Jan 28, 2009

Things I'll Miss, Part Two

A few more parts of the landscape that I'll miss...

The Metric System
The metric system wonderfully intuitive, and it's absolutely ridiculous that the U.S. doesn't use it. Here in Japan, I've gotten used to thinking in terms of centimeters, kilograms, kilometers and the rest, and have found it all far more understandable than the imperial system. I really couldn't tell you how many feet there are in a mile, for instance. But, I know how many meters there are in a kilometer and grams in a kilogram- 1,000, easy as that. It's great! The metric system an intuitive, user-friendly and global set of standards, and the U.S. would do well to abandon it's clunky and ill-conceived proprietary set. I'll miss you, metric system. Maybe one day you can come to America.

The View From My School

From my classroom, I can see Narita-San temple, Mt. Tskuba, a constant stream of airplanes, and lots of trees. The school is on the sixth floor of an office building, and from the balcony one can see Mt. Fuji on a clear day. What's more, it's a westward view of Fuji, so the sun sets nicely behind it. No, I don't have a picture. Just trust me that it's awesome.


Yes, there is clubbing all over the world, I know, and occasionally clubbing just hasn't worked for me. But all in all, I enjoy getting assaulted by the blaring rhythms and beats, feeling my sternum vibrated by the sound system, navigating amongst the milling crowds. At clubs, I've mostly considered myself an observer- I'm still not "good at" clubbing. Apparently one can meet people at these places, but I don't really know how you'd do that if the music's too loud for conversation.

I suppose what I'll miss, though, is how clubbing facilitates unselfconscious revelry. There is no form or steps to the dancing- one simply moves how one pleases, often while drunk. I appreciate the otherworldliness of it all, the feeling that one is in some sort of suspended place, and techno often brings with it a kind of looping mindlessness that I've come to appreciate. A well places sample or hook coupled with the freedom to jump around as one pleases lends itself to a certain abandon. I know that that much can be said of a lot of music, yes, but I won't forget Tokyo's immense, dark, smoky chambers.

The Tokyo Skyline

I'm from Oregon and a nature lover since childhood. I love trees, mountains, and all of that wonderful green stuff. My own hometown, Portland, is dotted with greenery in a lovely way, and I love it for that. However, there's something undeniably sexy about the busy, neon-lined machine city that is Tokyo.

I can understand how it could be stressful, or someone's idea of an urban hell. I can see how it could overload the senses or tire people out, and if I had to live downtown during the work week, maybe it would exhaust me as well. But I love how inexhaustible it feels, how in the innards of Tokyo there doesn't seem to be an end to the wonders of civilization and technology, and it all makes me wonder what comes next in terms of technology and civilization.

Among the crowds, even when walking alone, you feel part of something, part of something that's much larger than yourself. It's as if you're standing on some sort of hub or axis and watching the world's gears click and spin around you in a colorful panoply.

I don't want to romanticize it too much, the crushing crowds and the noise. The movement and the light make it a place without peace. The sensory saturation of it all, though, is a certain kind of wonderful. In Tokyo, your eyes wander over more objects than you could hope to contemplate and more people with whom you could ever hope to talk with. The world magnifies itself in unquiet motion, and stretches in all directions.

Things I'll Miss, Part One

After that little bit snarkiness, a few things I'll miss about Japan. Not big things like my students or friends, but little things about the landscape itself.

Temples and Shrines

Sure, a lot of them look alike. But I like them anyways, especially my local, massive Narita-san. It's nice to see these buildings which are characteristically Japanese nestled amongst all the modernity, reminders that modernization need not mean complete westernization. Here, temple attendees read New Year's fortunes in Asakusa.


Japanese trains are wonderful. I wish I could uproot the train system here and take it back with me to the States. With them, one can go most anywhere rather rapidly and affordably, and I've hardly missed having a car.

