Friday, September 30, 2005

Pictures and Words

Today, I was assigned to my new middle school- Hayama Junior High. I’m told it’s entirely different from the last one I worked at, but I’m still marveling at the scenery. Ritto Jr. High was awesome, and I look forward to going back- I’ve gotta keep an eye on my rockstars- and it was also a FIVE MINUTE WALK from my house. I’ve traversed bigger parking lots. Hayama is a half-hour bike ride. Its forever and a day away. I’m going to have to rethink my lackadaisical morning schedule.

On the upside, it’s absolutely beautiful. I’ll post pics as soon as I take them- there was no time today. The small-town atmosphere of Ritto’s central district makes NO APPEARANCE at Hayama- it’s nestled in the center of a huge sprawl of rice fields that terminate on all sides in mountains. It’s gorgeous. The school itself has about half the students of Ritto Jr. High, and evidently it’s a lot more academically rigorous. Here, the students get one elective class, in which to hone their studies. I teach one elective of English per grade. It also seems like here I’m expected to be a bit more of a real teacher than last one- I made six lesson plans today, which is six more than I’ve made since I got to Japan. I’m definitely going to be emailing out for help on this assignment- have I mentioned that I have NO TEACHING EXPERIENCE and that this whole adventure is by the seat of my pants? If I haven’t, now’s probably a good time to bring that up. Now, when I’m halfway around the world.

On the upside, Ritto Jr. High was a great warmup- everyone was supportive and team-oriented, and the bad kids were evidently as bad as any kid gets around here. These Japanese teachers have it easy- their “bad kids” wear pink.

Yesterday, before Thai food, I wandered around Moriyama and took pictures. Now, those pictures may be shared (hip tip: if your Hello from Picasa application goes haywire, download the cleanup utility from the website. Sets it all straight again) and I may reveal the fruits of my expedition.

Firstly, Moriyama has the coolest manhole covers I've ever seen. I'm not sure what this is a picture of- it looks like a bug, and a gold coin, and some mountains, and perhaps there's a river in there someplace. Like a lot of Japan, it's pretty cool even if you don't get it.

Second, we in Shiga also have a Ginza street. It differs from Tokyo's Ginza in the following ways:

We have strange cobbled-up architecture. I have absolutely no idea what this building is for, but it's right on Ginza street, naught a block from the sign.

We have Koala parking. Should your koala need to park his car, here's the place to do it.

Look! A cleaners! I checked the prices- should I need the services of a cleaners, I am far more likely to be able to afford this than a similar establishment in the better-known Ginza to the northeast.

I've saved the best for last. This may be new to a lot of you: This is a Takoyaki van. Takoyaki is a deep-fried octopus meatball. It is divinely delicious, and better so when sold out of the back of a van, like this one. These vans are everywhere, and serve various traditional Japanese dishes with a certain unpretentious flair that I really appreciate. The drone of the generator makes complicated Japanese conversations impossible, so they tend to yell one or two-word phrases. These things, I understand. I'm down with this.

Ah, Lady Liberty. Your torch (or in this case Peace sign) flies high over establishments that truly represent the American way of life... So I asked a Japanese friend what the place with the Statue of Liberty giving the peace sign was, and he wouldn't tell me! When I finally wheedled it out of him, it turns out that this is the kind of hotel that rents rooms hourly. Yipes.

And finally, the Shiga JET crew (well, some of them. There are a scant eight thousand of these people.) The two native-lookin' folks are Ryo and Satoko, a pair of really cool, ridiculously nice people who hang out with us. Ryo's the one who loves the heck out of Springsteen, and hosted the Italian food party. This picture is from a Mexican night, despite the fact that there is no Mexican food on the table.

Now, a few more questions have been brought to my attention, so it's time to play our Q&A Game, called "Let's Clear some Stuff Up, Shall We?"

Q:Whats Japanese humor like? Is it any different from ours?
A: To begin, the Japanese have no concept of sarcasm. None. It simply does not translate, like old computer programs that would spit back at you "SYNTAX ERROR. DOES NOT COMPUTE." Lying just... isn't funny. So: Most of their jokes down here in Shiga revolve around language. They're huge fans of puns and wordplay, and almost every conversation eventually gravitates towards the differences in language structure between different areas of Japan. Evidently, every prefecture speaks a slightly different dialect, with Shiga having it's Shiga-Ben (dialect) that's a lot like Kyoto-Ben and Osaka-Ben but nothing like Tokyo-Ben. They think this is hilarious. It is pretty funny, if you understand what's going on. They're also big on "That foreigner's huge!" jokes, but that might be a recent phenomenon.

Q:Because you're dealing with children at a somewhat young age, what values do you see being instilled into them, as far as you can tell? What values are being shunned?
A: TEAMWORK TEAMWORK TEAMWORK- the "values" question can be accurately summed up by the following difference between American middle schoolers and Japanese middle schoolers. In America, girls often call each other to coordinate clothing- to make sure they're not going to show up to school wearing the same thing. It embarasses them.

In Japan, both guys and girls coordinate their dress with their peer groups. If it's pink day, you're wearin' pink. So's your crew. It's a unifying activity. The basic social unit (this also addresses a later question, which we'll just roll into this one) is not the individual. It's the group. Groups do everything together- a guy eating alone in a restaurant had better have a really good reason. This is part of why clubs are so popular- they give you a ready-made group that likes what you like, and you spend all your time together.

Q: (question about discrimination in Japan)?
A: Don't know enough to really answer this one. Sorry. I know there are a lot of immigrants from Peru who work in the factories. Some of their kids spell their names in The Foreigner Alphabet (katakana), and some use The Native Alphabet (kanji). They seem to get along just fine in class. I'm not sure about their parents and their impact on society as a whole- I'm just a teacher. I do get stared at on the trains a lot. :)

Q: Has there been anything you've said to a Japanese about America that surprised them? Is the opposite true? Has there something you've told them that you expected a reaction and gotten nothing?

A: Yeah. They were shocked like crazy that Michigan has no subways, and that you have to book train tickets in advance. They're all like "WHAT? The train doesn't run every ten minutes?!" I can't think of anything I've tried to play for effect that just completely missed- but if something along those lines happens, you guys in internetland will be the first to know.

Q:When I was younger, we all talked about, "What we wanted to be when we grew up." What do Japanese children dream of becoming when they are older?

A: Same stuff we do. Interesting you asked, though, as one of the students who's prepping for an English speech contest picked that as her topic. She wants to be an interpreter- lots of kids do. But a lot of them want to be the typical big-dream kid stuff. Astronaut (though Japan ain't winnin' any space races), fireman, cartoon character... though what's weird is they're all about pastry chefs. A ton want to own patisseries. Why, you ask? Strong trade relations in the country's formative years with the French have left pastry as a form of high art around here.

Q: Yakuza?

A: NO! No, no, no. If I did see one, I wouldn't know it, as they don't advertise. So... maybe.

Q: What language do you think in?

A: I really don't know anymore. It's kind of a weird creole- it depends on who I've talked to last. I'm still primarily thinking English, but my responses are almost always in Japanese out of simplicity's sake. So I get in the habit of speaking and listening that way, and sometimes misstep among my foreigner crew. With Hilarious Results- except that they do the same thing. I think it's pathological.

There's a symptom among the more experienced ALT's and Foreigner Residents- they tend to say "Yes yes yes yes" very quickly in a string, which directly corresponds to a Japanese response of "Hai hai hai" for complete agreement. If I start doing that, I'll know I've gone too far.

With that, it' s 1:20 in the morning. I think I'm going to go crash out- tomorrow's my big trip to Kyoto. There will be pictures. Oh, yes, there will be pictures.


Thursday, September 29, 2005

Foreigner Day!

This week's been English Overload, and the weekend looks to be no different. If my image upload service hadn't decided to go kazooie on me, I'd have more pictures to show you- as is, I'm trying to get that updated. There's some cool stuff I found that I want to share.

But until then, about this whole English thing. Yesterday was a Mexican Food Party with the Shiga Jet Crew- a fine gaggle of people, more of whom seem to be popping up all the time. Seems there's a foreign foods shop in Kyoto where one can buy Old El Paso taco fixins- which here in Japan seem odd and exotic. I think it's the first meal in a good long time where no seafood or noodles were involved AT ALL- and it was quite tasty, at that. The interesting thing about meeting with other foreigners in Japan is that you get the eerie feeling that you're at some kind of summer camp- there's the same "we're all in this together" vibe, and people swap teaching horror stories and techniques. Kind of like tales told 'round the campfire, except the campfire was a pot of homemade guacamole.

Before that, at school, classes were cancelled for "Event Day". Essentially, it was just a "Students Do Funny Things" performance- lots of synchronized dance (which is HUUUGE over here) and the littlest rock band ever played a few songs. Given that these students are a million miles from the birthplace of rock, and they're middle schoolers, the performance was amazing. Childhood cruelty, however, seems to be universal. A few kids laughed- and this SHATTERED the drummer, a girl who normally is the happiest four-foot-tall future rockstar I've ever met. She made it through the set, but afterwards was in tears. Inconsolable. I tried, in broken Japanese and simple English, to express that getting up there was crazy brave and that they did an awesome job, but naught was to be done. She did, tearfully, throw the horns, which was a good sign.

