Friday, December 23, 2005

A very Buddhist Christmas

No animals were harmed in the writing of this post.

Yesterday was Closing Ceremonies, marking the end of school during the year 2005, the year of the Rooster. The Japanese, in their typical "let's borrow a few pieces o' culture, mix 'em up, see what comes out" fashion, follow the Chinese zodiac, our Gregorian calendar, and the Japanese "nengo" Era Calendar- which means as I write this, it's the year of the Wooden Rooster, 2005, and the 17th year of the reign of Emperor Heisei. I myself was born in the 57th year of the reign of Emperor Showa (written: Showa 57)- for a kick, find out more about the nengo year system- so you can confuse people who ask you when you were born!

Anyhoo, so we had Closing Ceremonies yesterday. Before the "festivities" began, we once again marshalled the students and sent them on a cleaning binge. The teachers, of course, pitched in as well, which is how I found myself with a mop, a bucket, and a class of confused-looking first-graders at the bottom of a stairwell when the power went out.

Why'd the power go out? Because this year, the gods of winter have decided to visit their wrath upon Ritto with great and stormy vengeance, seeking a retribution beyond the ken of man. Which is my Lovecraftian way of saying: "Snow." Snow knocked out the power. They got it fixed in half an hour, while the students kept cleaning- no reason to stop, after all- and then it was time for the show....

The show was essentially was the same as Opening Ceremonies in August- with one important difference. There is no central heating in Japanese schools. So when all the students dutifully filed into the gym and sat on the floor in rows by class, their frozen breath rose in little puffs and wisped away towards the ceiling- from behind, where I stood with the other teachers, their identical black uniforms made them look like rows and rows of little factory chimneys, puffing away. The speeches were long, forgettable, and entirely in Japanese, filled with admonitions on the dangers of smoking, the importance of doing your homework, that sort of thing. We had one more class after the assembly finished, and it was my job to help one of my teachers keep an eye on a classful of kids who were simultaneously frozen solid (from the icebox treatment in the gym) and eager to get the heck out of there. He decided that now would be the perfect time for bookwork. HA. 'course, my arguments that they won't want to pay attention fell on deaf ears, so as he patrolled, ensuring kids were working in their workbooks, I decided it was time for a little culture lesson.

I grabbed a pair of slacking boys in the back who had already put away their workbooks, grabbed a piece of looseleaf, and taught 'em paper football. Pretty soon, the whole class (teacher included) had games going at their desks- it spread like wildfire. Best part? It was good English practice- I explained the game to the first pair (IN ENGLISH) and made them teach the next two who wanted to play, and so on. Seems that they didn't have this one before.

After the culture lesson, school let out for winter break. We were scheduled to have a "bonenkai", or "forget-the-year party" with the teachers, but the snow was heavy enough to stop the trains for awhile. It got cancelled. Fine with me- I went to another live jazz night with my college-bum friends (whose conversations are making more and more sense, thank God), got called a Gaijin a couple of times, and called it a night. Pretty normal.

This morning, I awoke to find that my water had frozen in the pipes. Had to wait for sunup to thaw 'em out so I could take a shower. Somebody send me a roll of Pink Panther Insulation- I think it's time for another Culture Lesson.

After a brisk (WHOO!) morning shower, I discovered an innocuous message on my cell phone from one of my native friends- something about a lunch party. Those who know me know I would never turn down lunch or a party individually- together, they are irresistible.

I meet her and her friends a couple of stops down the main trainline, and we all pile in a car and take off to Destination Unknown. In retrospect, this kind of lifestyle could get me abducted by the Yakuza one day... "Want lunch? Here, hop in this car with a bunch of people you don't know!" Destination Unknown turns out to be a clean, modern Buddhist temple.

A Buddhist Temple in which they are throwing a Christmas Party. Ladies and Gentlemen, I have found the Buddhist version of the Unitarian Church. It was all very pleasant and cross-culture festive- their big wooden Buddha out front was decked out in Santa gear, we had a veritable feast of vegetarian delight (remember, eating meat and killing animals is a Buddha No-No. I remembered this AS WE WALKED IN and took off our coats... one foreigner-sized leather biker jacket among a sea of cotton blends) and after the meal there was a short service.

I'm not much the religious type, but this next part was pretty cool. Before the service, my friend asked me if I wanted to recieve a Buddhist blessing. Blessings are like lunch and parties- I'm an easy mark for karma. She had me write, clearly, my name on a form (why? Huh? Eh, just go with it) and fill out some quick info- age, birthdate, place I live, all that. This happens so often in this country that I've stopped asking questions a long time ago. She writes her name at the top of the slip, and carries it off to the priestess. About ten minutes later, the priestess files in with her entourage (three assistant ladies, all about forty years old), and everyone in the room splits up, half and half, by gender. Ladies sit on the left, gents on the right. I'm corralled to a spot in the front row. At the front of the room, there is a row of cushions on the floor. Behind them is a waist-high dark lacquered altar, polished so finely it looks like a black mirror. On the altar, a large stone urn sits full of sand. The urn is flanked by a pair of golden candlesticks with long white candles. Behind them, there's an arrangement of melons, oranges, and rice balls- all round objects- on golden trays. On a higher altar sits a porcelain statue of the Buddha. This particular temple is dedicated to the Happy Buddha- this will be important later.

The priestess walked briskly up to the altar, bowed twice, and presented a long silver candlelighter to the statue. Bowing again, she lit a small oil lantern sitting on a shelf above the Buddha's head, just below five long, framed golden scrolls, each inscribed with a different sentence. Then, she stepped back, bowed again, and lit each of the candles. She stepped aside, and her assistants walked just as briskly up to the altar and stood on either side, bowing a few times to the Buddha, the priestess, and to us. Then, the assistant on the right began rattling off the fastest Chinese I've heard out of a Japanese person yet while the priestess knelt at the altar, produced five sticks of incense, placed them in the urn of sand and bowed deeply five times, hands and knees on the cushion. The assistant to the left counted the number of bows out loud in Japanese, while the one on the right just kept going. She repeated this process with more incense, bowing, counting and chanting, and then she stopped, stood, turned around, and smiled, launching into a short speech about all of these trappings being merely to focus- the emphasis, in this temple, is a very humanistic approach. I'll skip the metaphysics- if you're interested, just email me.

So the assistant on the left then produced a long, folded sheet of rice paper, and began to read names. There were five of them. The last one was my own. Seems my name's been inscribed in the ledger of the temple, and also on this ricepaper. She hands the paper to the priestess, who says a few short words to the effect of these names now being inscribed in the Great Big Rollcall in Heaven, and commences to light the paper on fire with the two tall candles to either side of the urn. Then, she sets the paper in the urn, kneels, and bows deeply. The paper goes up in flames almost immediately after her head touches the cushion, and the ashes leap into the air, rising on the thermal current. Impressive.

The priestess rises, and calls the names more slowly. Each person responds with a loud "Hai!" as their name is called- like roll call at school. The people called step forward, and kneel on the cushions. Not wanting to disturb, when my name is called I too respond loudly, step forward, and kneel.

