Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Love Letter to Nino

Just got back from the ACLU conference in Washington, D.C. I will make no political statements on this blog, but I must share with you an awesome occurrence:

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia came to the conference. I've got nothing but respect for this man, no matter how strange his rulings, no matter how off-the-wall his conclusions. He's a genius.

So when I heard he was going to debate Nadine Strossen on Sunday night, I was, of course, thrilled. Geeky thrill morphed into mild surprise when they decided that they were going to be on a first-name basis for the duration of the debate. Mild surprise turned into jaw-dropping shock when I found out that "first name basis" meant that Nadine would be spending the evening calling him "Nino."

Nino. The man whose opinions pop up in my casebooks with a regularity usually reserved for clocks and celestial bodies, Senior Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia... Nino.
Antonin "Your Living Constitution is Bunk" Scalia was this weekend reduced to two syllables and suddenly made human.

Well, the name half did it. The other half was his patent admission that a bunch of rich old lawyers sitting in a panel is a ridiculous court of last resort for our country. But hey, that's for another time.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Long Train Running

So I'm not really still stuck in Denver.

It's much less interesting than that. I'm back from my Grand Japan Adventure, I spent a month procrastinating and not wanting to tell you all that it was over, and now I've run clean out of excuses. I'll post the pictures from Korea as soon as I receive them- I'm still waiting on those- but in the meantime:

I'm now enrolled in the University of Michigan School of Law. Took my first classes yesterday, and I've got maybe ten minutes right now to get a blog post off before going back into the books and continuing to slavishly cram legal information into my skull. Law school is hard, and weird, and fun, and very, very different from anything I've done before. Not so interesting to write about, but there you have it. I'll post pictures of this place, too, as soon as I take some- but those of you who are really DYING to see what a law school looks like could just bop over to the official site and poke around.

It's kind of surreal and classy- in a very strange, stepped-back-in-time kind of way. I'm sitting in the lobby right now, tapping away at my laptop, while a classmate practices on the baby grand piano next to me and people out in the quad toss the football around. I keep waiting for them to issue the monocles and brandy snifters, but I don't think that happens until you're a second-year student.


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

D is for Denver!

I'm camped out in Denver, siphoning some stolen power from an unattended walljack and transmitting on the (unsecured! Ha! Information wants to be free!) wireless network. I haven't slept in over 26 hours now, and I don't have any intent to chnage that until I've arrived in Detroit, and found my bed- this being, of course, my genius anti-jetlag plan. I'll be so dead that my body won't know which way is up! Take that, biology!

So it seems I've got some time. My flight boards at 5:55 PM, and it's 4:15 local time. In my head, it's 7:16 AM. I don't know whether I'm gaining a day, losing a day, trading a day, investing it... whatever. What I do know is that I can overhear conversations in English, and it's slowly driving me mad. With Japanese, I could turn off my understanding when I didn't want to listen to people. Korean, I never understood in the first place. But English... I've only heard English when people are talking DIRECTLY TO ME over this past year, which makes incidental encounters of my mother tongue somewhat distracting/disturbing/terrifying. It's as if everyone in the world is talking to me, and I've got little to nothing to say to them beyond "coffee".

I had meant to use this time to post all the pictures from my Korea trip. The connection is just fast enough to let me surf, but keeps timing out on the photos. I'll have to put them up later.

Hello from the Mile-High City. Whoo hoo. The airport, she is exciting.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Airport Report: 38th Parallel

All right, so it's been awhile. Internet access, once they shut the tap off at my house, was sporadic (in the sense that sporadic means nonexistent) and I've not had a chance to update.

In short:

I finished my work at the last school, had a few teary goodbyes, and gave yet another speech in front of the student body and assembled parents. There was much crying, and clapping, and bowing, and handshakes by all parties. The students (bow) presented me with a boquet of flowers (bow), two of my elective-subject English kids gave a cute little speech (first in English, then in Japanese) about never forgetting me, having had a lot of fun, and other things tailor-made to make a man break down and cry.

Had a sayonara enkai (Japanese for "big drinking party") with the Board of Education- I've got some pictures that I can upload from all of that later- and was given a pile of gifts that strain my carryon bag as we speak. Afterwards, "Mike"1 took me out for a drink at his favorite nomiya (drinkin' house), just like he did after my welcome enkai. Rounded out the experience quite nicely. The next few days were spent frantically cramming a house into boxes bound for the post office. Those of you who might be, in the future, planning on shipping things from Japan: Don't wait until the last minute. Sea mail departing Japan is quite reasonable, but takes a month. Airmail triples the cost. Express is like having someone take all your money and burn it in neat piles on the countertop.

Once all that was taken care of, I spent a beautiful last night in Kyoto setting fireworks off on the Kamogawa with the Foreign Legion. The next morning, 5:45 AM, "Mike" was kind enough to pick me up at my house and drive me over to the train station to wait for the first train. I watched my last sunrise in Japan filter gently through the smoke of Mike's cigarettes.