Another performance at the cultural fest was the All-Men's Water Dance, a traditional-style choreographed performance by the third-year guys. They wore traditional outfits... ish... and did a big synchronized dance number that was actually pretty cool to watch. Only after the performance did it become apparent that every one of them was wearing a belt with a big chrome water faucet sticking out the front. Yeah. Weird. And none of the teachers had a problem with this. Everyone just laughed.

Japan's odd.

Today, no class AGAIN. This time, it was the chorus competition- the "concours" I mentioned before. This was held at a HUGE performance hall three miles away from school. In America, we'd get buses and bus the whole deal over there. In Japan, they posted teachers at the corners of the intersections and told the entire student body "All right. Get on your bikes, go to the performance hall." And every single one of them did it- no truants, no detours. Even the "bad kids" dutifully got on their bikes and rode the confusing, twisting, turning three miles to the theater. Once there, they lined up by class and marched single-file into the hall, down the stairs and into their seats.

Japan's odd.

The chorus compettion was interesting, but all in Japanese. Just like in American schools, the choir consists 90% of people who don't move at all while they sing, and 10% of kids who get into it like a gospel revival. There was a whole lot of mumbling and looking at feet interposed with loud, proud and energetic (if a little clumsy) performance. Teachers acted as judges, they gave out prizes that I didn't completely understand, and evidently it's one heck of a big deal to win this thing. The first-place class (competition was, as always, by class) was literally in tears, laughing and hugging each other. Yes, even the guys.

Japan's odd.

After that, I sat at school with nothing to do until they dismissed me at 4, and I went to meet some more foreigners for a Thai dinner. This week was kind of a "United Nations" week, food-wise. Turns out Thai food's about the same wherever you get it- go figure. It's awesome, but it never changes. The restaurant's in another neighboring town- Moriyama- and I got some cool pictures there before the sun went down. If I can get the upload utility to work, I'll post them later tonight- if not, tomorrow. Tonight, after Thai, I stopped by Foreigner Central Station (the Starbucks) and met two Canadian guys teaching for "Peppy Kid's Club", a private language instruction deal here in Japan. Turns out one of them's teaching in Ritto- there are foreigners in my turf and I don't even know about them! I'm suffering from English overload- I think that's enough for awhile.

That about brings things up to speed. This weekend: Kyoto or Bust. I'm going with my coordinator and one of her friends to Kyoto (get this: I have to meet them in the last car of the 10:58 train bound for Kyoto leaving Kusatsu station- it's totally a superspy meetup) and they're going to show me around. Should be great picture fodder- the camera/cellphone/swiss army doohickey comes with.

Q & A Time (thanks, VORRT!):

Q:How does your salary work while you're in Japan? Is it like a normal USA job, or does the school board cover your expenses and give you a stiped to for food and what have you?

A: My pay here in Japan is pretty much just the house plus a monthly salary. I pay utilities and a maintenance fee, but it's nowhere near what rent would cost- so it's pretty convenient. Everything works out pretty well that way.

Q:If you are paid as if it were USA job, is it comparable with what teachers make here in the states?

A: No. No, teachers in the states get a lot more- but I'm not really a teacher. I'm an Assistant Language Teacher, or ALT. I never teach alone, I always have a team teacher I work with, though that teacher changes class to class. I work with them to prepare the lesson plan, I come up with games to play with the kids, and I'm the living, breathing dictionary. So in terms of work done to pay received, it's more than fair, especially considering....

Q:Do you have to pay taxes ala Uncle Sam's IRS and Gov. Granholm's money sink ideas?

A: Nope. I'm tax-exempt from both US and Japanese income tax this year, as I'm working in accordance with some crazy exchange treaty.

That'll about do for now- pictures to follow, when I get this thing to work.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Today's Adventures

Today, I went out and bought a memory stick for my cell phone- from now on, we're picture-ready. There's a block of pictures below, but bear in mind they're in reverse chronological order. Start at the bottom, work back up.

Ready? Cool. So today was preparation for Culture Festival at school, which seemingly consists of song-and-dance numbers. My rockstar students are going to play- and I'm so very proud of them, for reasons you can see below (first picture!), as the rock-out horns continue to make an appearance. After that, there's a choral contest on Thursday, making this week another strenuous three-day-workweek (I only teach Monday, Tuesday, and Friday- life is rough).

Today's big after-work adventure: I crashed a buffet. They had no idea what was coming- there is perhaps a prophecy, but it was merely whispered among the elder kitchen staff. I went Godzilla on that thing. To quote Dennis Hopper (via the Gorillaz): "There were no screams. There was no time."

Tonight, two very nice people (who could speak no English) came by and presented me with my census sheet. They're coming back to pick it up on Monday. If Dockett has to fill one out too, I think the census data for "average height" might skew upwards a few points this year. The whole thing's in Kanji- so I understand perhaps ten percent of it- but my ever-helpful coordinator led me through the process. It's actually pretty cool- they're running an ad series over here trying to encourage census participation that shows the token Western-looking guy sitting traditional seiza style in a kimono, with the text "Everyone who lives in Japan is a part of our country's future." in English, and again in Japanese, printed across the bottom. Yay for inclusion.

Other than that, and the picture series below, I've got a whole lot of nothing today. The students are hilarious- I got flicked off for the first time today, and it was the most innocently confused situation in the world. Honestly, it went about like this: "Hi Andoryu-Sensei! Hi!" (prominent wave of a middle finger) "Hi!"

Try explaining that one to a thirteen year-old girl. Just try. When you're surrounded by twelve and thirteen year-old boys who are putting their feet up next to yours so see how much bigger you are, and constantly rubbing your arm hair and touching the hair on your head and pulling your face down to look you in the eye ("oooooo.... blue...."), and this girl rushes up brandishing her middle finger like she just found a silver dollar laying on the floor, try explaining that that's a magical bad finger and that we don't do that in America.

That's pretty much the only explanation I can give them. It's bad- we don't do that in America- please, just don't do it. This applies to all manner of things- I rue the day they decided to put MTV on satellite, as some of this vocabulary CERTAINLY didn't come from any source I provided.

I teach the adults real English, sometimes. I gently steer them away from the slang that sounds dated, bring them into the 20th century (they keep using "shall", for reasons I'll never understand), but the profanity's such a hard thing to use right that I just don't touch it. I wouldn't mind if they swore in context, but the creative ways they come up with to play with these words are GREAT- I'm just not allowed to laugh at it. If I laugh, it encourages them- and that means they'll use it more often- dangerous. Very dangerous.


Rock out.

Yep. I sleep on the floor.

The only unused room in the house, this is half of my sitting room. There's a TV in the other half. This room sits between the practice room and the study. Oh- and if you look back at the Demon Closet room, the righthand alcove holds two ornamental birds, courtesy of my parents. Little touches are important.

This is my "Practice Room"- I can't find anything else to do with this room, so I play guitar here. It's got THE DEMON CLOSET, which at night is possibly the scariest thing about living alone. This closet is large enough to fit an escaped psycho inside- which is why I'm glad I don't live near any insane asylums. I might, but I don't know the kanji for "Insane Asylum" yet. Ignorance is bliss.

my "kitchen". Exactly one meal has been cooked here that HASN'T consisted of cup noodles. Note the laptop on the table- my kitchen has the only working phone jack in the house.

This is my blurry family room- it's the first room inside the hall. It's not a good picture, but this is one of the five rooms with tatami floors. They're all about this size.

This is inside the front door- note the Japanese BIG STEP UP and the shoerack. The piece of paper over the shoerack is my map. It is my best friend. I say goodbye to it every morning.

This is my castle. This is the castle gate- beyond it, my garden, and within, my domain.

This is the side of city hall. It's cooler than the front, and I pass it on the way home every day. So there ya go.

This is a Shinto shrine embedded in the curb right in front of city hall (pic above). These little red-shrouded statues are EVERYWHERE, and they pop out of the landscape when you least expect it. In front of this little guy are two vases of flowers and a tea set full of water. They're always clean, so someone has to be changing them...

So I had to take a picture of a streetsign. It's all of a foot and a half tall, and it's right in the middle of the sidewalk. This is, essentially, main street. The 7-11's on this road (picture forthcoming, perhaps tomorrow) as well as the grocery store. If you follow it a few blocks, it deadends at the station.

This is the closest thing we've got to a "main street" in Ritto. Here, I'm standing in the same spot that I took the picture of Ritto Jr High, below- I'm just facing the opposite direction. Pictures from now on are from my walk home.

A typical Japanesee classroom. Items of interest: They write on their desks- in marker- and noone cares. There's a tv in the corner on that dangerous-looking TV stand, and nobody's sued. You can't see it from here, but there's a platform at the front of the class that makes us teachers nine feet tall, and puts me in grave danger of knocking myself out on that low-hanging white light fixture above the chalkboard. Cool fact: All the chalkboards are magnetic.

Today was practice for the Choral Competition- which they call a Councours (Japanified, CON-CO-RU), which gave me an excuse to take a picture in the gym/auditorium. Note the school crest above the three flags- Japan, School Flag, and Ritto City Flag. They've got symbols for everything over here.

Ritto's Gym. It's HUUUGE from the outside.

This is Ritto Jr. High. I work here- for another few days. Friday, I get a new school for a month.


Monday, September 26, 2005

There are two Japans. One is the bustling megametropolis to the north, which we here like to call "Tokyo". I live in the other Japan.