Kaiten Sushi

Proper sushi bars, the kind where you sit at a table and order items individually, are fairly expensive. While in Japan, though, I've been to such a place all of one time. I'd rather go to kaiten sushi, the restaurants where cheap sushi revolves around the counter on a conveyor belt, with the chefs often standing in the middle of it. At their best, these places are crowded and raucous, with customers yelling orders at the chefs, and the chefs yelling right back. There's the constant sound of clinking plates and chatter, and the whole place is infused with the distinctive smell of fresh fish. I usually have to limit myself to about seven plates or so, otherwise I think I could devour the contents of the conveyor belt.

The Tone and Edo Rivers

These two rivers have awesome bike paths, and I've quite enjoyed riding along them. The Tone is near my apartment, and it's wind-buffeted bike path is part of my regular cycling loop. The Edo stretches into Tokyo from the suburbs, and down into the Southern coast of the metropolis. I've zoned out on my bike quite a bit on these waterways, and will miss my river-lined cycling sessions.

Yoyogi Park

I've mentioned this place before, I know, but ever since my first day in Tokyo Yoyogi has consistently been my favorite place in Tokyo. On Sundays, all manner of people come out to play. The place is filled with drummers, dancers, jugglers, and, of course, the Elvis-like Tokyo Rockabilly Club.

It's been cold lately, but on warmer days Yoyogi Sundays are virtual outdoor concerts. All manner of bands and musicians are out there, playing for whoever passes by. Here, a solitary trumpeter braves the cold.

The flea market is considerable. Here in Japan I've tried to limit my intake of stuff, given that I'll just have to move it or get rid of it later. Back in the States, though, I would have had a field day with all of the LPs and vintage jackets for sale.

And of course, there are the goths and weirdly-attired youth. Once, I was having a class with an older student, and the topic in the textbook was clothes and appearance. The Harajuku/Yoyogi goths ended up coming up in class. My student said "I think they look stupid, but that's okay. They remind us that we are free."

Jan 22, 2009

Things I Won't Miss

One thing that I've tried to avoid doing on this blog is bitching about Japan. I'm sure I've done it a bit, but foreigners who constantly complain about this place annoy the shit out of me. There are lots of them, and they pop up all the time in bars and gatherings where a significant percentage of expats gather, and I usually want to say "Look, no one forced you to come here. If you don't like it, leave. The airport's over there."

But anything you love- any friend, lover, family member, place, or institution, will have a few qualities that drive you up the wall. Nothing is flawless or aggravation free. Here are a few hopelessly irritating things about this place that I love:

"Nihongo jozu!"

In almost any situation where I'm speaking even a little Japanese to someone, there is a high probability that someone will say "Nihongo jozu!" meaning that "Your Japanese is very good!" I've gotten this after all I said was "konichiwa." That's how reflexive it sometimes is. I understand that some people may just be trying to be nice, or don't know what else to say, but I really don't like being patronized, having my ass kissed, or recieving insincere compliments. It's embarassing for all parties involved.

I often just say "Nihongo jozu!" right back.

ATMs That Close

ATMs usually close at night and on holidays. Over New Year's, they were closed for four days straight and the one nearest my apartment is closed on Sunday. This is especially annoying in a cash-based society like Japan. Why do the ATMs close? Why? They're machines. The whole point of machines is that they mindlessly and tirelessly slave away for us humans. Why on earth do they need time off?


In Japanese society, "maybe" often means "no." It also means "maybe." I've gotten used to it, but still prefer blunt answers.

Talking Machines

I don't need vending machines to say "thank you." I also don't need the escalator to tell me to hold onto the handrail because it's dangerous. A simple sign will do, thank you very much.

Overpackaging and Overbagging

I'm sure America is guilty of this too, but it seems that convenince stores and supermarkets use way, way too much plastic to package and bag stuff. The toothpaste and onigiri can go in the same bag- that's fine. They don't need to be separate.

Come to think of it, it is always plastic. Where are the more eco-friendly, biodegrable, recycleable paper bags? What's up with that?

"That's Dangerous!"