So then, Korea. Korea's a bit of work to blog without pictures; I'll give a preview. Korea is an extremely enthusiastic Japan. It's big, it's bright, it's colorful, and it's got something to prove. Where Japan will let a UNESCO World Heritage site sneak up on you unnanounced (right next to the Pachinko parlor, two doors down from the convenience store) everything here is lit up in neon and declares itself to be the absolute best in the world of whatever the heck it is. To be fair, they boast a few "biggest"s that do make the record books. They've got the biggest indoor amusement park in the world (Lotte World), the biggest flagpole and flag in the world ("Propaganda Village", North Korea), some really big gates and throne rooms. But really, it's Japan with kimchi, some more Western culture, and a decorator's eye towards extreme color. All the somber red-cedar temples and gates of Japan are, here, painted in greens, blues, whites, oranges- every color of the rainbow. The stately imperial brocades which are, in Japan, single-tone colors in muted shades, are Josephian coats of many colors. And the kimchi. Oh, god, the kimchi. It's delicious, but the smell permeates Korea like the odd, fleeting smell of fructose wafts through Japan. I can't wait to get home, and find out what my country smells like.

Best part of the South Korean trip (and it was all awesome- I went to this old, busted-up amusement park yesterday and tempted death on rollercoasters that looked as if they'd last been serviced before the Cold War- speaking of the Cold War:) was when we took a tour north, to Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area. The JSA sits on the North Korea-South Korea border in the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). It's surreal. Armed guards in twin buildings sit all day staring at each other through the gaps between the UN conference rooms. A few of the conference buildings sit right on the line between NK and SK, and in there, I got to step over and spend a few minutes in Communist North Korea. I did not see Kim Jong-Il. I cannot confirm or deny that his ridiculous pompadour is real, rather than a trumped-up construction of Communist propaganda.

So I've got an hour or so before my flight back to the States. We're stopping first in San Francisco, then Denver, and finally, tonight at 11:50 PM, we're landing at home in Detroit. On paper, only ten hours pass between my departure at 1:50 and my arrival at 11:50. In reality, I've got 22 hours of transit time between now and then. Since I got to the airport (as required) two hours previous for security check, I'll have the exquisite pleasure of spending the next 24 hours in the fuzzy, comfortable haze of international travel. See you all when I hit stateside- I'll re-update this with pictures from my last week in Japan and my Korean Adventures.

Ja... matta, ne.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Sayonara Season

Today's the last day I'll be guaranteed internet access. Tomorrow, on the 20th, they throw the switch and plunge me back into the dark ages, where I'll wallow for a week before I return to the States. I'll make an effort to get to the internet cafe and check my mail every so often, but I'll be severely limited in my ability to write back. Last time I was in a netcafe, they had blocked Gmail entirely.

Last weekend was the Gion Matsuri, the biggest festival in the year in Kyoto. It was a big, three-day party that culminated in a parade Monday morning- which, despite torrential rain, was a heck of a thing to see. Ancient four-story tall floats ridden by flute-and-drum bands dragged by strangely cheery strongmen, maiko and geisha every three feet, music and rain and chaos... it was pretty cool. For fear of destroying my camera, I took no pictures, but a friend who was more intrepid than I managed to snag a few, and I'll put them up as soon as she sends them to me.

School is winding down. Tomorrow is closing ceremonies, where I am expected to make a speech. Today is just sad- everything is "Andrew-sensei's last whatever it is", from my last time teaching a 1st-grade class to "Well, last time you'll climb these stairs, isn't it?" The teachers and students seem to be bound and determined to make this as painful and saccharine as possible. Had a kid ask me yesterday how to say "zettai muri" in English- "Completely Impossible"- just so he could tell me, in my own language, that he wouldn't let me go home. "Andoryu-sensei home go completely impossible." I'm not sure how I'm going to "go impossible", but it was cute at the time.

This may or may not be my last post from Japan- I'm sure I'll get at least one from the airport, and one or two from the hotel in South Korea (not, in retrospect, the wisest vacation plan, given current geopolitics, but whatcha gonna do?), but if I don't...

It's been a heck of a ride. Thanks for coming along.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Demon-Haunted Gate

Marge: Come on, Homer. Japan will be fun! You liked Rashomon.
Homer: That's not how I remember it!

The Simpsons, "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo"

It had to happen eventually. I've got a weakness for Japanese literature, film, and history- and as such anyplace that wraps the three up in one neat, tidy package is a can't-miss site. Even if it is just a post.

You could get the whole story of what the Rajomon is, and why it's important, from those three links above... but here's the short version.

The Rajomon was the old south gate of what used to be called "Heiankyo", the capital city of Japan that we call Kyoto now. It sat at the edge of the great wall that surrounded the city, and was flanked by two temples. One, I've been to before: Toji, the one with the big iconic pagoda. The other one, I'm not so sure exists anymore. The gate itself was a grand thing in the old days. Huge, golden-roofed, and awe-inspiring, it was the main entrance to the city for all travellers coming up from the temple city (and even older ex-capital), Nara. It was really only impressive in the "WOW THAT'S AWESOME" sense for a little while- it quickly became a place that you didn't want to be around at night. All the old folktales and warnings told to children populate the upper part of the gate with demons of all stripes, extending hooks down to snare the unwary. The short story says it was a body dump. This really doesn't make any sense unless you've seen a few big Japanese gates- they're really more like castle gates, with chambers above them. In temples, they usually house a small altar. In secular structures, they're places to post guards, fire arrows, dump oil and generally make things difficult for armies who want in.