There's an older guy to my left, and a middle-school aged student on my right. The older guy is balding, wearing thick glasses. He draws five sticks of incense from a pile on the altar, and sets them one-by-one into the urn. We all bow five times while the assistants do their thing. After we rise, the priestess walks among us, talking very quickly about how happy she is we've decided to pursue enlightenment despite our ages, lifestyles, and nationalities. WAIT, WHAT?! PURSUE?!

She winds through the line of kneeling people, showing us how to hold our hands, anointing us with the smoke from a bundle of burning incense, and very soundly striking us on the head (OW!) to open our third eye- the "genkan", or "entrance". Then she tells us a few secrets- now, I may be dumb enough to blunder into a Buddhist initiation ceremony, but I'm certainly not dumb enough to blab everything I see- that's surefire bad karma, and my new protector the Laughing Buddha might stop laughing and kick my butt.

After the secret-secret stuff, we stand, and bow another couple of times for good measure, and return to our places. She says a few words, and we break off into two groups- an English-speaking group, consisting of me, two Chinese kids who are regulars at the temple, and my "insurer"; that'd be the "friend" who got me into this mess- and a Japanese speaking group (everybody else). They pull me into a smaller room alongside the main hall, and we listen to a tape of an older Japanese gentleman explaining, in English, a few "Buddhist Basics". Afterwards, I make sure I haven't just joined a cult (nope, not yet) and ensure that I don't owe anybody any money (no, not a pyramid scheme either), and that there will be no lasting consequences (not in the least). Turns out that this whole "welcome to the family" thing is their way of including me in the community- almost everybody in Japan has their name on ledger at a temple and at a shrine (covering both your bases, Buddhist and Shinto) and my friend wanted to make sure I was covered.

So we skip back into the main hall, and catch the end of the Japanese secrets explanation- it's quite more in-depth than the English one, and I wish I had been given the option to tough it out in a foreign language. Pretty interesting. Then, they close with more bowing and counting, and the priestess waves out the candles one by one with a fan, ending with the oil lamp over the Buddha's head. We all bow a few more times, and chat over coffee in front of the temple.

Weird day. Winter break lasts until January 10th- if every day is this interesting, I'm going to need another vacation. On the upside, I'm told that the Laughing Buddha is watching my back for the next 10,500 years- at which point he gets to let the next one take over. So I figure I can afford to take a day off- he'll cover for me.


Monday, December 19, 2005

Adventures, past and future (and typing, present)

Though thematically inefficient, chronological order seems to lend a certain continuity to the narrative that'll get abandoned right quick if I stray from it. So, to borrow a certain turn of phrase from one Lewis Carroll (and leaving aside any metaphorical ramblings about borrowing turns and turning phrases, as well as the possibility of two Lewis Carrolls), we'll begin at the beginning, and when we reach the end, stop.

Holiday shopping in Kyoto is comprised of equal parts of modern convenience and the uncanny feeling that you're walking through a city that every so often benignly forgets what year it is- and decides to make do with snippets of years that it CAN remember. I present as evidence the fact that any of you who go to see the new Memoirs of a Geisha movie (insert necessary book plug here- I'm the inveterate bibliophile son of a librarian, give me a break- and if you somehow missed this book, go out and buy yourself an early Festivus Present- read it during the Airing of Grievances) will see a largely accurate picture of the present-day streets of Kyoto- just add electric lights. All of this lead-up is really just to lull you into a false sense of security, as the following picture really speaks for itself.

No. They do not know what "Political Correctness" means. I asked. I'm fairly sure that it's not pronounceable in Japanese- too many R's and L's. The burning question in your mind is: "What the heck does this store sell?!"

Jeans. I really don't get it either- sorry. We report, you decide.

The next day, I headed out to Otsu to finish up the shopping at Parco, the local megagiantmall. Eight floors of boutique stores, one floor of dining, a bookstore, a movie theater, and enough capitalistic goodness to make me feel right at home. Besides, I feel myself strangely drawn to their ad scheme- it speaks my language.

But who's that little guy next to the exclamation point after "HAPPY GIFT!"? Could it be....?

Santa Mario, patron saint of video games and ever-enduring symbol of Christmas. I love this country.

On the top floor of Parco is an arcade and a food court- I last visited there with Dockett. This time, I wandered around the arcade and found a row of machines that were never empty. Never. What were they?

Purikula. It's the Japanese Sticky Picture Craze- every schoolkid in every one of my classes has a notebook full of little pictures from these oh-so-trendy photobooths. They and their friends enter through the side here, take a bunch of intentionally silly pictures, edit and draw on them on an attached tablet PC, and print out stickersheets at 400 yen a pop. It's amazing. They never get bored- they just run out of money. I need to buy one of these machines- I could live like a fatcat until the trends shift and I'm stuck with a half-ton semiportable photo lab. Best part? These machines speak my language too.

"New Beam Space" to concentrate all various lights on, and 8 Megapixel stylish duo camera,
Innovative snap shot has come into the world! New variable "RAKUGAKI" function and
Particular COCOA tools pop up. Infinitely large enjoyment!

It's found art. It's poetry. It's the new name for my punk band. "Infinitely large enjoyment!" Our first song? "Come on! Come on! All Flash!" Gabba Gabba Hey.

Friday night, I went to visit a Japanese production company. I'll show you the pictures first, and then tell you what they do, because I'm a sucker for cheap suspense.

View from just within the front door- this is "reception"- just a long desk, and the beginning of the cube farm.

Everything in Japan is shorter. The normal folks work at these desks-without-walls on the left of the picture, and the bosses get the half-cubes (about a foot and a half tall on the desktop) on the right. It's not that they have no privacy- it's that they really don't want any. That'd impede the group work ethic.

Behind this safety glass and those reinforced doors are the Machines- the heart of this little production facility. Take a good look, see if you recognize them.

These beauties make potato chip bags. Just the bags. They also make electrostatic pouches for computer parts. And any other manner of puffed-air pillow packaging. The facility is bland, efficient, and makes a boatload of money- so much that in order to entertain their foreigner guest, they took me out to a delicious chankonabe dinner.

What's chankonabe? Sumo food. It's a big pot o' broth on a portable burner (hint: Nabe means "pot") and a plate of assorted meats and veggies that you toss into the boiling broth, and ladle into a bowl. When you've eaten all the meats and veggies, you then put udon noodles into the now-seasoned broth to soak it up, and eat those. Then you have rice with whatever's left- think "porridge" and you're spot on. If you're a sumo wrestler, you then go to sleep and gain a few hundred pounds. Since the party I dined with was mostly image-conscious female professionals (the local non-PC term is OLs, or Office Ladies), there wasn't so much an incentive for all of us to waddle off and fatten up- but it was still delicious.

Saturday and Sunday weren't nearly as newsworthy- I went to Japanese class, bought a snowboard for the insanity over winter break, saw the last of those outdoor collegiate concerts this year (too cold- they're hibernating for a few months), and had a few friends over on Sunday for dinner.

Today, however, I booked the package tour for Hokkaido- or, rather, my coordinator booked it and I nodded thankfully when she asked questions. It's 10% more exciting than last mentioned- I'm flying, rather than taking the train, and I'm staying in a hotel in downtown Sapporo. Yes, the city where they brew Sapporo beer- there will be restaurants in igloos (I kid you not), famous crab stews, ice sculptures, boatloads of snow, and a major city to explore in the evenings. I'm hitting four mountains in four days. There will be pictures in abundance. I'm going on the 5th of January, and getting back on the 8th, with snowboarding happening on both the day of departure and the day of return.