Japan is very nice, safe comfortable country. Which means that, by comparison, the rest of the world seems dangerous and scary to lots of the people here who haven't been abroad much. I get a little irked when I hear America (or anywhere else) described as "dangerous." Billions of people live abroad, and every day billions of them manage to not die.

To be fair, though, I do have some pretty badass, world-wise, globe-trotting students, and I suppose there are naive homebodies in every country.

The Lack of Dark Beer

This is the second largest economy on earth with an enormous population, yet somehow porters and stouts haven't caught on. I don't have anything against Asahi or Ebisu, they're great. I'd just like a bit more variety. I guess I've been spoiled by Oregon's myriad microbrews.

"Do you like Japanese girls?"

This is one of the most asked questions that I get when meeting new people, a bit after "Where are you from?" and "How long have you been in Japan?" I know that the guys who ask me this are just trying to socialize and find common ground, but when I first got here I heard the question as "Are you one of those Orientalist perverts who irrationally fetishizes Asian women?" I know, I know. I overanalyze this stuff way, way too much. Now I'm just sick of the question. Especially because the answer is mostly "No."

And the thing that I'll miss the least:

Naive Assesments of Japanese Uniqueness, Specialness and Isolation

Lots of people here, both foreign and Japanese, have this image of Japan being this unique, special, magical place. It's an amazing place, yes. But so are many places. Japan is one nation among many, one culture among many, and there are many things that it does well and many things it does poorly. In many of the conversations that I've had, Japan's supposed "isolation" is often cited as a factor in this. But, it is not a utopia, nor is it cut off from the world at large. There is a huge, messy, international and intercultural system out there. Japan is a node on the network, a participant of the system, as vibrant and flawed as any other.

Jan 20, 2009

In Which I Learn to Snowboard

I'd never snowboarded before last weekend. Never skied, either. Despite being from Portland and within driving distance from Mt. Hood, I'd never once strapped things to my feet and slid down a mountain. I'd simply never had the money to do so.

On Sunday, though, I found myself in Nagano with a bunch of students and a coworker, surrounded by awesome looking snow, and with a board strapped to my feet. I tried not to go in with very many expectations. To be honest, I didn't really think that I was going to be able to do it. One of my more annoying demons is that I persistently underestimate my physical self. I often think of my body as a carrying case for my brain, and an awkward one at that. (This is all despite the fact that I actually enjoy a number of sports and exercise on a regular basis.) Snowboarding, I thought, is something that athletically able sexy people do. Not me.

Anyway, I often have to put a fair amount of concious effort into kicking my bullshit hangups in the teeth, and was able to do precisely that while I was attempting to stand up on the damn board. When I first strapped it on to my feet, I couldn't stand up at all. I fell onto my ass multiple times, and heard the annoying voice of personally produced bullshit ringing in my brain, telling me that I didn't have the innate ability or the prerequisite physical training to do it. I told the voice to go fuck a weasle, and kept trying, bucking my body forward and then attempting to balance on the top of the board. Besides, I was with students. There was no way I was going to crap out on anything in front of my students.

I got it eventually. I fell on my ass a bunch more, but I was able to stand up without too much of a problem. I was also able to slide about on a small slope, and when I got the hang of the basics of control I climbed onto the lift.

The lift was quite a show in and of itself. Nagano was white and tree-studded all around. The slopes were abuzz with sliders and I wafted quietly above them. When I got to the top, I slid down, fell, slid down, fell, slid some more, fell, and eventually slid for a long stretch where I felt, for the first time that day, speed and adrenaline. I felt the pleasure of a newly acquired skill, the excitement of it, and understood why the sport was popular in that instant. I fell again soon, but laughed and smiled after my back hit the snow.

I loved it. I loved it even though my skill was incomplete. I went down the same run a few times, and a larger one as well. I slid and tried to turn, I feel again and again and got sore because of it. I got snow in my gloves and my goggles fogged, I marvelled at Nagano's snowy awesomeness from the lift and tried different ways to shift my weight and change direction. I enjoyed futzing with and experimenting with my weight and the board, even though most of my attempts ended with me on my back. It was great, and I'll gladly go again.