This is really what the Rajomon OUGHT to look like,
up there in the distance past the "no vehicles" posts.
For reference, this is the main gate of Nanzenji, a big temple complex on the northeast side of Kyoto, at the beginning of the path yet further north (哲学の道, or the Philosopher's Walk) that leads to Ginkakuji (銀閣寺), the Silver Temple.

But the gate went bad- the reputation for demons, dead bodies, and strange disappearances aside, the city went and grew beyond the gate, and it was allowed to fall to ruin. There's nothing there now- just this post. So I got a map, and asked around, and found it. It's not too hard to find- it's on a corner between the old main street and one of the new main streets. Those of you planning a trip to Japan, it's a little behind the intersection of Senbon-doori and Kujo street.

It's a kid's park now. No demons, but there was this old lady walking her dog who thought I was a bit funny in the head to be hunting down a concrete post, but whatever. I hear there's a reconstruction of the North Gate, the Suzakumon, which might give me a better idea of what this thing looked like exactly... sans the see-saws.


From the Picture Collection: Let's Enjoy Sign Extravaganza!
Hint: "Men" means "Noodles". Like "raMEN". No, that doesn't really help, does it?

We offer intelligence, excitement and infinite dream.
Or coffee and stale toast.

Text at bottom: I work hard to make sweets up to the present, because I want to see many smiles. I wish my sweets will be the start of your smile.

I cannot make this stuff up.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Time to fess up

So, looks like it's come to be about that time. I've got three weeks left in Japan, every other day brings yet another person looking me gravely in the eyes and saying "Sayounara- if I don't see you ever again, have a good life", and I guess I have to admit both to myself and everyone out there in Blog Land that this story is pretty close to over.

I'll lose internet access on the 20th- so this is the beginning of my ten-day countdown.

Until then, here's what I've been up to recently:

I visited the Shrines at Ise two weeks ago, and I'm still waiting for my copy of the pictures. When I get them, I'll post them here, but until then:

Ise is The Main Shinto Shrine in Japan. It's composed of two shrines, really: the Outer Shrine, housing the goddess of food and industry, and the Inner Shrine, housing the Sun Goddess Herself. The site is so holy that to avoid impurity, they tear down and reconstruct from scratch all of the buildings every twenty years using only traditional no-nails interlocking beam-and-dowel construction, and the relics within are transferred to the brand-new buildings, at which point the old building is torn apart and the wood is given away to lesser shrines, so they can build their torii (shrine gates) out of the holy remains of the shrines.

You also can't actually SEE any of these shrines. They're surrounded by big, multilayered walls to keep the normal folks like you, me, and the general Japanese public far, far away from the holy items. The monks themselves haven't ever seen the holy relic that's enshrined in the Inner Shrine- the Holy Mirror of Amaterasu. They keep that one in a brocade bag, and when one bag starts to wear thin, they just wrap it up in another one. The guidebook snarkily mentions that these layers and layers of cloth wrapping "probably contain a sample of the best brocade work in Japan"- but we'll never, ever see it.

Even though I spent something like six hours on a train getting to and from a bunch of walled-up wooden buildings, the crowds of pilgrims, the cool minor shrines around the edges (hello, Wind God. How are you?) and the thought that the gods ACTUALLY PHYSICALLY LIVE in this place was well worth the whole deal. Very immediate faith, Shinto is... the Sun Goddess has a mailing address.

The next weekend (i.e. last weekend) I went the other direction entirely and saw a crazy-famous Buddhist temple in Uji- the Byodo-in. Byodo-in houses the "Phoenix Hall"- one of the most instantly recognizable temple buildings in Japan, as it's printed on the back of their 10-yen coin. Again, pictures are forthcoming, but in the meantime...

What struck me most about this temple was the fact that it, like almost all of the Buddhist temples in this country, was warm monochromatic brown wood. That's the color scheme, that's the way things go... but this one was old enough that it still showed faded paintings from back when Japanese Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism held the same design aesthetic. The whole place used to be filled with bright, crazy reds, greens, blues, and yellows, intricately painted statues of boddhisatvas, a golden Buddha sitting in the center of the hall... but now, it's just chips of paint embedded in the cedar, faded paintings on giant swinging panel doors, and a golden Buddha-Under-Reconstruction, with black lacquer showing through his layer of gold foil. The halo and pedestal of the big guy were still recieving their tender loving care, so they weren't up on display with the rest- and it gave the temple a very empty, austere, ghostlike feeling. There used to be colors, and music... now, there's just the one big bell, and faded paint exposed directly to the outdoors. The temple rests in the middle of a pond, built on a foundation of smooth stones- it looks like it could be floating- and the two phoenixes on the roof stare at each other quizzically, like they were wondering what the heck happened to the interior design team.

Don't get me wrong- it was beautiful- but it was beautiful in the same way a graveyard can be beautiful. Sad and sunbleached.

