myself with flash cards. The primary forms of leisure that I've allowed myself are either reading Dragonball in Japanese, or watching Witch Hunter Robin (albeit with subtitles), so that I don't have to exit my Japanese brain space more than is necessary. Yesterday I tried to limit the amount of English that I used with my manager and coworker (much to their amusement) and have generally tried to soak my brain in the language.

Why on earth am I doing this, you ask? On Sunday I'm taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, third level. This is the same test that I took last year, and failed. Granted, last year I was biting off a bit more than I could chew- I really should have taken the fourth level, the lowest one. I'm a bit more confident this time around- hopefully my brain will be sufficiently marinated in Nihongo that I pass.

But, the test is a bitch. So much of what I know I've learned from context, and the test is entirely decontextualized. This is good and bad. On one hand, language is always in context, so the test (much like many English test) is very artificial. On the other hand, it really does test whether or not you know the language in and of itself, not just whether you can read situations and deduce stuff.

Anyhow, this has made having to teach English a little odd. I'd rather be a student now, and would like to selfishly refrain from having to teach my own language. But, my free time is packed with an intesity of study that I never had when I was a university student, which is a nifty feeling.

To pass, all I need is over sixty percent. Here's hoping for sixty one...