So this weekend I went to visit Dockett off in the Other Japan. I had no idea how different they'd be. In my new hometown, we have a train station- Tehara. There are two sets of tracks. One runs east, one runs west. That's about as complicated as it gets out here- other, larger cities, like Kyoto, still are arranged in businesslike, aesthetically pleasing dichotomies. There is east, west, north, and south, and all the gates you need to reach can be found simply by following the appropriate signs. Take that as a metaphor, if you will.

I took the Shinkansen (High-Speed Train, and they ain't kiddin') Nozomi (SUPEREXPRESS) from Kyoto to Tokyo. It took perhaps two hours, and we stopped twice in the middle. The Japanese countryside- when it wasn't a blur- was AMAZING. We passed through mountains, lakes, rivers, vast rice fields, little cities, and a huge mountain that looked like Godzilla took a bite out of the middle. It was awesome. The entire ride, I was pressed back into my chair like a kid on a rollercoaster- this train is one heck of a thing.

The moment I arrived in Tokyo, I got lost. I'm not kidding- I had to change trains at Tokyo station, and couldn't for the life of me find the platform. I found the sign to the platform. I found the platform the sign pointed to. But none of the trains were marked with my destination. So rather than getting ridiculously lost in a giant twisty city, I put on my "Dumb Foreigner" face and asked directions.

Turns out the platform I wanted was through this platform and up another level- the sign with the arrow meant keep on going. The heck? Who knows.

Now, I figured that Tokyo station was going to be crazy like that. That's okay. I also thought that once I got out of Tokyo station and to the satellite station where Dockett was to meet me, I'd find him easily. I mean, he's huge. I'm huge. We're too big for this country. We're easy to pick out of an American crowd- a Japanese crowd should be no problem. I hadn't counted on the fact that this "small, satellite station" was in fact three stories tall and had five exits. I had sent an email to Dockett earlier, telling him where to meet me, and though I had neither cell phone nor his phone number I figured it wouldn't be a problem.

I was a fool. So I wandered around the station for perhaps forty minutes, had an interesting conversation with an English-capable local who thought I looked lost, and finally found him/was found by him in the main gate (phew!)- and so with that preface complete, our adventure got underway. The first night was fairly laid-back- we strolled around Shinjuku a bit, wandered around some ridiculously huge buildings, and partook of the local cuisine at Chez McDonald.

The next day was immensely productive, to say the least. It rained- curse that typhoon, but that didn't stop us from seeing the famous shopping district of Ginza. There's this famous window that we wandered past, and then back to, that houses THE MOST EXPENSIVE DEPARTMENT STORE that I have ever seen, let alone entered and perused. We were very nearly laughed out of the men's department. Whether that's due to the fact that we wouldn't fit in a single article of clothing they sold or thanks to our t-shirt and jeans collegiate travel gear, I am still unsure. Either way, a two hundred-thousand dollar pocketwatch is a bit beyond my means, so we wandered on. Found the Sony Building, with it's display of one of everything they sell. That was awesome. Loitered awhile in the Playstation room- but can ya blame us?

On the main drag in Ginza, sandwiched between a Luis Vatton store and a godawfully expensive store selling something else with a French name, there's this little shop where a quiet guy has a wall of Go boards for sale. Now, when I say Go board, I mean the kind that cost upwards of a few grand and weigh a ton and a half- the "board" is in fact a table, about two feet by two feet by two feet, with ornate little pudgy feet that won't tear up your tatami mats. There's a line of pictures across from the wall of Go boards showing how these things were made- by hand, with a chisel. The man in the picture is the same man that's standing in the back of the shop politely wondering who the heck these two giants are and whether or not they're going to buy something already.

And after Ginza was exhausted, one downpour and a fruitless search for lunch later, we found a Denny's. It turns out that Denny's in Japan is owned by iHoldings, the same company that owns all the Japanese 7-11's. I am unsure as to the status of that corporate link in the States- perhaps one of you with a net connection that doesn't load at three pages an hour could help me out with that- but I do know that these iHoldings guys are MASTERS at getting inside the Japanese mind. They have changed the Denny's as much or more than they've changed the 7-11. The 7-11, bereft of Slurpees, serves full lunches. The Denny's is bereft of Western lunches- hamburgers are served sans bun, there are no Dagwoods to be seen, and ordering Moons over My Hammy could get you slapped. Instead, they serve a variety of Japanese staple dishes, as well as salads, ramen, and- oddly- French Toast.

And the verdict? Japanese French Toast tastes about like American French Toast- you just get a whole lot less of it for five bucks.

So we bail after Denny's and head for Tokyo Tower, finding a cool little shrine on the way. Just to cover all the religious bases, we also stumble across a church- St. Peter's Episcopal, or something to that effect- that's held services in English ever since it was founded back in the way long ago. There's an American organist practicing inside while we poke around- true to form, it's just like an American church- but smaller.

Tokyo Tower's a kick- it's slipping quickly into obscurity, and gives about the same vibe of faded glory that the arch in St. Louis does- this was impressive in its time, but its time is quickly fading. It was pretty cool, in that nostalgic way, though. The windows in the observation tower are fun to lean against Ferris Bueller-style, and the lookdown windows (read- reinforced pieces of glass in the floor) are AWESOME. I'm a bit sad that the second, higher observation tower was closed, and the day was a bit cloudy, but that's what you get for visiting Tokyo Tower in a typhoon. I'm just glad I got to see it before they tear it down to upgrade to digital- which happens pretty soon, as I understand it. The base of the tower features such fine attractions as a Wax Museum and a Guiness Book Of World Records Museum, as well as census data from Japan- got a great pic of Dockett towering over the "average height" chart. He might post it, he might not- bug him for it.

From Tokyo Tower, we spotted a HUGE Buddhist temple- making our religious tour a triumvirate- and decide to make for it. In the spirit of adventurers everywhere, we utter the now-infamous "Let's take this shortcut through the park"- and end up finding a waterfall. But this isn't any old bridge-over-the-river-overlooking-the-falls deal. The path is large stepping-stones, leading down a set of REALLY DANGEROUS WHEN IT'S WET AND TYPHOONING stairs and across/through the river, from which you can see the waterfall. It's small, but very cool, as you're nearly standing in the river to get a look at it. The path continues beyond the stepping stones, and we make for the temple.

Again, thinking we're slick guys, we take what appears to be a shortcut up a long driveway and through a gate, and find ourselves VERY ABRUPTLY in a cemetery. It's the day after the Autumnal Equinox, which marks the beginning of Cemetery Season here in Japan, so the smell of incense still hung heavy in the air. A flock of ravens OWNS this cemetery- they're absolutely huge, and completely unafraid of human beings. Japanese cemeteries are packed very close together- there's no open ground, just headstone next to headstone, and an entire family can be entombed under a single monument. The path cuts businesslike down the center. Each altar/tombstone has a cup for burning incense, and that day most of them were still ashy. We only passed one person coming out, so the moment she cleared the gate we were alone with the ravens.

We didn't stay long. We ducked out the back and down another set of pretty dangerous stairs (what the heck is with this?!), finding ourselves in the back of the temple grounds. There are three Buddha statues in a rear courtyard, and a locked-up temple gate behind them, as well as an uncountable row of smaller statues three or four deep, each wearing fresh, clean red hats. With the ravens still kind of following us, and the ubiquitous shrine cats (which seem quite interested in the possibility of Raven as a main course for dinner) all around, it's actually pretty cool/creepy. Having had enough taking our lives into our own hands, we made for the main temple grounds- up a set of safe-looking stairs and around the corner into a large, clean temple. The main hall is one huge room about three stories high, with a raised "Monk Only" area and a sitting area- uncharacteristically, this temple's got three rows of chairs. There's a box for offerings, a pot of incense (oh, more of that smell) and a "don't screw around vibe"- reinforced by the entrance of one smart raven through the temple door and up into the rafters. There was only one door open. It was kinda scary. So we poked around the temple grounds a bit and left for more modern lands.

It was getting late, but we took a ride out to Akihabara (Electric Town) and shopped around. The trip was 100% success- I bought a Japanese keyboard, got Dockett a PSP controller (yay! Katamari Damacy 2 for the WIN) and we had some of the worst Ramen in the world. I consulted tonight with my Ramen Guy (he rules) and it turns out that Miso Ramen and Miso Tonkatsu Ramen are two completely different beasts- the first is delish, and the second.... ech. Also- geeks of the world, I have found your Mecca. This place is, without a doubt, flashy-light and nerd-toy central. The geek world revolves around THIS AXIS- it's a small city (read: larger than Ritto's entire downtown area) filled to the brim with nothing but computer, game, and anime stores. There are shops that sell but one variety of computer PART, and still manage to operate. There are back-alley deals on broken-down cardboard boxes where the dealers swap RAM sticks for monitors and bask in the silicon glow. There is a shop- yes, indeed- where they sell English language game supplies, and a cybercafe dedicated entirely to FFXI that sells crazy fantasy clothing you can wear while you sit and play the game. Escapism is peddled like a street drug.

They just need a better Ramen shop.

Post-Akihabara, we head back to the apartment (heh- closet-sized. My kitchen's bigger- but that closet's got a heck of a better internet connection than my kitchen) and drop off the swag from the day. We go out for some dinner (yakitori, I love thee) and back to the apartment for video games (some things never change, no matter the continent) before calling it a night.