In desperate need of a pick-me-up, yesterday was an Osaka Extravanganza- science museum, National Gallery of Art, and some great Mexican food at one of the two Mexican restaurants in the entire Kansai region. As I understand it, there are two in Osaka, a few in Tokyo, and none anywhere else. When will the Japanese nation recognize the simple beauty of a burrito served from a drive-through window?


Monday, June 26, 2006

To not climb it once is foolish

... but to climb it more than once is also foolish.
-witty Japanese cliche about Mount Fuji

It's been awhile, blog. It's interesting- the more I've got to talk about, the less time I've got to say it- and with five weeks left in my Japanese adventure, I'm trying my best to have as little time spent in front of this keyboard as possible. Out of a sense of duty and a little bit of pride, though, here's a quick recap of the latest adventures:

1. Went with Veronica to go see the latest from the national Taiko drumming group, Kodo. Their piece, entitled Amaterasu, works with some big names in the Kabuki business, and retells the story of the sun goddess's fight with her brother, the wind god. This story is to Shintoism as Genesis is to Christianity, and as such it is told and retold over here in just about any form you could imagine. Let there be light.

It was... awesome. Sheer percussive bliss on giant taiko drums. Oh, and the sun goddess- the figure in white and gold on the Kodo splashpage? Yeah. She's a man. Scroll down to "Men's Kabuki"- these guys are called "Onnagata", and it's one of the most respected roles kabuki players can fill.Across from the Kabuki theater, we discover that some humor lives on independent of culture.

2. Walked the Philosopher's Walk, from Nanzen-ji to Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto. It's a two-kilometer stretch of little temples, shops, and shrines set along a canal. Evidently, some famous philosopher dude woke up every morning and hiked it as his constitutional. Either way, it was beautiful. I spent half a morning wandering around the halls of this smaller temple, the Eikando Zenrin-ji; a zen temple where (according to legend) in 1082, the head priest was chanting before a statue of the Amida Buddha when said statue stood up and walked past him, towards the door. He was so shocked (as should be expected) he stopped his prayers and stared gapemouthed at the walking figure o' Buddha. Amida turned back, looked over his left shoulder and gestured for the monk to keep at it before wandering out the door. Bereft of his Buddha statue, the head priest comissioned a new one- this one looking over its left shoulder. This is, evidently, the only statue like it in existence. Couldn't get a picture- that's 100% forbidden- but the temple was nigh unto abandoned, and as I was the only guy there who wasn't a monk, I spent a good chunk of the day just hanging out in the gardens.Gardens at Zenrin-Ji

3. Last weekend, I packed up some gear, called up my friend Jake, and hopped on the Shinkansen headed northeast. After a number of train transfers and about six hours of travel, we ended up at a little stop called Kawaguchi, the last station one can reach from this awesome-looking train.
Is it not beautiful? This thing goes to a theme park named Thomasland- well, to be fair, it first goes to Thomasland, and then continues on to Kawaguchiko, at the base of Mount Fuji.
That's Fuji in the middle there, poking out of the clouds ominously. We had decided that last weekend was the weekend to tackle the beast and finally climb the tallest mountain (3,776 meters!) in Japan. We climbed one weekend before the season began, and as such the place was nigh-unto deserted. On the way up, we passed: 3 Americans running for the bus at the bottom, one angry Texan who took the wrong road from the top, and one disappointed Australian who turned around one station from the top... she came unprepared- no coat, no gloves, no nothing.

Five people- all foreign tourists. Nearly four vertical kilometers. The mountain was all ours. It was empty, and beautiful, and cold. But let me start from the beginning.

We took a bus from Kawaguchiko to Camp 5, where the paved road gives out. Fuji's got nine numbered camps, nine being at the top and one at the bottom. Five is halfway, and about 2 kilometers up in the air. We only had to climb the last vertical 1.7 kilometers- not too much work, eh?

We spent 19 hours on the mountain. For Fuji, that's fast. We spent six of those hours in a hut at camp eight, waiting out the subzero hours between sunset and two a.m. The rest of the time? Climb away.

Camp 6 marks the treeline, at which point the landscape gives up on this:

and turns into this, complete with landslide-blocking walls reminiscent of jailblock

From the base of camp 7, however, it turns into something a whole lot more pleasant and fun- but quite a bit slower.

By the time we reached Camp 8, it was getting pretty dark, and pretty cold. We stopped to catch our breaths in front of what we thought was just another abandoned mountain hut, when we noticed people moving around inside. None of the huts were supposed to be open, but there was this British guy on a trip around the world who had booked a bunk in there- so, mindful of the cold and the dark, we took shelter in the hut for awhile.

Pictures Around Camp:
At 2:30 in the morning, Jake and I strapped on headlamps and made for the summit. The British guy came too, but he turned out to be as woefully equipped as the Australian we met earlier. This guy headed for the top in two t-shirts, a rainjacket, socks for gloves and a pair of raver glowsticks for illumination. He made it about twenty minutes uphill (the air starts to thin really quickly up there in the last half-kilometer to the top) and started to take laborious, gasping breaths. He got a present: the oxygen I had brought along in case I couldn't acclimatize. Fuji isn't so very tall that oxygen support is necessary- I didn't end up using it at all- but if for some reason if your body doesn't want to get along on less than it's used to, it's good to have a bottle. Especially if your newfound buddy's idea of "climbing gear" is tube socks on his hands.