I also had a great time with the students. I've too often seen them simply through an academic lens, and it was fun to do something that had nothingwhatsoever to do with English learning. They were as green as me, though, and we had a great time falling about on our asses together. By the end of the day we were a tired and bedraggled lot, but happy for it. In a bar back in Tokyo we got to talking about how I'm leaving, and my last day at work is Feb. 14th.

"What will you do," said one, "if we give you chocolates on Valentine's Day?"

I smiled. "I'll eat the chocolates," I said. They laughed at my mock callousness.

She punched me in the arm like my little sister sometimes does. "No," she said, "you'll stay! If we give you chocolates, that means you have to stay!" I was touched. The whole group of us got on a train back to Narita, and exhausted we fell asleep in our seats.

Jan 12, 2009

In Which I Drink Overpriced Coffee in a Pink and White Room

If you walk around Akihabara for long enough, eventually a girl in a maid costume will try to hand you a pamphlet. It's a pamphlet all about her place of work: a maid cafe, an establishment in which girls in ornate pseudo-French maid costumes will serve you overpriced coffee and sweets for about an hour.

Until this weeken, I'd never been to one of these places, but two of my old friends from Okayama were in town. Somehow when making the itinerary for today the idea of going to a maid cafe in Akihabara came up and stuck. I'll admit, I was curious. These things are something of a phenomenon, I wanted to see what all the hubbub was about. One of my coworkers went to one earlier in the week, and described it in positive terms.

So, we go into the place, and the decor is dominated by pink and white. I was pleased that the first thing that we got when we entered was a list of rules, printed in Japanese and English, not to be lecherous dicks while on the premises. That's good. Lecherous dickery is bad for the world, and I was happy to see that the customers were asked to touch with their eyes, not with their hands. Again , I looked around. The place was pink. Pink with shots of milky, unthreatening white. Soft and harmless like a marshmallow peep.

The maids themselves were all done up in piles of ruffles and lacy things, with various geeky flourishes thrown in. The one that served us had a fox tail sticking out the back of her skirt, and several others had plastic charms and bits of flair hanging from their uniforms. To be honest, a lot of them looked like they'd put a lot of effort into personalizing their costumes, which is cool, but they looked far too harmless and fluffy to be called attractive or interesting. I suppose that's all relative, though.

What I thought was kind of funny, was that this fluffy, cute place was in Akihabara, a place redolent of bizarre pornography and stale testosterone. A very solid majority of the customers and denizens of the place are male, and are very obviously the target demographic of maid cafes. Yet the inside of such a place (at least the one that we were in) looks like some sort of adorable Disney pink-princess room. It's all about cuteness, pinkness, ruffles, hearts, and bunnies. When I think of places designed with guys in mind, I think of pool tables, strippers, and beer. Not hearts and bunnies. Hearts and bunnies are for nine year old girls who think that "princess" is a valid career choice.

But apparently for quite a lot of guys hearts and bunnies scratches some kind of itch. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, I'm just saying it's not my cup of tea. I sort of wondered what my reaction was supposed to be. Was I supposed to be getting off on it, was I supposed to find it amusing in a novel or ironic way? Was I just supposed to sit there and drink coffee like it was a normal cafe, except more expensive and with a cover? I didn't really know what an appropriate social reaction would be, so I just chatted with my friends and ate an ice cream sundae shaped like a rabbit that had little hearts drawn on it.

Eventually, one of my friends (a married woman, funnily enough) told me. "It's okay to stare. You can stare. That's why we're here." I feel sort of bad staring at people though. I mean, really. You're just staring at them. You're just watching them do stuff. That's really weird. At least with, say, strippers you're watching them dance. You're appreciating something that's halfway aesthetic. There's music and performance and that's socially acceptable to look at, even if the performer is only wearing a soon-to-be-slid-down thong. But staring at people serving coffee and working in a cafe just seems kinda pervy.