The next day was an exercise in packing as much as we could into a limited time before bailing. We decided to try to go to Harajuku and buy some cheap/fashionable clothing (forgetting our mantra: We're too big for this country) and discover that it's one heck of a district to people-watch in. The fashions come in three flavors there: The Athletic, in which sports gear is worn to the exclusion of all else; the Proto-American, in which an American style trend is copied and modified (props, Jozi, you've got this one DOWN) until it is vaguely Eastern and all kinds of awesome; and The Dead, in which Goth fashion is taken WAY beyond its logical end and well into the territory of undead shambling hordes. These three trends congregate in a series of windy, thin streets in the Harajuku district, where every shop is brimming with something cool that you want to buy but you won't fit into (you're TOO BIG), and they pack the place. Most the time, we didn't have room to walk politely. We took a cue from Az (at Outpost Nine) and Gaijin Smashed our way through. The Dead, by the by, congregate on the bridge that connects Harajuku to the Meiji shrine. Why? Who knows. After a well-spent morning bumbling through the most fashionable shopping district in town, we cross said Bridge of the Damned into the Meiji Shrine- a HUGE park and shrine complex dedicated to the long-dead emperor Meiji, responsible for the Meiji restoration. If you haven't heard of him, go rent The Last Samurai and get a quickie pseudohistory lesson.

The park is AMAZING. The moment you pass through the GIANT cypress gate you can forget entirely that the bustling fashion district is right next door. The walkway is a broad, manicured gravel path, and it's got more than it's share of Gaijin (it's a tourist spot, yeah)- without whom it would seem positively empty. The path winds through the park, past the gardens and the lake and up to the shrine, where we were lucky enough to catch a Shinto wedding procession across the main square of the shrine and out the side door. Wow. They paused for wedding pictures, and we booked it for the main shrine, doing our best to ignore the steel gaze of the shrine guard holding the whacky "DON'T DO IT" stick. The main temple is all closed off- you just get to look at the inner courtyard. So we wander another half mile up to the Treasure Museum, to look at the artifacts owned by the Emperor Meiji. His sword is advertised, but makes no appearance- perhaps it was in the Cultural Annex another two miles down the road. Perhaps no. What does make an appearance is his writing-desk (making this post an Alice in Wonderland Special- both Ravens and Writing-Desks!), and about eight thousand relics that have something to do with the Emperor's Hair- his Shampoo Bottle, his Washtub, his Looking Glass (the Alice in Wonderland Trifecta!) as well as his Chinese Ornamental Lion and the Empresses' Wardrobe (CS Lewis, eat your heart out). What do we glean from these cultural treasures? Well, judging from the size of the writing desk, the Emperor was SHORT. Really, really short.

So perhaps it was lost on us. Perhaps not. We take a breather in Shinjuku and have a coffee, and try for awhile to figure out something to do, finding in the process a 13th-floor open rooftop walkway (awesome in Typhoon-force winds) and a rooftop golf course on an adjacent building (which CAN'T be awesome in Typhoon-force winds). We decide to return to Harajuku and search for the must-have fashion accessory in Japan- the climbing-bag style clip-on cargo pocket. It's got holsters for everything you need, and is kind of like a fashionable construction belt, with all the pockets and loops and whatnot. It fulfills that place in your heart that wants to be both hip and a little more like Batman.

So in short, we go, we find, and we conquer. There's a crepe shop in Harajuku that everyone and their brother seems to want to eat at, so we stand in line for a very special JAPANESE SNACKYFOOD REVIEW: Crepes From the Crepe Guys in Harajuku. These things are the BEST CREPES IN THE WORLD, stuffed with ice cream and cheesecake and chocolate and what have you. Whatever you want, you can have it in a crepe, and the crepes are warm and delicious. They absolutely must be exported back to the States. Must.

Grade: A+.

After crepes, we go to a little shrine that we had passed up earlier, and catch yet another wedding in progress- this one's got some really cool gas-operated torches- before deciding that it's time to tack back to Tokyo station and part ways.

After a quick bout of confusion in the labyrinthine Tokyo station, we part ways and I head back onto the Shinkansen for the ride home. Wow, this thing is fast. There aren't any seats on the first leg of the journey, so I sit in the connector between the first two cars with a girl from Osaka and a few guys from Kyoto. We chat about the usual- who are you, where are you from, what do you do, etcetera- until the first stop, where we split up to find seats as people get off the train. What's cool about this is that we actually coordinated our efforts- smokers went for the smoking car, and nonsmokers to the two nonsmoking cars- so that we wouldn't be competing for seats. Yay for teamwork.

So now I'm safely back in Ritto, and today I got my Gaijin ID. That means I also got my bank account and my CELL PHONE/CAMERA, an essential deal here in Japan. Everyone's got one. Absolutely EVERYONE. Tomorrow I'm going to buy a MiniSD card for it, so I can load pictures onto the laptop. This blog goes photo ASAP. Here's the baby I bought- it's awesome, and pretty, and blue.

Ugh, that was a long one. Sorry, guys- lots to say. In fact, I already missed something- today, in class, one of my rockstar students threw me the horns with NO PROMPTING. She just DID IT, OUT OF NOWHERE. It was appropriate, and natural, and perfect. So I did the only thing any self-respecting human being can do in these circumstances.

I threw 'em back.
I love being a teacher.

Rock Out,


Thursday, September 22, 2005

Today's Adventure- and a little Q and A

Tonight, went out with the ALT crew to get some Indian food at a little restaurant about a fifteen-minute walk away from a half-hour train ride; "Very Close", in Japanese. It turns out that Indian food- prepared and served by real Indian folks, one of whom actually speaks English- is delicious worldwide. Today was a short and easy day at school. After classes, there were practices for the choral competition- and there's a fledgling rock band at my school. They're not what you'd call technically skilled, but they've got a lot of energy. So, being the cultural ambassador that I am, I taught them the most important piece of rock culture one can teach using only pidgin English: The rock band now knows how to "throw the horns" and "rock out". They loved it- in Japan, whenever someone takes your picture, you flash the peace sign. Why? I'm not sure. They think it's cool. Now, the "True Rock Powaa" sign has replaced the peace sign as their hand-gesture of choice. I caught them throwing the horns at a teacher as I was walking out today- my work here is done. Not much else to report, school-wise, as tomorrow's the Equinox Holiday, in which one is supposed to go visit the ancestral gravesite and do a bit of autumn cleaning. I have no ancestral gravesite. So tomorrow I'm going to go visit Dockett, in Tokyo- provided I can figure out which train to take.

Speaking of trains- I experienced my first and only hitch in the otherwise stellar Japanese train system today. Caught the last train home from station near the Indian restaurant, only to find that our train couldn't leave because of a late-running train arriving from Kyoto. I say "arriving", but I really mean "slowly on it's way." It didn't get there until an hour later- one in the morning, here- and I was amazed to see that the only people who showed any sign of anxiousness or distress at being kept an extra hour were my fellow foreigners. Everyone else just went to sleep.

Literally. The whole train car zonked out, and woke up when the train started moving again. Amazing.

Now, there have been a few questions in the comments lately that seem necessary to address- but first, a short Cultural Note!

Cultural Note Number Five Hundred and Twenty-Sixish: Japanese middle schools do not operate on a pass/fail system. You will pass whether or not you come to school. You will pass whether or not you study, no matter how many fights you get into, no matter what you say or do or act like. It is impossible to fail, because the concept simply doesn't exist. After three years, you "graduate", and then you take your high school entrance exams. All of middle school is essentially a prep course for these exams, and your performance determines whether or not you go to a good high school, a mediocre one, a trade school, or if you are catapulted into the workplace at the age of about fifteen. My students were surprised to hear that one can fail subjects in America, be held back, and repeat grades- but they were more surprised to hear that in America, we don't have a test. This is an unthinkable thing, and one that took a team effort lasting no less than twenty minutes between me and the teacher I was working with to express.

That cultural note out of the way, a short Q and A is in order. Thanks, Jozi and Diablo, for giving me some questions to work with.

1. Other Japanese Snackyfoods will be covered in future blog entries- there's a short description of ChocoBananaPan (Chocolate Banana Bread) at the end of this entry. Pocky is an ubiquitous snackyfood- the stuff is everywhere- that's kind of like a stick-shaped cookie dipped in chocolate- though it comes in eight million flavors. Think of it as the Japanese E.L. Fudge, as it tastes much the same when you get down to it.

2. Japanese Students... eh... in general, they're MUCH QUIETER. They just don't talk- ever. Most of them can go through an entire day without uttering a word. The problem kids are about like the average American middle-schooler. They just seem like a problem when compared to the "Good Kids." Thankfully, you can spot a "problem kid" by the abuses he or she puts through the student uniform- skirts are rolled, coats unbuttoned, shirts untucked, big belts and flashy accesssories. An interesting fashion phenomenon- men wear a LOT of pink here. Some of the "wannabe gangstas" wear Minnie Mouse hats. I think it's hilarious.

3. Kancho has been addressed much more eloquently by wiser folks than I who don't have to worry about the wide variety of their audience. Should curiosity overwhelm you, Google it or punch it into the Urban Dictionary... but for propriety's sake, we'll just say it's a game Japanese kids play that's about equivalent to giving wedgies.