We made the top just before first light, and kicked back in the leeward side of a boulder to watch the best sunrise in the land of the rising sun.

After the sunrise, we kicked around the crater a bit, visited the meteorological station on the far side, and touched the Highest Point in Japan- 3,776 meters in the sky.

This is particularly cool- this is the shadow of Mount Fuji, thrown down the west side of the mountain. Note the symmetry- it's Fuji's big selling point.

This is also really cool- there's a Torii (shrine gate) on a rise just above the shrine at the top of Fuji (which, when we were up there, was bolted shut for the offseason)- and this shrine gate has a bunch of coins POUNDED INTO THE WOOD.
The hook in the center is used to hang offerings to be burnt during the big Fire Festival they have up there every year.

After spending a few hours playing on the summit (there was this cool expanse next to the crater where everyone who came up spelled their names out in white rocks- how could we not?) we headed back down, back through the layers of clouds we had walked up through the day before. On the way, we saw a hut owner drying out his futons on his roof- pretty cool.

Down through the clouds...

climbing chains on Fuji.

We hit the bottom a few hours before the first bus back to the station- plenty of time for a celebratory ice-cream cone at the 5th station. 5th station is a bit of a tourist trap- it's low enough that they can pipe power to it, rather than having to run generators (like our hut up on 8) so there are souvenir shops, a burger stand, some ramen stores, a rest house, and pony rides that'll take you as far as Camp 7. Oi. We opted out of all that, and clambered back on the bus- for the six-hour train ride home.

Next day, was I smart? Did I sleep? No.

I went with Veronica to Osaka, saw a Chagall exhibition at the Suntory museum, wandered around the Osaka Aquarium, and rode The World's Largest Ferris Wheel (that may or may not be the actual largest- they used some pretty fuzzy language, but who am I to argue with their pitch?)- and THEN collapsed for a few hours. Today?

But these two signs, they bolster my courage.

As a parting sentiment, I leave you with a message straight from the streets.

Monday, June 12, 2006


All right, time to take a break from the weighty philosophical issues and pedagogical kung-fu of teaching in Japan, and go have a little fun.

This past weekend, I went to the Koka Ninja Village! Koka's a little town about half an hour away from Ritto down the JR Kusatsu line, and it has the dubious honor of hosting a famous little place where they used to train deadly assassins to be hired out by lords living in the not-too-distant but far-enough-not-to-kill-us capital of Kyoto. It's up in the mountains, worlds away from everything else, and in today's age where convenience reigns supreme, it looks quite frankly as if it's had the crap kicked out of it by a rival clan of ninja. The plural form of Ninja is, of course, Ninja- they're like deer, or sheep, or whatever. My secret theory is that the plural and singular are identical so that you never know how many ninja are under discussion- and the cry of "Look out! Ninja!" should always be interpreted to mean "Look out! 50 or so armed killers!" rather than "Hey, a guy in black pyjamas."

Though the place is a wreck physically, historically it's still impressive- on these grounds, the Koka-Ryu school of ninjitsu was founded and perfected, and these guys were feared for their fighting prowess and all-out sneaky choppy buttkicking. There are an array of entertainments- for the kids, of course- that one can partake in if one is so inclined, but the financial state of the village makes it so that most of the attractions are enjoyed sans attendants- which, in some ways, increases the fun by adding an element of ninja danger. All of the attractions are, thankfully, pretty do-it-yourself, with the exception of the Ninja House, of which I have no photographs- the ninja guide was less than permissive, and I felt that disobeying the orders of a man in black pyjamas wearing two-toed boots would be, frankly, unwise. The House was pretty cool- what seemed to be a one-story thatched-roof hut was in fact a three-story thatched-roof hut riddled with secret doors, panels that rotate and swing around, entrances hidden behind hanging scrolls (cleverly, the shodo calligraphy that hung in front of the secret door said, as if we needed a reminder, Ninja), false floors and secret ninja crawlspaces. Unlike the defenses of a castle, all of these systems seemed to be centred upon getting people OUT of the house- escape being the Ninja way, and all. You saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. "Ninja- VANISH!"

Speaking of which, they had these cool tunnels running through the village that an enterprising ninja could use to move undetected- like this one.

They had a shuriken throwing range- fun and dangerous, perfect for the kids- a ninja museum, showing real ninja armor, secret ninja ropeladders, shuriken, kusari-gama (ninja fighting chains), ninja hand gestures (a combination sign language and "ninja chi magic"- pretty cool) and an outdoor stage, next to the long list of "Ninja Adventure"-style attractions. I think that the Ninja were likely the first ropes-course construction experts in Japan- there was a fallen log to shimmy across a mudpit, some walls to scale, a roofline to navigate, a ninja zipline (again, over a mudpit- the ninja believe in consequences) and, best of all, a Ninja River Crossing Simulator.