Best part?

Free breakfasts. In my case, free breakfasts, second breakfasts, late breakfasts and perhaps even the old "stuff a basket of croissants in the board duffel" maneuver.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Latest Thanksgiving

No news is, after all, good news. I've taken the last little bit of time to be wholly boring and take care of some mundanities of life- you've gotta do laundry SOMETIME. I've returned to the first school I taught at, and will be there for the next two months- there's a big break in the middle for the weeklong new year's celebration, with a half-week break before and after the holiday itself. As such, I get to spend a lot of time with the Ritto Jr. High kids- and I am proud to report that they remember a great deal more of what I taught them than I did. I walked in the door on Friday, and happened to bump into a fairly familiar-looking group of girls hanging out in the front hallway before school. One looked up, smiled, yelled "Andoryu-Sensei!" and proudly raised the Horns of Rock. The rest followed suit. Even after a two-month absence, my rock band remembers.

So work is a lot of fun- the kids surprise me in little ways every day, from English they know (that I certainly didn't teach 'em- there's a group of the "cool kids" whose catchphrase is an exaggerated, over-the-top "Oh my Gawd!") to Rocking Out, to asking me for dating advice ("Andoryu-sensei, there's a boy in my class I like. What shall I do?")- of all the schools, this one has really decided to treat me like a member of the family.

A source of concern, however, is the fact that in two neighboring prefectures there's been a rash of disappearances and murders that seem to target middle-school and elementary-school girls. Just last week, in Tochigi, a second-grader vanished on the way home from school. Witnesses say that a man, 30-40 years old, drove up in his car, hopped out, picked her up, threw her in the back and drove off. Her body was found later, in a field.

This, understandably, has all of us quite concerned. We're kicking students out of school a half-hour early (4:30, rather than 5:00) so that it's still light out when they walk home. On Friday, all of the teachers got up and walked out of the teacher's room (largely without explanation!), and when I followed them out (this is a large part of my day, just kinda following the crowd and hoping I'm not screwing up) they explained that we were going to stand at all the exits of the school and make sure kids headed home in pairs or threes- never alone- and implore them not to dawdle. This took some work to understand- I'm not familiar with the vocabulary for "ensuring our children aren't abducted".

So far, nobody in Shiga's been a victim. But every few weeks, a note gets tossed onto my desk with the comment of "Please read this" emblazoned in English at the top that describes suspicious people near the station, or approaching kids on the street. It's a dangerous time to be a kid in Japan.

None of this seems to be fazing the students at all. They aren't afraid- they just go about their business, studying for the high school exams and worrying about the boy they like that sits next to them in homeroom. Just like American kids.

After school, after escorting the last students to the exit, I hosted the JET program late-Thanksgiving early-Christmas party. There were perhaps 30 English-speaking people crowded around a bunch of one-and-a-half foot tall tables in my living room, a DJ, and enough stuffing, mashed potatoes, and turkey to feed my entire Japanese neighborhood for a week. I'll be living off the leftovers for quite some time.

The next day, enjoying a post-Thanksgiving leftover luncheon with some friends, I was washing dishes when a pair of my students tentatively knocked at my door. They were riding their bikes by the house when they heard our loud English voices (my walls are like paper, held together at the seams with naught but good intentions), and they wanted to say hello. So we sat around and chatted. They were two of my best students, and as such impressed the heck out of the other teachers at the lunch. This is one of the things I love about teaching in a small town- my students are literally EVERYWHERE. I have not gone a single day without running into at least one in the street, or at the shopping district, or in a restaurant- and they all speak WAY more English outside of class than they do in school. During a lesson, getting one to respond or speak up is a combination of cajoling, pleading and outright trickery, but the moment the bell rings and they run into me in the hall, or on the street, they're downright loquacious.

After lunch, we went to Kyoto to pick up some Christmas gifts in the big shopping district of Teramachi. Teramachi, adjacent to the geisha district (yeah, that one- if you've read or seen Memoirs of a Geisha, you know what I'm talking about), has been a shopping center since Kyoto was the capital. There are stones in the sidewalk poudly emblazoned "Since 1670"- there are junk stores and doll workshops in this place one hundred years older than my country. We had dinner at Watami, a small-plates shop where the objective is to order as many different plates of food as you can, stuff yourself silly, and then order more. There's a central difference between dining in Japan and in America that makes itself evident at places like this- in America, you order ONCE, and that one order will supply you with enough food that you're not hungry again for a long, long time. In Japan, you are EXPECTED to continually call for more food. Everyone shares from small plates in the center of the table, and the sheer variety of dishes you can sample is mind-boggling. You almost never have just one thing for dinner, unless you're dining alone or at one of the many greasy-spoon Ramen or Donburi (the "stuff on rice" cheap-eats) restaurant.

After a marathon meal, we waddled back to the trains and shipped back out. It felt really late (the sun sets here at roughly 5:00 now), but it was still only 11:00. I made it home before midnight. I feel like an old man.

Next week is the last full week before winter vacation. I'm making a few elementary school visits, and as soon as winter vacation hits my adventure season begins. I'm going to visit Kobe (why? Why not?) with the proprietor of my local Ramen shop (cool guy!) and then I'm going to buy a "Juhachi kippu", or "18-ticket", that gives me unlimited rail access for something like a week. The plan? I'm heading North. I will have a white Christmas in Hokkaido- evidently, it's the one place nobody goes over the winter break. Not sure if they'll have Internet access up there, but that's a bridge I'll burn when I get to it.

Today? Today, given my zig-zag insanity the rest of the week, I think I'll go relax by the lake in Otsu- it'll be cold, but that city EMBODIES the lazy, sleepy, laid-back Sunday.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

One Half Kilo of Meat or 100,000,000 yen

Today, the sixth-graders went on a field trip to the local playhouse to see the Merchant of Venice- in Japanese. I am here to report that they take Shakespeare's "comedy" tag quite seriously on this island. The performance was done entirely in over-the-top slapstick boasting a physical comedy routine that is neither in the script nor would be out of place in a Charlie Chaplin film. In fact, it seems they stole the acting routine right out of the exaggerated Japanese Kabuki style- which, despite it's international status as high art, is in fact the hammiest crowd-pleaser this side of a Three Stooges act. Trust me.

So anyways, they managed to sidestep the curious anti-semitic angle by downplaying the religion angle. How, might you ask? Well, they still call Shylock a Jewish moneylender, but they dress him up in Chinese-style black robes. Antonio's goodness isn't borne out of inherent Christian Decency, it's his responsibility towards his friend- as that friend is a member of Antonio's in-group.

For more interesting cultural notes, consider this: The trial of Antonio is held with both parties (Shylock and Antonio) sitting in the traditional Japanese style at the front of the stage, and the assembled others standing around behind them. Thanks and goodbyes are with deep, Japanese-style bows. The language itself was very, very colloquial- no old and convoluted grammar to mimic the style of the original. The famous "Pound of Flesh" line is rendered as "One Half Kilo of your Body Meat, or 100,000,000 yen." Rough exchange rate.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but there aren't a whole lot of "You idiot!" lines in the original, right?