4. The Aggressiveness Quotient: On a scale of one to five, zero. In social interactions, "agressive" equates to "actively listening." Societally, they're a very private and respectful people out here- your business is your business. As such, interactions happen more between representatives of groups than between individuals. Example: When two Americans meet, the first two bits of information exchanged are "Name" and "What you Do". When two Japanese folks meet, the first two pieces of information are "Group Association" and "Name", in that order. As such, there isn't a whole lot of active talking on the street- and as far as male-female interaction goes, it really doesn't occur outside of these groups. There isn't really a bar scene. The bar I mentioned going to before is a whole lot more like Moe's (from the Simpsons) than anything else- a long bar, where everyone (older males only) sits and orders drinks from the "Mama-san"- the only female around for a good majority of the night. Women did come in- with their husbands- and sit and order meals. The bar is mostly a place for salarymen to unwind and interact without the layers and layers of formality that color most Japanese interactions. But that's just the story out here in Shiga. Your mileage may vary.

5. Interesting slang is mostly in the form of "Kansai-Ben", or Kansai Dialect. It's an informal, faster Japanese that they use out here in the country. I like "Bochi-bochi", which means either "So-so", "slowly", or "eventually". It's used like: "Bochi-bochi wakaranaa?" "Do you understand a little bit?" It can also be a reply: "Are you going to eat that?" "Bochi-bochi."

It's just fun to say.

6. There are no Yakuza in Shiga. The first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club.

7. I feel perfectly safe walking down the winding, narrow, wandering streets that shoot off at confusing angles and never have names. But I did get lost a fair amount until I figured out the somewhat arcane logic of the place. I still can't describe how to get somewhere, but I don't get lost anymore.

8. I live in the sticks. There aren't any ghettos. We have rice farms instead. You leave the city center, go over a hill and BOOM! Rice. For miles. No suburbs here- just dense population surrounded by big gulfs of nothing.

9. The police are EVERYWHERE in Kyoto, but out here in Ritto they're limited to guards at the Cultural Center and crossing guards here and there to keep people out from under the wheels of oncoming cars. Their only weapon (aside from some SERIOUS dedication to their work; you don't mess with the crossing guards) is a large, orange light-up wand that they use to direct traffic.

10. America was in the doghouse awhile back, as my friend Jake tells me, due to the whole War on Terror thing. Japan's citizenry, from what I've gathered, wasn't too thrilled with the whole "sending the SDF to Iraq" deal. But that's just what I've gleaned from poll numbers and the like- what little politics I've talked has been with other teachers, and they tend (like everyone else) to keep personal opinions on the backburner. I do know that Jake and the other American ALTS and college students were pretending to be Canadian for awhile there- there was a pretty strong anti-US sentiment last year. I haven't experienced any of it. Nobody's said anything to me- in fact, most seem pretty happy to meet an American.

That done, it's time for the Snack Food Review (and then its time for me to go to bed)!

Tonight's snack: ChocoBananaPan. Label reads (in Japanese): Melon Bread with Chocolate Top. You will see Banana Cream Inside.

What is it? It's a loaf of slightly sweet bread, with cocoa mixed into the dough of the upper crust and banana cream in the center. It's about the size of my forearm. It cost 105 yen- a pretty good deal, for this much snacky. I mean, the thing's relatively huge. I have a big forearm. It tastes a good deal better than the description makes it sound- the banana filling is kind of like the cream in a banana cream pie, and the bread with the cocoa in it is chocolatey without being ridiculously sweet. This snacky has the ubiquitous fruity aftertaste that I have named the Taste of Japan, but it's subtle. You don't notice it unless you bite into bread that neither has choco nor banana masking the flavor.

Grade: A-. It's a heck of a snacky.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Super-Size Me

So- tonight after work, I rode my bike out to McDonald's (about five miles, give or take- everything's in metric here, and my American brain rejects the decimalized system) in Kusatsu, in search of a Big Mac. After all that smoked fish and authentic rice noodles, I needed to center myself and remember who I was. America is the Big Mac of the world- a monument to excess, we need only one all-beef patty, but we take two. Our sauce is special, we have condiments we can't even taste, like lettuce, and our bun comes in three parts rather than the standard two. In short, I really, really wanted a burger.

So I'm sitting down to my big ol' plate o' fat when a tall, blond, blue-eyed guy lopes in from the street, tentatively approaches the table and utters the international greeting of goodwill: "God, I hope you speak English."

Turns out that this guy- Josh, from here on in- is an Australian teaching for the Nova program (a private language-learning shop in town) and that he arrived in Japan TODAY. Just got off the plane in Osaka this morning. Brand new. There is now officially a Gaijin in Japan newer at this than I am. Now, he's studied the language for five years. He's definitely better-qualified in the teaching department. But we're all in this together- there are few enough foreigners that establishing a communications network just seems like a good idea. So we chat for awhile, swap "business cards" (in fact, our respective McD's and KFC reciepts with our contact info on the backs) and wish each other luck.

On the way home, I stop at the 7-11 for some snackyfoods. The Big Mac has awakened the slumbering glutton within. So now, we get a Wierd Japanese Snackyfood Review (I am TOTALLY doing more of these in the future):

Peanuts Bread: It's a PB&J sandwich sans both the J and the crusts, pressformed into two little pockets. The label reads (in english): "This snack contains peanut butter made from peanuts of good quality. You can enjoy it as it is or after toasting it light."

I enjoyed it as it is- toasting it light seemed a bit too complicated for me. The peanut butter is slightly sweet, like in a Reeses' cup, and creamy rather than crunchy. Drat. This is strange, because things in Japan A) are usually less sweet than their stateside counterparts and B) usually have this strange fruity aftertaste that tastes a lot like the entire country smells. It's not a bad smell, anymore. It was pretty rough at first... it's kind of a cloying, sweet, fruity smell, that is nearly toxic in big doses. Big Doses usually happen when there's any amount of upturned earth. I personally think this is just how this island smells, and that smell permeates EVERYTHING, especially the food and drink. But this dubiously-described peanut snackwich has evaded the fruity aftertaste.

Final Grade: B. Coulda been an A with chunky peanut butter or more substantial bread.


The Internets Arrive!

With them, a post- as promised.

I've been gifted with access to the internet from my very own home, so these updates will become a) much more frequent and b) much more dense than the sweeping summaries I've been tossing out lately. With any luck, my ASDL modem will arrive soon, and I can stop using this slow dialup connection.

But enough about me. More about Japan:

Should the Japanese people as a whole increase their average height by about a foot, we in the West would do well to watch out for our basketball trophies. These guys are AWESOME. I went to the basketball practice thinking what anyone else would think: Japanese Basketball. You're Kidding, Right? But no- I am astounded. The Kusatsu Gulls run their club like a pro team- synchonized drills, mechanical efficiency, and a complete and total absolution of the concept of "self". There are no ballhogs on a Japanese basketball team- it would be unthinkable. The good of the team is REALLY all that matters. They're great sports, and they put up with my horribly bumbling hoop skills with remarkable grace and aplomb. The biggest round of applause of the night was for my sole scoring opportunity- a layup that would make any REAL athlete blush and chuckle. But in between handing me my butt on a platter, they made time to teach me some more "street Japanese", and a good time was had by all. They are an amazing group, skills-wise. All I was on the court for was to look big and rebound stuff.

So the next day, there's this huge Omatsuri (festival) in Otsu, a famous little city on the shores of Lake Biwa. Lake Biwa is our Great Lake here in Shiga- it's freakin' huge, largest lake in Japan- and it's completely surrounded by mountains. Over the mountains to the west lies the city of Kyoto. Now that I've bored you with a quick geography lesson: It was beautiful. I have to go back when I get a camera (the 26th is my Foreigner ID Card Day, and I'm gonna get one of these cool 5 megapixel camera/cellphone/internet browser/size of a business card deals) and take pictures of EVERYTHING- the lake, sitting in what amounts to be a HUGE valley, is a heck of a sight. The festival was a Latin American Culture Fest- evidently, there's a huge Peruvian/Brazilian population that comes to Shiga to work in the factories and make a ridiculous amount of money doing so- and so all the tents and booths were serving food that neither I nor the Japanese people I was hanging out with really knew anything about. I went with a girl from my Japanese class- she's an instructor, don't get any ideas, Audience- and she showed me around, was my translator for the day (kinda- she doesn't speak much English, but she's REALLY patient and knows enough to fill in the gaps) and did me the biggest A Plus Number One Favor someone can do for someone else in Japan- she put me to work.

Allow me to explain. Japanese culture is a series of nested in-groups. Everything you do, you do with a group, and that group helps to introduce you to other groups and give you a context for social interaction. When she put me to work behind the counter of the Peruvian booth that she and her friends were working at, she in-grouped me, and as such I was included in all the activities for the day, and treated pretty much like everybody else. Work is the great equalizer. I met a bunch of cool collegiates from Ritsumekan University (say it five times fast, I dare you) in Kyoto, met one Australian, and a guy from Denver. All in all, a very productive day. And the food was AWESOME- if any of you have the chance to go to a Brazilian restaurant, JUMP AT THE CHANCE.