It didn't help that most of these girls looked like they were about sixteen or so. I'm sure they were probably older than that, but still, it was weird. Really, I think that's the crux of it. I can't really see girls who look like that as anything other than overgrown kids. I guess all of my teacherly/fatherly instincts are in place- when I see girls like that, I don't want to stare at them, ogle them, or leer at them. I want to teach them how to write a five paragraph essay and use Mace. You know, the normal sort of stuff adult males do with young women.

Again, I want to emphasize that I'm not condemning any of this. Japan has a right to it's maid cafes, and people just like what they like. It's cool. The general populace of Akihabara enjoy different things than me, and that's perfectly alright. Viva la difference and yay pluralism and whatever. But, it's not for me. I like women, not girls.

As we were leaving, we noticed that in the same building there was yet another maid cafe in the same building. This one, though, advertised ear cleaning. Oh, Akihabara...

Ice, Ice, Meiji

Earlier today I went strolling through a display of ice sculptures in Tokyo's Meiji shrine. It was crowded and highly neat. A few pictures:

Several of the statues had limbs and bits falling and melting off. It was cold, certainly, but still above freezing. This lady here is just one arm and a head away from becoming a Samothrace. Well, almost. Maybe she could be a Samothrace groupie or something.

This is a dragon. Dragons are fucking awesome. This dragon has three heads, and therefore rocks all the harder.

This is Thunder Chicken. He is swathed in majestic sunlight.

There seemed to be a an overabundance of birds in the shrine. Birds and wings. About every third figure was either a bird or some kind of naked lady with wings. Now, I like both birds and naked ladies with wings, and I didn't really notice at the time. But going through the pictures I couldn't help but think "Damn, that place had a shitload of things winged."

See! Look! It's another bird! The place is a veritable frozen avian convention.

"I'm melting! I'm melting!"

I like the sunlight on this one. That is all.

Jan 9, 2009

A Small Bit of Self-Promotion

I've started another blog, one that has nothing to do with Japan. It's in its infancy and I don't know what will come of it, but you should definitely check it out.

Jan 7, 2009

"You said it, Chewie."

Every kid who grew up with Star Wars has either wanted to either be or sleep with Han Solo. That's just a fact. If you're between the ages of 18-35, no other figure has demonstrated all that it means to be interplanetarily masculine. Look at what this guy's got- looks, charisma, a spaceship, a giant furry sidekick, a laser gun, and a spunky galactic princess for a girlfriend. Pure awesome. I'm happy to say that here in Japan I've achieved Han-dom in one small way- how I talk to my manager.

My manager understands English, but doesn't bother to speak it. I can understand a lot of Japanese, but, knowing that she understands English, I often just speak English to her. So, she speaks her language and I speak mine. This is the exact same thing as "RAwwwRRAwGWR!"
"You said it Chewie," or "RWAggRG!" "Yeah, I've got a back feeling about this."

I'm not unique in this. Back when I lived in Okayama I was surprised to see lots of conversations where both participants mutually understood each other's languages, so they'd just each just speak their respective mother tongues at each other. At first I thought it was because people were just lazy, but the fact of the matter is that language learners can usually understand of a foreign language far more than they can produce. So, in that sense Star Wars is a completely and utterly accurate picture of intercultural communication.

So anyway, I've achieved one small bit of Han-Solo-dom. Now I want a spaceship.

Jan 5, 2009

Welcome to the Year of the Ox

After being up all night on New Year's Eve I boarded a train home to Narita on the morning of the first. It was a mere six hours into the Year of the Ox and car was already crowded. The vehicle only proceeded to get more crowded as the thing went on down the line, accruing bleary-eyed commuters making their way to my suburb.

They were going, of course, to Narita-San, the gigantic temple about a kilometer away from where I'm sitting right now. As one of the largest Buddhist temples in Japan, it is very well-trafficked in January, filling my town with people eager to receive New Year's blessings, get their fortune told, and to go through the rituals surrounding another trip around the sun.