Check it out. You stand on these Ninja Donuts, and pull yourself hand-over hand across the Ninja Pond. The donuts are made of the highest Ninja Quality Styrofoam and Plywood, both invented in the year 670 AD by the Ninja masters.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled ninja-free programming.
(they're not my pictures, but for more shots of the grounds and features of this ninja village, visit this site.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Thoroughly Uneventful Apocalypse

Well, if you're reading this, we all made it. I'm posting this at work, which means it's around 11:30 at night where most of you live- the likelihood of an apocalypse and/or rapture in the next thirty minutes is pretty slim, so I'm prepared to say: I have seen the future (having lived through the coming apocalypse yesterday), and the worst that 6/6/6 had to throw at me was a bum battery in my alarm clock, nearly making me late for work on 6/7/6 (or 7/6/6, depends on where you are). All of this is immaterial in Japan, where it's Year 18, and the number of the beast nonsense matters to nobody but fearful ex-pats and thrashmetal bands (I'm lookin' at you, "SIGH" and "MORBID AXE"), and the Day of Reckoning passed with hardly a blip.

Mandatory Kids Are Hilarious Story/Johnny Cash Reference:

So I'm teamed up with a student teacher to teach a unit on nicknames. We explain a short dialogue of the "Hi, My Name Is James, Call Me Jim" variety, pass out some fake nicknames that the kids will appropriate, and get ready to start a dialogue game in which they collect as many names as possible in a short amount of time using the English dialogue we've prepared. Pretty standard stuff. The moment we pass the names out, a kid throws out the biggest "MY GOD, THIS SUCKS" (In Japanese, "men do kusai!!") and, when questioned, expresses that he is unhappy with his nickname, as it's a girl's name and he's a manly little eighth grader.

The name? Romeo. Oddly, the boy across the room with "Juliet" seemed entirely unperturbed- so we whipped out a list of nicknames, and ran down the list asking the students whether each was a boy's name or a girl's name. Turns out that Deborah is a man, Romeo is a woman, and there's really nothing wrong with a boy named Sue.

Mandatory Japanese Is Hilarious Post:

Check out this promo poster for an upcoming epic film on the rise of a gangsta superstar:

The title, in katakana, reads "getto ricchi oa dai torain"- which, after sufficient verbal gymnastics, resolves into Get Rich or Die Trying. That's funny enough, but the real kicker here is in the fine white print, which advertises "Hip-Hop World's Charisma: 50 Sento!"

also: Osaka

is crowded. To charm you, it has:

great manhole covers,

cathedrals wedged into hotels,

and spiral escalators.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Giant in Wonderland

Had to come home early today to deal with my infestation problem- there are winged ants in the wood in the walls, and as a Japanese house is not constructed to keep anything in or out (nothing here really "seals", so it's the same temperature inside and out all year round, and bugs have essentially free passage) the best I can do for it is spray 'em when they appear, and wait for the exterminator to come- a Godot-like experience, as the exterminator was due yesterday, might have arrived today, and is due "sometime by Friday". Seems he's busy this season- perhaps now might be a good time to begin building the houses around here out of brick.

Anyways- that's not the real story. Since I was coming home around 2:40, the train platform was nearly empty. I managed to make an excellent train connection (only a minute wait!) and was silently glowing with glee at my amazing luck when...

I stepped into a train car full of elementary school students. Literally, the whole train car was packed roof to floor with kids- no adults in sight- who saw me and immediately SWARMED. My hands were shaken, my backpack tugged on, and it was only a combination of dimly-remembered skill and catlike reflexes that saved me from an armada of incoming Kancho attackers.

I spent two stops playing with the kids- essentially being subjected to a battery of personal questions, a lightning-fast test of my Japanese, and constantly hovering one step away from an abyss of Kancho pain. They were from the next town over, going on an after-school trip to some temple in Kyoto, and as such had never met me- it was like the first day I got here, all over again. Every new group reacts essentially the same way, but you see it from a swarm of grinning kids and you can't help but laugh. When I got off the train, the entire car gave me a "BYE-BYE" that resonated throughout the station like the ring of a temple bell, and I believe continues to susurrate in the hallway at this very moment. It was a good way to end a workday- now, I must continue my battle with the ants. As an apology for a curtailed entry, have some more Kyushu pictures!
One Ugly, Angry Dude; Shimabara Castle, Shimabara Peninsula, Kyushu. This peninsula was the last stand of Japan's early Christians- though it creates an interesting mental picture, many lords and samurai converted to Christianity, and when the edict came down that no "foreign" religion was to be tolerated, they holed up on the peninsula here and fought to the death. Many were killed in the fighting, and those captured were boiled to death in natural volcanic vents called "Jigoku"- Hells- that now provide water for hot-spring resorts.

A Hell.

The front-door arch of the Murakami Cathedral at Nagasaki, relocated to the epicenter site. The cathedral was largely ruined- the statues melted and bleached, the great hall fell- but this arch stood after the blast, and has been preserved in the state it was found.