There were at least six. Every single one was followed by somebody getting smacked.

After the very Japanese interpretation of the Merchant of Venice, the actors pulled a gaggle of ten students onstage to teach them the fine art of Japanese acting. Two were pulled offstage at the very beginning- one girl, one boy. More on them later. The rest were put through a gauntlet of breath exercises and vocal practice that sounded like a really long, incomprehensible tongue-twister. I turned and asked the Japanese teacher next to me what it meant. She looked at me with a confused expression, and simply said: "There is no meaning. It is... from Kabuki. Just odd words. Blablabla." The first three sentences were in Japanese. "Blablabla" was all English.

So the kids each took a turn yelling this string of oddity across the stage and into the audience, and then they were told to take their seats again. The pair of volunteers that got swept off the stage at the beginning returned, clad in the costumes of the lead romantic male and female parts. The crowd went absolutely wild. The one in the lead male (Bassanio)'s costume was to read a short soliloquy on how he was a changed man, having recieved the ring of his beloved- and then (SCANDAL!) they were to embrace. Certain that this would be a problem (remember, to a middle school boy, girls are ICKY), the actors and actresses interceded, and each half of the romantic pair got to practice with their counterpart professional- with hilarious results. After two minutes of practice, the show was on.

Bassanio approached Portia, his beloved, and timidly held out his hand. Portia demurely placed the ring on his finger with the romantic aplomb of a woman intent on getting this over with as quickly as possible. To Bassanio's credit, he turned to face the audience and held the hand bearing this trophy high, spewing forth a lush, five-minute speech in Japanese that essentially translated to: "I am a changed man. I feel different." Then, he turned back to his paramour and the two collided for one brief instant, each quickly spiraling off into their respective corners like wounded boxers. Needless to say, the crowd LOVED it. It brought a bigger applause than the real show. Kids were out of their seats screaming for more. After some congratulatory speeches and some more bowing, the show was finished.

The best part, for me, was noticing about halfway through the show that all the male actors were wearing discreet, height-enhancing footwear. I can deal with the melodrama, I can dig the overacting, but the sight of a man in patent-leather pumps with a two-inch heel just shatters the suspension of disbelief every time. I pointed it out to my fellow teacher, and she nearly died laughing. She saw it in Act I, and didn't think anyone else would notice.

How can you NOT NOTICE guys in heels when all the women are wearing flats? Sure, it'd look weird if Portia loomed over Bassanio, but these were some SERIOUS shoes. At least Shylock's robe concealed his a bit- the rest of the men, in their brilliant white tights, had me wondering if this were a showing of Rocky Horror.


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Peace out, Dockett

Once again, I boarded my favorite means of transportation- the ultrahighspeedsuperfast OH DEAR SWEET JIMINY look-at-it-go Shinkansen Bullet Train, which is as close as a human being can get to flying without getting strip-searched by the Transportation Authority, and visited Dockett. Tokyo is fun, and getting there is a tiny adventure in itself. The food (which they serve airline-style, on an efficient plastic cart that bangs your elbows- some things never change) was delicious, if small, and the coffee was hot. The view was, regrettably, pitch dark, as I embarked on this adventure after teaching 100 sixth graders how to say "I'm angry!" (it was emotions day at the elementary school, and they decided that instead of having me teach four classes of the kids, it'd be better to lump them all together and throw them in the gym) and as such I saw no Mt. Fuji. It evades me to this day.

More on that later. So I showed up in the train station, met up with Dockett, and wandered around looking for interesting sights in Shinagawa. It seems that the only interesting sight in Shinagawa is a water reclamation plant. Yech. As expected we had to find somewhere else to have dinner.

After dinner and a short stint at the local yakitori joint, we returned to Dockett's charming one-room closet-sized apartment, and called it a night.

The next morning, shaken awake at 7:30 by the Rising Sun (guess that's where they got the name), we staggered to the McDonalds for a pick-me-up in the form of a Egg McMuffin. These things are the same in every nation, and in every nation they're delicious. Then we went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building, and got to see the whole city from the air. It was, unfortunately, smoggy. So not a whole lot of love there.

In the name of absolute tourism, we decided to wander into the Park Hyatt Hotel. This was the hotel, by the by, in which the movie "Lost in Translation" was set. We saw no Bill Murray, but I assure you that it looks entirely the same as the movie- in fact, should you want to get a good glimpse of the areas we bumbled around, go rent that movie. Warning- it is a bit of an acquired taste.

After our movie-tastic wanderings- which included a park full of homeless people, photo shoots, baseball practice, and Yakuza getting their hair cut (yeah. Really. I wouldn't lie about that)- we headed over to Jimbo-Cho, which is A) Not very Photogenic (sorry) and B) Mecca.

Jimbo-Cho is the bookstore district of Tokyo. It's city block upon city block of really cool small used bookstores that look as if the backstacks of the Library of Congress had been persuaded to yield up their dead in great burgeoning piles. Yellowed stacks teeter from floor to ceiling, and they gleamed with possibility. The only downside to this is that it's a giant district of Japanese used and new bookstores, and as such nigh impenetrable to me. I can read a lot. I can piece my way through everyday interactions. But I cannot, for the life of me, pore through 16th-century tomes of literature in Japanese yet. It actually makes me feel a little sad- there's a vast storehouse of knowledge that I can't really access.

After that slightly sobering and wonderful experience (it was real close to religious, let me assure you) we caught a light lunch and sojourned towards the Imperial Palace. It's closed up, pretty tight, but we got to see a lot of sturdy-looking gates, armed guards, confused tourists and marathon runners (who I honestly wish would have worn some more modest pants- there are things you just can't UNSEE) which on the whole was pretty interesting. The walk, however, was an undertaking not to be entered into on a whim. It was crazy. I'm sure there are subways in this city- I've heard of them- but we scorned the subway in favor of the good, healthy, bracing walk.

Which continued all the way up the hill to the National Diet Building (governmental, not gastronomic), the National Theatre and Library, and a strange, wondrous block of artistic-looking concrete. We had no idea what it was- there were no signs, no guidance- so I stopped some folks on the street, put on my best Japanese, and asked 'em. They told us that this:

Is the Supreme Court Building. It is exactly the kind of building I would expect from a Ministry of Justice. No stodgy, staid Department- oh, no, it's a Ministry, with all the cool architecture and possible Orwellian overtones that suggests.

After basking in the shadow of Justice for awhile, we decided to bop over to Asakusa, which is a few looooooong rows of souvenir stalls buttressed on both ends by giant gates bearing huuuge paper lanterns. Pretty cool. There were also some crazy-costumed folks awaiting the giant fall festival that was due that day, but no matter how long we wandered around we couldn't quite find it. So we decided to bail on that, and descend into Tokyo's seedy underbelly in search of icecream.