When I got off the train, the normal recorded announcement as to how to get to the airport had been replaced with one welcoming everyone to Narita-San. The crowd got off as one at the station, and all jostled against all. I went back to my apartment, and recovered from the previous night's revelry. A few hours later I got up and joined the crowds. In the dark, the masses had thinned a bit, but were still considerable. A few pictures:

A hawker near the entrance to the temple, yelling out to the crowd about hot hazelnuts and sweet sake. Hazelnuts I've liked for some time, but I tried amazaki, the sweet New Year's variety for the first time yesterday while strolling with a friend. It's much thicker than the normal sort of sake, and somewhat on the lumpy side. Served hot, it makes for an excellent winter drink.

I am a bit unclear as to what, exactly, these things are. I've seen them in several places before, and given that many of them had the kanji for "luck" on them I'd assume that they were some sort of charm or something. Others simply said "Narita-san" on them, and a few bore the kanji for "construction," something that I couldn't really figure out. This was just one of the booths at the base of the temple were all manner of charms, objects, and trinkets were being sold. Not all of them were of traditional or religious nature- there were a number of ball-tossing and air gun games set up as well, which gave the whole place a carnival atmosphere.

The main building of the temple. I've been here a number of times, but mostly at night when it's completely empty, so it was a bit curious seeing the whole place filled with people. Another thing that was new for me, though, was that the main sanctuary was open. I'd only been into the antechamber from which one can view the inner room from behind a glass partition, I'd never gone in the main room of the temple. It was open, though, and filled with people so I thought "What the hell. Why not." So, I took of my shoes and went in.

At first I was a bit self-conscious about it. I was, after all, a foreigner who was not culturally or religiously affiliated with the place. I was also the only foreigner inside the sanctuary, and wondered if I was unconsciously doing something improper or disrespectful. However, I was able to beat such misgivings into submission and sat on the floor and took in the atmosphere of the place. People were sitting silently before the altar which was laden with candles. Incense burned in a few braziers and behind me several people were tossing five yen coins into the offering box and clapping as they made prayers for the New Year.

I stayed there for about half an hour, and did my best to meditate in my own unsupernatural way. Since reading a few sutras, I've actually come to respect Siddhartha Guatauma as a philosopher in much the same way that I've respect, say, Socrates- smart guy, brilliant for his era, and wrong about 30% of the time. But, that's another blog post.

After walking through the temple complex a bit I went back to Narita's main street, and the eel guys were out. Eel, for some reason, is the regional specialty of Narita, because here in Japan absolutely everything has to have a regional specialty. At this particular restaurant, the eel preparation is something of a street performance, and a bloody and smoky one at that. At a table on the street, two guys were grabbing live eels from a bucket of water, driving nails through their heads, and then splitting them open and pulling out their spines and guts in front of appreciative onlookers. Quite captivating to watch actually. The eels are grilled and served right there, at the apogee of freshness.

When I first saw this, I thought about how such a show wouldn't really go over so well in America. Americans (at least liberal city-dwellers such as myself) can be distressingly alienated from the meat they eat. Meat doesn't come from the insides of animals- it comes from packages and cans. A friend of mine even insisted on sitting with her back to the fish tank at a sushi bar once, as she didn't want to be reminded of where her meal came from.

Japan doesn't seem to suffer nearly as badly from this alienation, and I think that's a good thing. The New Year's crowd didn't seem repulsed or put off by the eel guys, at least not that I could tell. Instead, they eagerly bought up freshly grilled sea beasts, with appreciative exclamations of "oishii!"

Lanterns glowing on the main street. The shops and restaurants, even as they were closing, still bustled with visitors. And they're still bustling. I was out again yesterday in the daylight and the whole place hummed. Narita, yes, is always a bit active, what with the airport and all the tourists. But, it's nice to see it buzzing in a different manner. So far, the Year of the Ox is off to a good start.