At no less than five times throughout the day, festival staff with clipboards and the Gaikokujin Survey (What the Heck are you Doing Here, Foreigner) rushed up and wanted to interview me. The first time (pre-Work), everybody gave me the "You're On Your Own, Buddy" look, and I answered all the questions in broken Japanese and slow, halting English. The creole that these two languages forms is pretty much my operational language here in Japan. Every time after that, the Peruvian Tent Crew (all Japanese) jumped to my aid (these guys take just about everything REALLY SERIOUSLY) and intercepted the survey folks, talking a mile a minute and pushing (yes, literally, pushing- it was awesome) them away.

Japanese Culture Note Number Whatever: Whenever you go into a store, whenever you enter a restaurant, whenever you pass by anyone selling ANYTHING, you are met with a loud and enthusiastic "IRRASHAIMASE!". It translates roughly into "Welcome, Honored Customer!", and it's answered on your part by COMPLETELY IGNORING THE GREETING. Weird, eh? I've asked at least ten people, and they all say to just ignore it- that's the way it goes.

So since I'm huge, and I can't fit UNDER the tent to sell the Peruvian food (yeah, it was about six feet tall...), the Crew puts me to work as the Irrashaimase guy. So I'm quiet- the whole phenomenon is a little strange to me, as when I walk into Best Buy I don't expect a loud and hearty hello, and I certainly don't expect to have to act as if it never happened.

Don't be quiet, if you're the Irrashaimase guy. Evidently, it's pretty rude.

So after some cultural correction, I put my Gaijin Lungs to good use, and was the loudest Irrashaimase Guy in our plaza. This prompted laughter- and increased sales.

So with the Matsuri over, the next day (Monday) was Respect the Elderly Day. I can't say I did a whole lot of elderly-respecting, as I didn't manage to see many truly old folks. They all visit their families, as I hear. I did stand up on the train for one- score points for Western-style politeness, and befuddled looks from most the occupants of the train. Later that night, I got to go to a Jet Party. I'm not a JET- Japanese English Teacher- but the Michigan Jet Posse is a bunch of cool folks, so they pulled me along. From this party, two lessons:

1. The Japanese LOVE the Carpenters. I couldn't name a Carpenters song if I tried, but they're HUGE over here. Yes, still huge. Yes, they're ancient.

2. There is nothing more wonderfully surreal than sitting on the floor of a Japanese apartment eating Italian food and listening to the host's collection of American music. Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, fine and good- classics- but listening to Motown music roughly thirteen thousand miles east of Motown?


This week of classes- if you can call three days a "week", as Friday's the Autumnal Equinox- is absolute cake. All of the lessons have been planned, they're all staggered in classes that I've already taught, everything is rolling along nicely. Plus, the boss took me out drinking last night to a traditional Japanese establishment- despite all my protestations, he footed the bill- and that was a HOOT. These guys can really pack it away- and the food was amazing. It was all regional fare- specific to Shiga, as I understand it- salted and smoked fish rather than fresh, as we are a landlocked mountain-surrounded prefecture, and it takes time to ship seafood in- delicious grilled chicken (this one's universal, it's called Yakitori and it's the Bar Food of Choice for Japan), Tonpo (fried chicken... kinda) and all manner of tasty stuff. Interesting phenomenon- once you get inside the bar, the built-in politeness protection of the langugage VANISHES. Japanese has politeness levels- formats of the language that automatically connotate respect and distance. In the bar, there are no politeness levels. Everything is spoken in the fastest, plainest form possible, and slang runs RAMPANT. I had NO IDEA what was being said most the time, but it's rare that I get to hear unedited "Real Japanese". It was great. To top it off, my boss keeps little notebooks FULL of American slang, and every time something new comes up he pulls it out of his pocket and writes it down. Over the years, he has accumulated what amounts to a handwritten slang dictionary that is eerily comprehensive.

Yeah, the full reality of that just kicked in. He writes down EVERYTHING YOU SAY, so he can use it later. I'm impressed.

Today, in one of the Problem Classes, a kid wasn't paying any attention- loud, obnoxious, laying across the tops of a group of desks- and the innocent little girl next to him (this was a class of seventh graders) looked up at me, put her hands into Kancho Position, and said: "You should Kancho him." I couldn't believe it. I was dumbfounded. I guess she didn't think I understood, so she said it again. "Kancho. Like this," pointing her fingers at the unsuspecting boy. I stepped between them- this kid OWES ME, I just saved his butt, and he doesn't even know it- and the girl looked more disappointed than I have ever seen anyone look in my life.

More later- but that brings everybody up to speed on the big stuff. I'm sure there's stuff I'm forgetting, but that can go in later. Yay for the internets.

This post brought to you by Kansai Dialect: The Japanese That People Really Speak, Not What I Learned In Class.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Internet is on it's way- thank god.

I'm posting from a Japanese cyber-cafe in the basement of a multi-alley shopping district (old-style excuse for a shopping mall) on a Japanese keyboard (these are weird- where are all the keys) in the middle of the night, so pardon any mistakes.

Blog Update: Long Time Coming

This one’s going to be epic. While I alternate between wardriving (warbiking? I’ll get to that later) for access points in this remote Japanese town with my PSP and patiently awaiting the Magic Internet Man, I’ve been keeping journal entries offline. So now that I have a way to tell you all this cool stuff, here it comes.

I finally touched down at Osaka Airport at about 7:40 local time, as my flight out from America was delayed about an hour. Get this- the air conditioner failed. So they spent half an hour with all of the passengers slow-cooking inside while they diagnosed the problem, and then they ushered us all off so they could fix it. Tack on another fifteen minutes to get us all back on the plane and squared away, and we were off. On the plane I made the acquaintance of a young gentleman named Shota and his entourage of fellow exchange students, with whom I had the privilege of sharing a seating row on the airplane. Shota was coming back to Osaka after spending the summer studying in Lansing, as part of the Japan Diet Exchange (Diet as in governmental body, rather than weight-loss method), and he regaled me with stories of “Crazy Americans” and pictures of the same on his business-card sized camera. Note to self: Gotta get me one of those.

Around the tenth hour of our 14-hour flight, I introduced Shota to American music. He replied in kind. We killed perhaps two hours flipping through each other’s MP3 collections. Previously, we had alternated between sleep, English Practice, Japanese Practice, and bilingual commentary on how much the in-flight movie sucked. Some things are universal.

So I touch down, to get back to where I started, at about 7:40. After the most painless customs check I’ve ever experienced- they neither checked my bags nor asked any questions, nor charged my any money for the items I declared- I stumbled into the Arrivals area to find my coordinator, Naomi Okamura, awaiting me with a little typed “Andrew Moll” sign.

A quick aside (one of many to come): Naomi had better be getting paid BANK for this job. She’s been the most helpful human being in the world, from picking me up at the airport to ferrying me around town to find a bike to fit my gargantuan frame (later, I promise) to ensuring that everything I could ever need is readily at hand, she’s been a huge help. She’s a translator, a go-between, an advisor, a friend- heck, she did my freakin’ taxes. Not to mention the fact that she’s throwing me a party tomorrow night. I’ll post how that goes, don’t worry. If she wasn’t married, and it wouldn’t violate eight million cultural mores, I’d give her a big ol’ hug.

So there she is, and after the first of many misunderstandings we sort out that I am in fact Andrew Moll, and that my upraised hand-gesture was a wave of “Hi! I’m the big ol’ foreigner you’re looking for!” and not a wave of “Excuse me, but I’m not the big ol’ foreigner you seek.” With that international incident defused, we proceed to lug my bags (why did I think packing all this stuff was a good idea…) to the train station, and down a set of stairs to the platform. Culture Note #1: At terminal platforms (at either end of the line), Japanese trains stop for twenty-odd minutes for cleaning. Little man goes in, sign goes up, and you stand outside until he’s absolutely sure that the Queen Mum (should she deign to visit) will be perfectly comfortable eating off the floor of the train.

He’s sure after about ten minutes, and we get on board the train and ride to Kyoto. That’s about an hour- long enough for me to figure out how little Japanese I actually know and how much English Naomi can pull off. This sets the tone for our interactions henceforth- we each stumble in each other’s language until the other says “No, it’s okay, you can use _____________” at which point we look relieved and default to our strong suit.
At Kyoto station, it’s off the train and down the platform, up a set of stairs, down a set of stairs and to the end of another platform- all with my bags, which weigh a combined total of one hundred fifty pounds. From Kyoto, we ride out to Tehara station (the closest one to Ritto on the express line), where a bunch of members of the Board of Education (and my new best friends) are waiting with a van to take me to my house.

Not apartment. Not condo. Nor lean-to nor time-share or any other hyphenated word. House. In Japanese, Uchi. A big one, too- five rooms covered in tatami (traditional Japanese bamboo floors- these rooms are dining, living, and bedrooms all in one, as the furniture all moves and there are futon mattresses in all the closets), four rooms in hardwood, one kitchen, a shower room, and a bathroom. I mention shower room and bathroom separately because this house, being traditionally styled, keeps the two functions from commingling. There are even slippers (gratis!) which you must wear into the bathroom that CANNOT, for fear of bringing shame upon your family and ancestors, be worn anywhere else. But I digress, as always.

My bosses at the Board of Ed take me to my house, and where anyone else might just say “All right, Andoryu (their best shot at my name), have a good sleep. See you in the morning” these folks take me inside, show me around, and proceed to assemble my futon for me to show me how it’s done. This is a complicated procedure- sheets go on a mattress, sheets around a comforter, the whole assembly on a base mattress and a pillow on top- and watching my BOSSES put the whole thing together while Naomi ensures that I am unable to assist (“No, that’s perfectly all right, they’ll take care of it.”) was comedy GOLD. They gave it their all, Naomi literally blocked my path, and I stood, an exhausted and defeated man.