Enough creepy stuff! Here's the Chihiro Waterfall on Yakushima- inspiration for Miyazaki's "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi", released in America as "Spirited Away". It was INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL- there's a hiking path to the bottom, but we were short on time. I WILL go back to that island.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

100th Post; a word on Japanese Mountain Climbing

So a few weeks ago, I took a solo trip up Mt. Hiei, the holy mountain northwest of Kyoto. It's 848 vertical meters of rocky riverbed trail... the climb up takes a meager two hours, or you can ride a ropeway most of the way up- excellent for the physically or spiritually handicapped, but anyone else caught riding that thing should be shot. (Subnote: I wholly endorse handicap-accessible mountains, provided that those who lack an actual handicap are given one if they wish to use the amenities.) I saw one person on the entire climb up- about fifteen minutes in, an old man decked out in full pilgrim gear traipsed down the mountain and bellowed a hearty Konnichiwa that belied the fact that he looked like he could easily have been pushing ninety. Mt. Hiei is famous for the temple complex sprawled out across most of its upper reaches- Enryaku-ji, the home of the famous Tendai warrior-monks and keepers of an eternal oil flame, tended by the priests, that they've managed to keep burning for 1200 years. That's right, kids- since 806 AD, some poor monk has had to schlep oil into a little lantern every day, and make sure he doesn't sneeze while he's at it.

That, however, is not the story. The story is thus: I climbed the mountain, and in my quest to actually say I CLIMBED the thing I forsook the ropeway, skipped the stairs and scrambled up a dry riverbed to the temple complex, some hundred meters below the top. The temple itself is pretty cool- one of the nicer ones I've seen, and I FINALLY got to clamber up into the insides of a big ol' temple gate (usually closed, as it's believed they're demon-haunted; for the most famous gate of this kind, read Rashomon- the actual Rasho Gate no longer exists, but they've got a little marker in south Kyoto to tell you where it was)- but the road to the summit was nigh-impossible to find. Feeling like a thief, I traipsed through a graveyard and up an old trail that wound me past ancient gravestones and up to the final approach- where I found an ABC Broadcasting Tower sitting on the broad expanse just below the true peak. After a bit of searching, I found the false peak- 830 meters.

It was covered in concrete. There's a road that leads all the way up, and buses that run every half hour. There's a garden museum, some udon shops, and a gift stall. My heart broke, but the land was higher a little further away, so I kept climbing.

In a grove of cedars, a tiny marker indicated that I was standing on the tallest point of the mountain- 848 meters- and all around the little marker were wooden votive tablets with names of climbing clubs on them. The Kyoto Climbing Society, Otsu, Osaka- almost all the towns large enough to have a climbing club had made the effort and found the tiny-stupid-out-of-the-way trail to claw up the last muddy eighteen meters and stand in a viewless grove of cedars for a few moments.

I had a seat and wolfed a chocolate bar, listened to the engines of the buses groaning in the valley below, and silently thanked the mountain gods that no entrepreneur had decided to build an escalator to the peak.

pax yorochikubo

Monday, May 22, 2006

Beyond Kyushu

Forget it! I've been captive to these megaposts for far too long. The attempt to create another giant novel about a vacation is 1) impossible, given that in order to do that I'd need "free time", 2) not the point, as this is a blog about Teaching In Japan, and 3) just too stinking long.

We're gonna try an experiment: One post a day, next five days, get me back into the swing of things. One story, short, sweet, anecdotal. At the end of each post, one Kyushu picture.

I left my first school last week. Since I only visit each school for a month at a time, having three schools means that with the two months I've got left, I will never return to Ritto JHS. I will miss the kids; my rockstars were from that school, and though the world's tiniest rockband has graduated and gone on to high school, the atmosphere at Ritto was awesome. I'll miss it. By way of example:

Over the last month, I was adopted by a set of third-grade students led by a big guy named Kubo and his eloquent grand vizier, Matsui. Every day at lunch, they came into the teacher's room, brashly pushed past the magic line (there is a magic line on the floor of every teacher's room past which the students may not intrude- at some schools, it is enforced, at some, it is ignored. Usually, at Ritto, it was enforced with an iron fist) and charged up to my desk, to engage in a ritual halfway between a private English lesson and a Catholic confessional. Kubo and his crew would regale me with what they had done that day- what teachers they walked out on, what grand feats of athleticism they were intending to accomplish, how much noise they made, the proper pronunciation of Kubo's name (strong on the BO, and guttural- let the second half rattle in your throat like you're shaking a handful of gravel in a bucket)- and then attempt to teach me the Japanese for inappropriate parts of the body. Their big goal (stop me if you've heard this one) was to teach me how to imitate (and improve upon) a Japanese comedian who cleverly wordplays off of "nice to meet you" while twirling his hands around the sides of his chest.

They never managed to get me to do it, but they tried and tried, repeating the phrase and gesture and telling me why it was "Very important", and that I "had to"- and so a deal was struck. They pay attention in class, and learn to explain to me in English what the fuss was about, and I'd give it a go. Kubo and Matsui got better every day at giving me reasons to bow slightly and give a hearty "Yorochikubi" (the modified "nice-to-meet-you", half "yoroshiku" nice to meet you and half "chikubi"- nipple). They even modified it, slipped Kubo's name in at the end, so it was nothing but a garbled, mangled inside joke; YorochikuBO. Of course, as I am a professional teacher, I refused to humor them- wouldn't be proper. And so my final day came and went, and I did my farewell speech to the student body amidst crying kids and farewell notes and promises of mail to come (everyone's got my address in the States now- Mom, Dad, if you get some letters...) and as I was walking out towards the door Kubo and Matsui caught me in a hug, telling me how sad they were I was leaving... I couldn't resist. It had to happen.