Evidently, the Roppongi district has a bad reputation. Evidently, it's a wretched hive of scum and villainy not entered by people of good taste or breeding. It is a fine thing that Dockett and I aren't the type to believe rumors. We wouldn't have found this:

It's a giant shopping mall! In the mall, there was this store- you can see it above- that is, I kid you not, named "White Trash Charms." It sells jewelry, and a hearty dose of culture shock. The mall itself is surrounded by embassies. We found the Chinese embassy, the Spanish embassy, and the American embassy all after we found dinner- but I get ahead of myself. First, we grabbed a bite to eat in a 2F diner- all the cheap eats in Japan are either on the second floor or in the basements of buildings, as groundfloor is too expensive to rent out to mom 'n pop places- and then decided to test our stamina.

In the mall, there is Japan's first Cold Stone Creamery. Those of you who have not yet walked this enlightened path of deliciousness, go now and find one- it's worth whatever means you employ to get there. Our means included a forty-five minute wait in a line that stretched around the block- which, evidently, is a short line for a Saturday night at the most popular fad in town. Like the McMuffin, in every nation it is delicious.

Full of ice cream and a sense of deep spiritual wholeness, we wandered past the American embassy and back to the train, and decided to go find some music. There's a district rather well-known for it's jazz houses and college-band venues, and so we decided to try and find it. We did, but only after enlisting the help of a very friendly and helpful family of young women (hey, do I ask the creepy guy for help? No. I ask the ladies. Will you blame me?) who in fact didn't just TELL us, they LED us all the way there through two train transfers and other assorted mass insanity. Their work was nearly for naught- it's a very cool, quirky, Ann Arbory kind of district, but it also closes pretty early on a Saturday night- not a whole lot was open. We did find some interesting signs, though...

After wandering around a bit, we called it an early night and SLEPT.

The next day, we explored the Imperial Sports Grounds- there was a festival that day, and it was pretty nuts. There was an a capella band singing "Someday my prince will come" in immaculate English- impressed the heck out of me- and enough people to conquer a small nation. Afterwards, we strolled through an upscale shopping sector (not Ginza, some other one), and I got this artistic picture of Dockett looking like he just strolled out of an episode of The Prisoner.

He is not a number. He is a free man!

That silliness exhausted, we wandered by the Secondary Palace, and came across a disturbing phenomenon. Hung parallel to the Japanese National Flag on all the lightposts was this...
Pentagrams. I'm disturbed, and a little afraid, but it turns out there's a good reason. Perhaps someone from that constitutional monarchy was visiting this constitutional monarchy- they've gotta stick together, and all. Kings and kingmakers unite.

After the fun at the palace, we decided to grab some quick curry at a fast-food curry place (they're everywhere- it's like heaven- and they serve quail egg curry...) and then it was time for me to get back on the bullet train and bid Dockett a safe trip home. He's coming back to you, the English speaking-world, next week- so go check his blog and wish him a fond farewell, or welcome, or however the heck your personal prepositional phrase will go. I myself think that this island is just a bit shorter for his leaving- though when he's gone, I get to be the tallest guy here. As I understand it, there's a crown involved, and parades.

Bye, Dockett. We'll miss ya.


Monday, November 21, 2005

Generatin' steam heat

After a short abyss of do-nothing doldrums (in which my all-important tasks of laundry and kerosene purchase were accomplished- definitely nothing to write home about) I'm back in the adventuring business again. Business is good.

Saturday, a few friends and I decided to climb Mount Ibuki. It's the tallest mountain in Shiga prefecture, and it sits right on the Shiga/Gifu border. Google Earth it at 35°10'48.56N, 136°25'00.36E. Historical Note: It was the site of the "Sekigahara War", the pivotal battle between the west and east of Japan way back in the day- the Japanese civil war, as it were. This site's got a lot of details, but the writer's tone puts me to sleep. A shorter, and funnier (yay for bad English!), version is here.

Enough history. Now, the climb to the top of Ibuki takes about seven hours. That's a ridiculous 14-hour round trip- not the kind of climb to be taken lightly. I was all about it. My friends, however, opted for the better part of valor. The road goes a good part up the mountain, and cuts the climb from 7 hours to about two. At the top, it's about ten degrees (celsius) lower than on the ground- which pulled the temperature from a cool and pleasant 12 degrees to 1 degree in the sun, and -1 in the shade. I'll skip the gory details of the climb. This was the path.

At the top, there's a small shanty town of corrugated-aluminum shacks (all closed), a few old wooden buildings,a shrine,

and a weather station, which you can see from pretty far off.

It's also pretty cool up close.

It's pretty cold up there.

Here's a few views from the summit- I apologize to those of you with dialup connections, as all these pictures have to take FOREVER to load.
On the descent, we found an old graveyard- just a couple of graves and a pair of torii (Shinto gates) side-by-side. One of the torii had succumbed to the elements, and the graves weren't looking too well-kept. I made a mental note not to die on a mountainside- nobody ever visits. My friend Ryo translated the inscription on the grave, and they're evidently pretty old.

As in REALLY pretty old- pre-Sekigahara War- and as such not to be screwed with. We paid our respects, took a few pictures, and left.

The descent climb was like the ascent. Now,I didn't manage to get any good pictures of these, but every little while we'd happen across a "don't feed the bears" sign. Yikes. This implies that there are bears to feed- I didn't see any, and I'm glad to let it stay that way. Getting eaten by a bear on a mountainside pretty much guarantees nobody'll visit.

After the mountain, we went and poked around a cave- it was pretty commercialized, safe, small, and uninteresting. More interesting was the WWII ammo dump a few yards away from the cave- we didn't have flashlights, so the abandoned bunker built into the side of the mountain was explored entirely by the light of our cellphones. The soft glow of five cellphone screens makes for one creepy, blue-hued, Blair Witch lantern. The bunker wasn't much- just a big room and two guardposts- but someone had decided to dump an old pachinko machine in the corner. No electricity, so it didn't work- and wouldn't, even if we had power- but it was a cool find.

Saturday evening, Japanese class. I showed up to class in my muddy mountain-clamberin' clothes, looking no doubt like I had just fallen down the mountain rather than hiked up it (just below the frostline, it was pretty muddy), and afterwards went and visited the Foreigner Mecca: Starbucks.

While I was on the mountain, Starbucks went and converted to Christmas decorations. They use the same decoration materials as an American Starbucks, so no doubt everywhere in the world the appearance is the same, but only in Japan is the phrase "Creme Brulee Latte" a linguistic trainwreck. The clerks HATE it. Why, might you ask? Because the word "brulee" commits two unpardonable sins in the scripture of the language. It's got two consonants right next to each other (a no-no) and both an R and L in the same word- they make no distinction between the two sounds, so switching back and forth is nigh-impossible. Every time someone would order it (which sounds like a clumsy bu-ru-re), they'd smile real big, make a try at it, and just pass it back to the espresso machine guy as a "Cream Latte." Open letter to the Starbucks Japan Drink-Naming Comittee: Quit bein' jerks.

The next day, I woke up early to my frosty breath crinkling on my comforter. It's getting COLD here in Japan, and since it's a tropical island they build houses with neither central heating nor any measure of insulation. Driven from the house well before noon in search of somewhere I could just sit and be warm without asphyxiating on the fumes from my kerosene heater, I decided to go to Osaka.