After carefully assembling the futon, my employers took their leave. I took a nap.

The next day is a bit of a blur. I’m still not quite sure what order things happened, but it certainly happened quickly. I went to City Hall in the morning, registered for my all-important Gaikokujin Toroku Shomeisho (Foreigner Identification Card), for which I will wait until the end of September, and then I entered the Gauntlet of Introduction. Naomi introduced me to the Board of Education, the Education Committee members, the Mayor of Ritto, the Superintendent, and reintroduced me to my employers- some of the coolest people I’ve met, and a few of them speak the kind of English you only get in old badly-translated Akira Kurosawa samurai flicks. Then we went for a little walk to meet the leader of my neighborhood association (a really big deal, though I didn’t know it at the time) at his house, but he wasn’t home. Finally, it was off to show me around the city a little, showing me the all-important 7-11, Arka Drug, and Heiwado Supermarket, which form a Trinity of Shopping at three key intersections in town. Each is not only a place where you can buy your necessaries, but essential landmarks- as there are no street signs. They don’t name their streets in Japan, unless that street is famous enough to have a nickname. The streets in town don’t (they’re just “The street that follows the river next to Heiwado” or “The street next to City Hall”), but there’s a street outside the city that runs along a bunch of melon farms that is called, unsurprisingly, Melon Road.

That done, we called it a day. I slept like a rock until exactly 2:18 AM, at which point I was wide awake for the remainder of the day. So I putzed around the house, investigated, and got all unpacked and moved in, and took a little nap that kept me zonked out ‘till six. Bright and early 8:00 A.M., Naomi and …-sensei walk me over to Ritto Middle School, the first of my three assignments. It’s Opening Day. Opening Day at Japanese schools is a big deal, and my schedule went about like this:

8:00am: Walk to Ritto Middle School. Upon entering, remove shoes. Put on size 2 school-issue blue leather slippers. My feet are size 13. I am too big for this country.
8:05am: Meeting With the Principal (nice guy, pretty good English)
8:15am: Introduction to the Staff (My stumbling two-sentence introduction is no doubt the worst they’ve ever seen… after I was done, there was a collective expectant look, like “That’s it? More!” before their tentative applause)
8:30: Homeroom Time- I sit in the Teacher’s Office, at my desk, and pore through the pile of advice the previous teacher left for me.
9:00: Opening Ceremonies Begin! There’s a huge speech in the gym/auditorium (all the students sit on the floor in rows by class.)

A quick note about Japanese Classes: Students never leave their homerooms, and teachers run from class to class to teach their subjects in a bizarre parody of American schooling. As such, you and your class all take the same courses, together. There’s a lot of “group help” involved- we in America call it “cheating”. Each class is numbered according to grade level and classroom number- so if you’re in 2-3, you’re a second grader (eighth grade, as elementary school is six grades, middle is three, and highschool is three) and in classroom 3 for the year. Capice? All right.

So back to opening ceremonies. I walk into the gym, and everyone- all the students, all the teachers- are standing in obedient rows talking quietly. The principal and vice-principal lead me in, and have me stand near a microphone offstage to the right. “Oh, good.” I think. “I can do my speech from here, and not shuffle-walk in these damn tiny slippers up those stairs onto the stage.” The Vice Principal, whose name is Mr. Uno (“Mr Number One, if you forget!) speaks first, for about two minutes. The Principal speaks for a good seven minutes, and almost none of it I understand save the repetition, like a mantra, of Ganbatte kudasai, which means something in the general geographic region of “Good Luck and Try Hard, please.” It loses a certain gusto in the translation.
Then I am afforded the honor to talk, and I’m herded (Oh, god, please, no) up onto the stage (nearly lose a slipper, comedy potential is high) across what seems to be miles of stage floor and finally to the podium. I grip it like a drowning man grips driftwood.

My speech is, in comparison to the poetic eddas of my predecessors, barely long enough to qualify as anything more than an interjection. The kids- hundreds of identically dressed smiling faces- are one big intimidating, welcoming sea. Whispers of Japanese that I’m half-glad I don’t understand bounce around the audience. I exhaust my working Japanese vocabulary introducing myself, telling them how glad I am to be working with them, et cet, receive a wave of applause (ya didn’t screw up, kid!) and shuffle offstage. After a few short hellos among the staff and teachers, I bounce back to city hall to Naomi, to go buy a bike.

We take a city car. Cars here are the strangest things in the world. All of them are little tiny high-efficiency boxes, and if you own a tiny enough box you qualify for a special yellow license plate that means you don’t pay some big-car tax. The city car is a yellow-plate car, and as such is about the size of my kitchen table. My kitchen table seats two and has four-wheel drive, it seems.

The steering wheels are on the right, you drive on the left, and it’s all quite disorienting. Though Naomi isn’t used to this car, I’m infinitely thankful that she’s driving. Streets jump out at odd angles, and at one point she decisively careens across two lanes of oncoming traffic to shoot into a tunnel under a crossing highway. TAKE NOTE, KIDS. THE CRAZY DRIVING VIDEO GAMES ARE REAL. The first store we go to in the Quest for the Bicycle has nothing large enough for me. Naomi and the shopkeep converse, determine that no stores in the area have anything I’m looking for, and he refers her to a big-box store called Dio World that might be able to help me out.

Dio World is like a Japanese Costco. It’s huge, everything in it is huge, and it juts from the landscape of tiny shops and little houses like it just dropped out of the sky and crushed everything underneath. I don’t really think it’s even the sheer size that’s impressive- it’s the relative difference between it and everything around it.

Inside, we find that this Dio World carries a line of bikes that can help me. It’s the same as in the states- they’ve got Giants. The bike technician thinks this is hilarious- he’s going to sell a giant a Giant. Ha ha.

The bike gets wedged into the tiny subcompact efficiency cube, and away we go. Success.

Tomorrow, Friday, is my first day of class.

Friday morning, up and at ‘em, 8:00 AM off to Ritto Middle School. I sit through the overwhelmingly Japanese morning meeting, and proceed to sit and ensure that the desk doesn’t go anywhere for four hours. I have no classes, they have nothing for me to do. Cool.
They only serve school lunch three out of five days, and I haven’t yet figured out which three days they are. The other two days are “Obento Days”, where the teachers each pay 310 yen to get a bento box lunch- rice, main course, two side dishes, all in a box about the size of two computer keyboards stacked on top of each other. That’s about three dollars for a lunch that you’ll have trouble finishing. And it’s VERY JAPANESE. Not cool with fish? Moreover, not cool with RAW fish and dried octopus? The squeamish need not apply. The school lunches are tamer- they involve bread in there, and potatoes- but they’re all homecooked. Nothing microwaved, nothing heatlamped. The cooks prepare it, the students serve it on big trays. The students eat in their classrooms, and we eat in the Teacher’s Office, which if I haven’t explained by now I probably ought to.

These people LOVE hierarchy. Can’t get enough of it. The teacher’s office is adjacent to the principal’s office, and the three desks closest to the door between the two are for the Vice Principal, a Senior Teacher, and the VP’s Assistant. Then, the desks in the teacher’s office are arranged in rows by what grade level the teachers teach. I’m in the 1st-year row, on the very end. There are blackboards at the end of the rows with schedules on them for that class level. Each row has a row leader, and also each department has a head teacher. So there are, at any given time, four bosses you need to answer to: Your department head, your row leader, your Senior Teacher, and your Vice Principal.

Lunch is delicious, but uneventful. There aren’t any classes to teach after lunch, so I sit and wait until 5:15 when the boss tells me I can go home.

I spent the rest of Friday bouncing back from the jet lag. For dinner, I made some curry and some rice- both of which I screwed up cosmically. I think I cooked the rice in with some plastic, as it came out laminated. The curry… I either over or undercooked the tofu, and I definitely undercooked the mushrooms. It rocked me like a hurricane.

Saturday (after recovery), I rode my bike out to route 1 and did some exploring. I went all the way to Otsu (a famous sightseeing town, lots of temples), and on my way back stopped in Kusatsu, a neighboring city. Here, I found the Foreigner Central Station- my rock, my savior, some little chunk of America to cling to, where the menu boards are all in katakana (the foreign phonetic alphabet)- the Starbucks.

Met a guy named Jacob there, a grad student who clued me in on cheap weekly Japanese lessons at the Kusatsu city call. Followed him there, met some Michiganders and a bunch of foreigners from all over. They moved in packs, these guys. Interesting group dynamic: Each group of foreigners tended to mob up with others who spoke his or her language. Americans and Brits and Aussies, together. Indians, together. In the words of my erstwhile Kansas friend Jacob: “There are a TON of Peruvians here for the factories, and they roll together. And the Bengali… the Bengali are TIGHT, man.” He’s been here a little too long.

######## That was one heck of a week of classes. I'm alternately amazed at how much these kids know and apalled at how little they care. It's just like American middle school, except there's a much greater dichotomy between the kids that act out and the kids that don't. Most of these guys go through an entire day without speaking- and there's a scant few who go through a day without a moment of silence. It's an exercise in extremes. More than once I have felt the oncoming appproach of Kancho (those of you who know, know, those of you who don't need to learn the Urban Dictionary- that's all I'm gonna say) simply by the lull in loud, angry chatter.