It's Japan's second-largest city. It's the birthplace of takoyaki, a culinary delight consisting of one part octopus and two parts fried batter, and Kansai-ben, the strange and wonderful dialect of Western Japan. If Tokyo is Japan's megatropolis New York, and Kyoto its cultural/historic Washington DC, Osaka is Japan's Chicago. What it lacks in fame and beauty it makes up for in soul. It's about an hour by express train from where I'm at in Ritto, and so at 11:00 in the morning I rolled into Osaka Station, a bogglingly beautiful station (under reconstruction, so I couldn't see any of it) connected to a grand underground shopping complex, all of which smelled slightly of fish.

I left the station and went wandering in a random direction, happy to burn an hour or two of my early time aimlessly blundering around, since I figured that at 11:00 on a Sunday morning no-one would be out and about. I was hopelessly wrong. I struggled against crowds until I broke off the main thoroughfare and onto the sidestreets, and it still wasn't what I'd call deserted by any means. I did, however, manage to find something that surprised me.Gold's? In Japan?!

And then, towering over the buildings around me, I spotted the key to getting my bearings and looking like a dork at the exact same time. You'd think a 23-year-old guy would have second thoughts about climbing onto a ferris wheel and going for a ride.

You'd be dead wrong.

So from the top, you can see everything- and I got to see my next destination. I had heard (from Kansai Time Out!, the local English-speaker's rag for this region) that local college bands played in front of Osaka Castle every weekend. In the distance, I could kinda see the castle- and "kinda see" was plenty of incentive for me to hop on the subway and see if I could bumble my way over there.

On the way down, I passed a Disney store brimming with customers at 11:20 AM Sunday. My shock (as Disney stores in the US are closing at an astounding rate) was checked by the knowledge that I probably shouldn't stare. So what do we do? We take pictures. Note the middle-school aged girl in the Playboy shirt- here, it's a brand, nothing more.

Further down, in the shopping arcade that links into the subway system, there was a department store that had just put up its Christmas display. People were crowded around the windows, watching the displays and taking pictures. I wasn't sure whether I was in Osaka, Japan circa '05 or America in some bygone, romanticised "A Christmas Story" age.

Osaka's subway system is, after you've ridden it a few times, intuitive and well-planned. All the stations are numbered, there are stops every few blocks, and the lines run east-west and north-south, rather than off at odd angles. Still, it being a new city, I think I stared at the map showing destinations and fares frr a good ten minutes, reading through each of the kanji and hoping I had found the right stop. Osaka is suffering from a distinct lack of roman letters.

Luck was with me. I found not only Osaka Castle, but also the NHK Osaka Broadcast Building, which is an architectural marvel.
The path leading to Osaka Castle is absolutely beautiful. The leaves are turning to their fall colors, as mentioned before, and Sunday was a clear, bright, crisp day. It was perfect.

The castle's inner moat was drained long ago, and now is an overgrown, manmade valley. I spotted a chicken pecking around under one of the bridges. A chicken. In the castle. I curse my camera (well, really, my thumb) for toasting my picture of that one.

Inside the inner wall, contrast abounds. Standing in the exact same spot and rotating only ninety degrees, I took the following "east meets west" pictures. The building that looks like it belongs more on the campus of the University of Michigan than in the middle of Japan is the Osaka Cultural Museum. The other building is, obviously, Osaka Castle.

This squat chrome UFO is the Osaka 1970 Time Capsule. I just thought it made for a cool contrast picture. I'm a sucker for these- can ya tell?

The castle itself (as well as the grounds) were destroyed quite a few times. This is all concrete reconstruction. All the same, it looks pretty cool. The castle has been gutted and converted to a history museum, and the top floor is an observation deck. Here's the view- the grating's there because they left the wooden balcony "as is", so that's their method of protecting their customers.
As I came down, I crossed through the park and happened upon a Homeless Palace- they really get creative with blue tarps here, and make houses with better insulation and more square footage than where I'm livin'. It seems a misnomer to call them homeless.
Down a set of steep stairs, I got stopped by a pack of kids asking who I was, where I was from, the usual gamut of personal bodypart questions, and the like. Even in the big city, where I should be invisible, small children still aren't used to big foreigners appearing from nowhere and meeting their "Ha-ro!" with "Konnichiwa." After chatting for a few minutes with them and their parents (gotta be diplomatic, part of the job and all) I rounded the corner to find...

My new heroes. This band, a pair of Japanese girls in full American getup (the blond-dyed hair, the pastel dresses, the creamy flouride-colored instruments) playing punk covers with a weathered, studded-leather drummer, was one of the coolest, most welcoming moments I've had in Japan. Upon seeing me, the drummer pointed at me, raised the rock horns high and kicked the band into a wholly unique rendition of the Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop. Now I have seen everything. Even now, it brings a smile to my face and makes me want to cue the song up on my iPod. After dutifully sticking around through the rest of their set (which seemed a Japanese punk band's tribute to surf rock), I bounced around the corner and into the subway again.

Osaka has two contrasting city centers, named (creatively) "Kita" (north) and "Minami" (south). The castle and all of that is in the North, which is supposedly the upper-crust business district. For the interesting shopping districts, the nightlife, and most importantly the awesome food, one has to go Southside.

A few subway hijinks later, I found myself elbow-deep in a crowd that seemed to have no end (and, indeed, I never really found a way out) and decided that this must be the place. Osaka was, originally, a city crossed by as many rivers as streets. A lot of these rivers were reclaimed as building space, but there are still a TON of rivers and bridges. The streets here are named, unlike the streets of many cities in Japan, and they're all named somethingsomething~bridge. This river runs through one of the big shopping districts.

On this river is, unequivocably, the largest Don K! I've ever seen. It's a pachinko parlor/arcade/discount shopping center/ferris wheel. It's absolutely amazing. Each of those dots around the edge seats four people. My man Dockett (see sidebar) loves the Don K! penguin, so this picture is especially for him.

A little down the way is this weird-looking hotel. I don't think there's anything that can be said that the picture doesn't say.

On the other side of the bridge is Osaka FM, the radio broadcast station. This building screamed "take pictures of me!". Should Godzilla need something to destroy in Osaka, or should the Thunderbirds be shopping for a new secret hideout, I can highly recommend this piece of prime real estate.
Back in the shopping arcade, where nine pieces of takoyaki can be had for 300 yen (a STEAL), I caught another unique sight.

The Japanese don't fly their national flag much, as a matter of principle or habit. It carries some uncomfortable political insinuations, even now, and as such they tend not to display it publically. As such, every time I see it I'm a little surprised. To see it flown in a crowded shotengai in which every store sold nothing but lacquerware was a touch unexpected.

This is a restaurant. It is also a boat.

I am wordless.

This is a spaceship. It is also a McDonalds.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

To finish the weekend off, I caught some awesome Indian food near "AmericaTown". Incidentally, everything in Osaka is organized by "towns". "AmericaTown" sells only American items. "DenDenTown" sells only electronics. You can guess what "EuropeTown" sells. Anyways, in this Indian restaurant, there is a Japanese woman who speaks perfect English (how do I keep finding these people?) with a strong Indian accent. Turns out she married an Indian guy, they speak English at home, she speaks a little Hindi, he a little Japanese. It is truly a world culture. Osaka people are, by and large, friendly enough to strike up a conversation with a foreigner with little to no prompting. It's crazy. I was stopped three times that day by different groups of people (two groups of kids, one in the restaurant) and the rest of the time I felt comfortably invisible. It was cool.