Last night, Naomi threw me my first Japanese enkai. It’s a party, but it’s also a ceremony. There are set places and arrangements of seating, nobody pours their own drink, there’s a lot of sushi and pizza and snackyfoods. The bigshots from the Board of Education came, and we all sat on the floor in my living room traditional-style. The Director General gave me a gift- a tie pin with an image of the stone Buddhas that are in a shrine here in Ritto that have evidently been here since the beginning of time. Everyone was very impressed- seems it’s a big deal. Matsumoto-sensei, another Board of Education member, gave me three bottles of wine (white, red, and rose) pressed from grapes grown in Shiga Prefecture- Michigan’s sister Prefecture. Again, much applause. The thing about these enkais is that they’re essentially an excuse to get everyone together and get the beer and sake flowing, so that higher-ups don’t have to act like higher-ups and people further down the hierarchy (read: Me) get to talk with them like people, rather than employees. They asked about American slang, and onomatopoeia, and just generally acted like any other group of normal human beings. It was fun- and the leftovers will feed me for a week.

Sidenote: The stuff they put on pizza here is criminal. Potatoes, I understand. Very California Pizza Kitchen. But corn? Eggplant? Squid ink?!


Today: Sunday, September 11th, 2005. Election Day, here in Old Japan, which means as little to me as it does to you, the reader. Being Gaijin, I am not privy to the Japanese voting system. Thank God. Rather than standing in a long line to vote for someone I know little to nothing about (as it is with all elections), I had a very productive day to make up for yesterday’s Big Nothing (also known as Classic Social Gaffes for 100, Alex) in which I successfully screwed up an invitation to a party full of people with whom I could speak English quickly and fluently. There was a Gaijin Bash, and I missed out for reasons that are still unbeknownst to me. You ever have one of those moments where someone asks if you want to do something, and your brain says YES YES YES GO and your mouth says “Nah, that’s all right.”…? I do. All the time.

But today! Today was different. Today, I started with a good-karma binge by filling out my thank-you cards for the people who attended my Enkai, and then I went and indulged in some retail therapy. I bought one of those Sharp Papyrus E-Dictionaries- the kind that have 90-odd dictionaries crammed into one four-inch by five-inch folding square, that every Japanese person worth his salt carries EVERYWHERE. For some odd reason, I had previously missed the boat on these awesome little minicomputers. Sure, they provide at-your-fingertips translation at a fraction of the time it takes to look it up on paper. Sure, they house rooms full of knowledge in the same space it would otherwise take to carry a small stack of 3x5 cards. Why the heck would I want one of those!?!

Because they’re awesome. This thing is nuts- and it provides two very important things aside from translation. One- and this is big- is Confidence. Now, I can walk into a Japanese restaurant- and if I don’t know what the heck that thing on the menu is, I can look it up without lugging out a big ol’ dictionary and giving away the ghost. The second- and perhaps the more useful of the two- is that it provides me with something to mess around with when I want to be available in a public space. I have long envied smokers for their ability to loiter anywhere they want and have the handy excuse of a cigarette to justify their presence. This little dictionary is much the same, except it doesn’t involve all that cancer. I can plop down in a coffee shop, grab a drink, and tap away at my electronic dictionary so that it appears that I’m engrossed in work, allowing me to discreetly people-watch without that creepy “That guy’s been here for hours staring at nothing” vibe. This has already proven it’s usefulness- I’ll explain later.

After buying my E-Jisho (dictionary), I decided to do something different with my Sunday afternoon. So I bought a five-dollar train ticket to Kyoto, and went exploring.

I had underestimated Kyoto. The place is huge. Hello, Chicago. Hello, subway system. Hello, biggest Buddhist temple complex in Japan- I got to see a service, it was freakin’ awesome. The monks sang- though I didn’t understand- there were bells, and gold, and a giant room full of people wheeling through rosaries like Judgment Day was tomorrow. The temples are great- I’ll put up pictures when I go back with a camera- and everything is so ridiculously impressive that I lack the vocabulary to appropriately describe it. Everything’s got so much… history. It’s just… wow.

I had dinner in Kyoto, another indescribable culinary experience (the brain says “It’s raw fish! What the heck is wrong with you?!” but the tastebuds refuse to listen), and rode the train back to Kusatsu station. I then proceeded to put the E-Jisho to the test, and sat down to loiter in Starbucks.

My mother always tells me- a little fatalistically, a little optimistically- that everything happens for a reason. Go with it, and things tend to just work out on their own. I was feeling a little bummed that I didn’t know anyone in Japan yet, and so a solution fell from the sky. Well- from the Air. About five minutes into my loiterathon, a Japanese guy sits down next to me and leans over. “Excuse- do you English?” he says. “Of course.” I reply, in one language and then another. He proceeds to introduce himself as Tanaka- call me “Air T,” he says, pointing to his shoes. He’s sporting a pair of Air Jordans. He’s a basketball coach, and the owner of a sporting goods store in town. He coaches a team of young people in the area- among which, there are a couple of English Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs, in the common jargon), and he wants to know if I want to come hang out on Friday, shoot some hoops. I explain that I am unable to buy a bucket even should someone front the cash for me, and he assures me that that won’t be a problem. They’re not serious- they just like to play, and he prides himself on gathering up English speakers and making sure they have in-roads to Japanese culture- so he can practice his English. He admits it’s self-serving… his store gets to sponsor the tallest team in town, and he gets to learn English for free. But it sounds like a good time, so Friday’s my first practice with the team.


Today, had my first “Special” class. Got a warning from the teacher on the way in- “Have you seen Lainman?” Me: “What?” Her: “L-A-I-N-M-A-N.”

Pause for R-L distinction. Oh. Right. Rainman. Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise. “Oh- yes, yes. Sorry.” She smiled, shook her head. “He’s just like that.”

And damn, this kid was. Special classes here are taught one-on-one; or in this case, two-on-one, and this guy got the best English instruction in the whole school for what appears to be the special need of having a lightning-fast brain crammed in a normal-speed body, a slight stutter, and an intimate knowledge of the calendar (“Your birthday. When?” (answer) “You were born on a Wednesday.”) that somehow qualifies him to be in the Special Ed segment. In America, we’d probably have put this one in a gifted class.

Little things give him away- his shirt’s tucked in a bit too high, he ducks his head like a bird every so often- but otherwise, he’s for all appearances a brilliant kid for the first twenty seconds you talk to him. Then, the hyperactivity, the repetition, the depth of the autism become apparent. He loves video games. He told me this nine thousand times. But I can’t help but be charmed, because he still kicks my butt as far as knowing Japanese. It is a humbling experience, to know that someone the government has slotted away as Developmentally Disabled due to the fact that he is unable to interface with society can still get along more easily than you can.


So here I am, a few days later in this basement/alleyway/underground shopping district below the main shopping district of Kusatsu. It's pretty cool, but the shop (Manga Paradise) is all kinds of dirty, and I'd never have found it if not for a sign at Kusatsu station advertising internet service. Today, Naomi and I sat down and ordered my internet service from THE TELEPHONE COMPANY- NTT. It's like a big, benevolent Bell- a monopoly that uses its power for good- and for goodly keeping the Gaijin down. I say Naomi and I sat down and ordered it, but it's more like Naomi did all the talking and I bopped on the phone to say *Yeah, it's Andrew. Yes, for the love of God I approve of the internet coming to grace my doorstep. Thank you. Thank you.*

Also got my Hanko stamp and everything today. It's your Signature replacement here in Japan- a little stamp with your name in it that you use to sign official documents and stamp your bankbook. You also use it to recieve mail- yay for mail- and all that. With any luck, when the Internet comes, I'll have this thing at the ready to greet it. Only a week and a half until my Gaijin Toroku Shomeisho shows up, and I get to rejoin the information age in a big way- cell phone plus internet means ALWAYS CONNECTED, as opposed to now, when I'm NEVER CONNECTED. I'll be coming back to this internet access hole in a few days- it's kinda expensive- and I'll have another post ready when I do. I'll also be checking for comments- please, let me know you're out there, world.

I go to Otsu Sunday, to see that festival- I'll bring back a full report.

Today at School: Taught four classes- two third-year, one first-year and one Special Ed. During lunchbreak, we watched the 1997 Bulls Vs. Jazz NBA Championship- that was freaking surreal. Here I am, surrounded by middleschool kids, watching a game that was on while I was in middle school half a world away, played in my home country. What. The. Heck. Is. Going. On.

Oh- and yesterday was that Sports Festival- all kinds of crazy fun. I'm PAINFULLY sunburned, but it was worth it- those kids put on one heck of a thing. Japanese gymnastics teams are NO JOKE. Nor is Kendo- in the hot sun, in the middle of the day, beating the crap out of each other in those heavy suits of armor... I don't want to meet any of my students in a dark alleyway. At the sportsfest, I broke up my first fight. I feel so teacherly- and it helps when you're the biggest human being in eight counties. Nobody feels the need to keep scrabbling when OH GOD HERE COMES THE GAIJIN.

My timeclock's almost up- I'll see you when next I can find access.

This transmission has been brought to you by the letters R and L. They are different. Treasure them.