Next week: I'm returning to Tokyo. Gotta remember to pack the camera charger this time.


Hey. Ho. Let's go.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I live. I promise.

This weekend was interesting, but not so much in a way that compelled me to take pictures. I took one, and it about sums up the entire deal in one shot.

On Sunday (after a Saturday full of Japanese lessons- not too fun to write about, but wholly productive), I went to check out the Ritsumeikan University Festival. This time of year is, evidently, Festival Time. So along with the eight million merchants hawking various ethnic dishes (in which I got to gaze upon the wonder of Hot Dog On a Stick presented as ethnic right next to a Bangladeshi curry stall and a Vietnamese Pho booth), they had two things of real note- one of which I got a semi-decent picture of. This crowd- this throng milling about- centered on a wrestling ring, in which skinny Japanese collegiates dressed alternately in Luchadore (Mexican wrestler) masks and, as we see by the poor soul on the right, next to nothing at all. It takes a real man to duke it out in big fake theatrical style in ten-degree celsius weather wearing nothing but a pair of pink spandex briefs.

The other item of note, in the "not so weird but just as cool" category, was a ten-foot tall parade float bearing two four-foot taiko drums played by girls whose manic, gleeful smiles bordered on the psychotic. Add to this mental picture the fact that the float wasn't propelled by any mere car- oh no- it was dragged around the campus all day by a team of twenty or so strongmen in traditional Japanese garb. Any one of these guys could have beaten up five of Mr. Pink Spandex Briefs up there. The entire assembly was preceded by a team of another twenty or so dancers, male and female, dressed as horse-and-rider teams. As this behemoth was hauled around, it would make periodic stops in order to show off the dancing talents of the folks up front and give the big guys a break- this colossus was HEAVY.

All right, so I lied. There's one other item worth mentioning at the festival before I leave it behind- there are evidently two Guns and Roses cover bands at this university, and a full swing band. All three were awesome- one of the GnR acts had a female lead singer that sounds pretty much just like Axl Rose. The swing band managed to get the entire crowd gyrating like madmen. Never say you've seen everything until you see a crowd of otherwise reserved Japanese professor-types jump, jive, and wail.

Today, at school, I got the chance to look over some student papers. They're both horrifying and awesome. The subject (as the teachers love to do this) was for the students to write my introduction for me, using information from a series of question-and-answer sessions in class. My favorite introduction, out of the whole set? "Andrew-sensei GREAT!!! because he tall. tallest in my class. We find him easy. He doesn't have girlfriend. Maybe..."

And that's all he wrote.

Unexpected kindness from students- I mentioned (in the many informal questionnaires that happen throughout my day, ranging from the size of my feet to whether or not I really can eat raw fish) that one of my favorite sports was ice hockey. Today, a student approached me bearing this month's issue of Hockeytown Insider- a Detroit adbook/magazine that does it's best to shill the downtown area. This month's- November's. I was amazed. Evidently, his dad had just gone to Detroit, and brought back some hockey stuff (as it's "exotic" here- see "hot dog on a stick", above), and so this guy approaches my desk, shoves the magazine at me, conferences with his friends for a moment, and says "You borrow. Not get homesick. Give back in a few days." He smiles really big, and reverts to Japanese when I thank him. He tells me about his dad's trip, about how he plays on a local ice hockey team, and then absorbs back into his group of friends with a "See you!"

I'm honestly impressed that he came up with the word "borrow." I haven't taught him that one yet. Every person in Japan knows "How are you? I'm fine thanks and you!" and "See you!" both said all in a string, like you've just switched on a tape recorder, but "borrow" and "homesick" are a bit outside of our standard curriculum.

After work, I decided to take a different route home, and found "Los Angeles". It's a clothing store/carmods body shop, pretty much what you'd get if you mishmashed Pimp My Ride with the "urban style" section of your local K-Mart. Having a poke around inside, they also evidently host an open mic night Saturdays- now, this thing is a bit off the train tracks. I'd have never found it if not for taking a few wrong turns down a few odd alleys. As such, I have to wonder what kind of a crowd you can pull in a garage/clothing store, and for what brand of music. I've yet to experience Japanese hip-hop live- more reports on this interesting find when further developments occur.

With that, it's back to work. I get the feeling that the next few weeks might be mostly classroom stories- I'll have more time to go out and run afoul of the culture when the next round of exams (thursday and friday) finishes.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Everywhere you look...

A trend I've noticed for awhile now is that Japan seems permanently stuck in a through-the-looking-glass twisted version of America, circa 1989. The mullets are proof, the helter-skelter neon/punk/goth/tight jeans/high socks/whatever ya want-style fashion is proof, and the latest and greatest piece of evidence is this:

Right now, as you read this, Full House is being aired on NHK,the government-subsidized national broadcast channel. It's being aired in it's original order, episode by episode, and it's incredibly popular. Today, at school, my students asked me about this "new American show." Want to break some hearts- both student and teacher? Tell them that the little Olsen twins are all grown up. They didn't believe me at first, so I called upon the collective might of you, the Internet Folk, to show them the way.

The truth hurts. I immediately regret my actions, and confess my sins to the Internet public.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

15 degrees celsius- indoors.

This weekend's adventure: The Japanese Bazaar.

My coordinator clued me in that on Saturday, in a town pretty far off the train tracks, there was to be a "bazaar" that I might like to see. She also mentioned the magic words that bring glee to my heart every time I hear them: "I've got a friend with a car who says she'll give us a ride." Cars in this part of the world are an event for me. They mean something special: That I'm about to venture into the countryside, far enough away from a set of train tracks that people of my... um.. ancestral persuasion (i.e. not Japanese) usually don't get to go. As such, every time I hear the words "car" and "ride" something stirs within me that I imagine is similar to the giddy glee felt by Marco Polo when he stepped off the map and into China.

The bazaar did not disappoint. It was in a giant silver dome structure nestled about an hour's car ride off the tracks and into the Japanese countryside. It juts out of the surrounding forests and rice fields like it had just landed there, and was about to disgorge a company of aliens.

Turns out I was the only alien around.

The dome was about the size of a football field, leading me to think that this may be some kind of converted sports arena, but I was sorely mistaken. The interior is one giant, empty, dirt-floored room, that is used exclusively for this trade fair and others of it's ilk. The merchants inside, packed in winding hallways that lead like an old-style labyrinth from the entrance to the food court, sold (in order from the entrance): industrial chains and load lifters, pulleys, robotic doohickeys (yup, no idea, just knew they were robots), electric/kerosene/LP/solar-powered heaters, chainsaws and large-scale gardening equipment, concrete drills, women's clothing, boxed curry, toys, athletic apparel, and objets d'art.

Concrete drills and women's clothing: Two great tastes that go great together.

So the friend, who was our ride and hookup for this little adventure, was the sent emissary from her company to this trade show. The heck if I know what her company actually DOES- or what it might be seeking at the bazaar- as she didn't buy anything and the company itself is a travel agency. Said travel agency was invited as the guest of a larger company, whose name we checked in under, and whose ID badges we were given. We were met at the door by our company "bargainer", an employee of the larger company whose entire job was to haggle prices for us, his guests, and ensure that we never paid full price. It is worth mentioning at this point that we never paid at all. As a thank-you for coming, all three of us were presented with large gift bags- the contents of which my companions never even glanced at, just bowed once (shallowly, indicating that this is pretty standard, no big thanks) and a pile of free food and drink tickets to be redeemed at the piece of cheese to this giant mouse maze- the Food Court.

We introduced ourselves to the bargainer, identifying first the company from which we came and then our individual names (last only), upon which we recieved his business card (with all the attendant bowing and reciept ritual), after which we went through the obligatory Gaijin Gauntlet of "He speaks Japanese? Wow! How tall is he? What, 190 cm-ish? Hey hey! Oh, I can ask him questions? Great! How are you liking Japan?"

Behind the eyes of every salaryman lies a small child who REALLY wants to stare. I don't think I shook hands with nearly as many people in the States as I do here, and definitely not nearly for as long. As soon as one of these guys has a hold of you, he doesn't want to let go. So, walking and shaking hands at the same time, we perused the wares for sale. Beautiful carvings of the Buddha sat next to giant industrial air compressors and piled boxes of dried curry. Usually, in a place like this, you'll get a lot of shouting and "WELCOME! TRY SOME CURRY!" banter. This bazaar was downright subdued. There were a lot of people somberly evaluating the quality of the five-foot ceramic cat statues and testing the load lifters, and every so often someone would tap their "bargainer", who would bow deeply to the shopkeep and ask politely for a discount. The shopkeep would apologize for the low quality of his wares, and offer a lower price. The bargainer looked back at the little group for approval, and when it was given bow ninety degrees to the shopkeeper, who would then produce a box of the product. This process was exactly the same for both the Adidas jackets and the concrete drills.

My little crew moved slowly through the aisles, snagging free samples and playing with the dangerous equipment. Since we weren't really shopping, our bargainer excused himself to tend to another guest, promising us that his cellphone was on him and that the number was on the business card. He apologized for being such a horrible guide, we told him he was wonderful, and he bailed. Such is how business is done in this country.

With that (and him) out of the way, we went to cash in those free food tickets. As we were stuffing our faces with free yakisoba (fried noodles), yakitori (fried chicken), yakimeshi (yep, fried rice) and (get this) french fries, all eaten with chopsticks, I couldn't help but ponder where Japan got it's reputation for healthy food.

Behind us, an auctioneer was going nuts raffling off stuff that my coordinator's friend aptly described (en japonais) as things she "wouldn't accept for free." Every piece of bizarro lawn sculpture ever dreamt of by human mind, and a few that weren't, sat on priceless lacquered cabinets awaiting new owners. Before opening the bidding for each item, the auctioneer bowed deeply to the crowd and presented the object to a few of the waiting masses, who weighed it in their hands and nodded appreciatively.

The shelves were, oddly, not for sale.

After lunch, we all agreed that we had accomplished what we came to accomplish (play with expensive toys, scam a free lunch), so we returned our company ID badges to the front desk and bailed out.

It was still early in the day, so we decided to take advantage of our borrowed mobility and travel a little further from the beaten path, and visit the Miho Museum. My pictures of this beast don't do it justice- it was designed by the same guy who designed the Louvre, who attempted to emulate Shangri-La and was inspired by a Chinese poem about the same. You'll find better description- and much cooler web interface- at their website.

Go on, explore it. I'll be here when you get back.

Done? Cool. Here's my opinion: The thing looks entirely like a James Bond villain's secret lair. It's built into the side of a mountain, and is only reachable by either walking or taking an electric bus up this path...
and then through this tunnel in the side of the mountain....
Upon which you come to a large bridge, leading to a relatively small glass building.

Small from this side. It's actually four stories or so underground, and entirely glass where it meets the outside world. This is the front lobby.

Of course, photography is prohibited inside, so that's the only picture I've got. The centerpiece exhibit inside was a survey of Chinese art and funerary goods ranging back through just about all of the Chinese big-name dynasties- including the two heavy-hitters, the Han and Ming dynasties. Having now seen priceless Ming dynasty sculptures up close, the archaeologist in me can die happy.

As could be expected from an art museum in Japan, the Egyptian and Greek exhibits were tiny and unimpressive while the Chinese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian exhibits were absolutely amazing. What really did it, though, was the fact that the museum itself outshines a good percent of its contents.

Here's a surreptitious view from the back window- the buildings in the background are a Shinto shrine and its carillon tower (a rarity, as far as shrine architecture goes)

So after getting a good dose of culture (and getting the chance to play art expert and explain Greek mythology to a pair of Japanese folks that had never heard the stories, while they hooked me up with some Buddhist history and Shinto lore) we bailed out and got back in the car. Here's the bridge/tunnel from the other side, as you leave the museum.

A quick note on Japanese roads: They're not for the weak. Nor the weak-hearted. Getting UP this mountain was a grueling feat that made the car groan and labor. Getting down was like a video game- all hairpin turns and wicked switchbacks. I had true fear. Add to this the oncoming truck traffic and the cocky drivers behind us that wanted to pass, and there's a pretty good chance that your trip to the art museum could be terminal.

After the museum, I went to Japanese class, and on the way happened across a nighttime concert by my friends from Ryukoku University and Ritsumeikan University. They were singing "traditional" Christmas tunes - in Japanese- as well as punk rock fare, Japanese pop, and a band that did nothing but Red Hot Chili Peppers covers in broken English. These three fine gentlemen are singing the traditional Japanese christmas song "Chicken Rice". I'd post lyrics if I could find 'em, I promise. That'll be my homework for next time.

Sunday was another day of Art- I went to the Shiga Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibition on modern Japanese oil painting. It was great. The museum's in the Seta "Culture Zone", which resembles nothing so much as a college campus without a college. It's just a collection of libraries, museums, coffee shops and multipurpose classrooms. I'm not sure who pays for it.

The leaves here are beginning to turn and fall- here's a path in the Culture Zone that struck me as especially pretty.

The rest of my weekend was consumed by an epic quest to fix a punctured tire. This would have been much easier if I had noticed the bike shop five minutes from my house- instead, I ended up walking eight kilometers to the bike shop I knew about and getting the stupid thing fixed three times- through some criminal case of negligence, they missed the giant sliver of aluminum that was in fact the CAUSE of the problem, and so I made it all of a kilometer out of the shop before puncturing again and walking back. Twice. Third time's the charm, they actually checked the tire for debris.

Next time, I'm walking five minutes, not five miles. Lesson learned.

On the upside, I did get to pass the local KFC- and what to my wondering eyes should appear...

But Colonel Santa! There is a significant chance that he's deep-fried the reindeer, as they were nowhere to be found. Seems that in addition to having lifesize statues of the Colonel here in Japan, they also dress him up to fit the season- so Santa suits in the winter, cotton kimonos in the summer, and various holiday dress for various holidays.

Made the walk worth it, I tell you.

Not sure what the next week holds. It's getting pretty cold here- and what with no insulation or central heating, it's cold indoors and out, so I'm spending as much time as I can in the well-lit, warm public spaces where someone else pays the heating bill.