My pronunciation was FLAWLESS. Slight bow, hands a-twirlin', the words from my lips ending forever my career in politics...


I love my job. They were the happiest kids in the world, and though I watch the inbox on my desk for a termination notice, one has not yet arrived.

A forest in Yakushima, home to living cedar trees (cryptomeria) older than the Bible. Forking away from this gorge was a dry, rocky riverbed that used to feed into it that led into the "Mononoke Forest" that inspired Miyazaki to make "Princess Mononoke" (sidenote: I'll show you the picture of the Chihiro Waterfall that inspired "Spirited Away" later- seems Miyazaki LOVES Yakushima.)Coastline, Yakushima. Yakushima is about two hours south of Kyushu by jetfoil, an unspoiled natural fairyland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Google Earth it. 30°20'48.42"N, 130°30'57.72"E.

pax yorochikubo!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Too many megaposts!

I'm back in Ritto- spent nine days backpacking around Kyushu, the Southern Island of Japan (well, as long as you don't count Okinawa) and the cradle of Japanese civilization. Religion plays pretty big down there- the gods lived on that island, and moved north with the early Japanese as they swept up to what is now Honshu, the Main Island of Japan, and Kyushu was also the holdout point for the early doomed Christians of Japan- they hid out on the Shimabara Peninsula, and put up quite a fight before being virtually exterminated and driven underground. Some of the coolest stuff I saw while I was down there were crypto-Christian artifacts that disguised Mary as the goddess Kannon, or Jesus as an incarnation of the Buddha, or worked subtle crosses into sword crossguards and the bottoms of icons of other religions- but more on that later. I'm trying to keep the epic length of these things down (so I can tell you more and slideshow less), so this post is really for one thing and one thing only:

Tale from the Issahaya Train Station, Kyushu, Japan
dialogue translated from the Japanese by A. Moll

A man in what appeared to be his late sixties, sitting on the wooden bench on the platform headed to Shimabara Port, adjusted his baseball cap and called out to me in laughing English. "You! Where from?" In my politest Japanese, I told him that I was from America, but that I live in Shiga Prefecture. With a broad smile, he asked me what I was doing down in Kyushu, waiting on a platform for a train that only comes once every three hours. Tourists, evidently, stick to cities with reliable transportation. I told him my story- I had just left Nagasaki, and was taking a shortcut across the bay between Shimabara and Kumamoto before heading on to Mt. Aso
(google earth 32º53'03.80" N, 131º05'06.43" E- the greenish blue pit is a lake of volcanic sulphur), an active volcano in central Kyushu. He laughed again, told me that was great, but had I heard of this other mountain, named Kaimon? Of course, I had not. So he told me about it.

Kaimon is called the Fuji of Kyushu. It's symmetrical like Fuji, fairly large- like Fuji- and holy. Just like Fuji. It's also the site of a peculiar ritual that this man felt the need to act out, in the train station, complete with gestures. He told me that during the war with my country, kamikaze pilots departing from Okinawa would circle Kaimon three times, waggle their wings as a final Sayonara, and depart for their targets. His explanation was joyful and enthusiastic- he stood, he walked in circles with his arms outstretched like airplane wings, he waggled them back and forth to indicate the Goodbye, and he ended it with his straightened hand slamming plane-wise into his other hand, which then crumpled. He told me that all the kamikaze pilots would do this- every single one- as part of their pre-mission ritual. And then he grinned that big grin at me, and touched the brim of his baseball cap, and winked.

"But me, I didn't go. Have a good trip."

A few stops down the line, he walked past my seat on his way out, saluted me, and said "Sayonara."


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Great Escape Part 3: Vietnam

Same Same… but Different.

(t-shirt and popular English expression in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand)

I spent the lion’s share of my vacation (9 days!) in Vietnam. It was great- a real adventure. Armed only with a Lonely Planet, a vague idea of where we were going, and a bootleg photocopy of a Vietnamese phrasebook (purchased at a little shop a few doors down from our hotel), we set out to explore the land that about thirty-five years ago was the last place on earth most American men aged 18-25 would willingly go. Vietnam is still rebounding from what they call the American War, and everywhere you go you can see its effects. Bombed-out houses, rubble in the streets, homeless, legless, armless people staring out from every corner- and yet the populace is so happy that we’re there that it’s at times overwhelming.

Let me tell you a story- this story is not mine. A man I met in a bar in Hoi An (we’ll get to how I ended up in Hoi An later) was traveling up north, in the highlands. Let’s call him Bob- I can’t remember his name. A guy on the street called out to Bob, asked him where he was from. Bob’s from Colorado, USA. He tells the guy on the street, and the guy smiles real big and shakes his hand. The man slaps his leg, and exclaims to Bob “American!” Bob is understandably confused. The man pulled his trouser leg up a bit, and said again “American!” The man was wearing a prosthetic leg. He explained haltingly that his village was bombed during the war by American B-52’s. This is not a source of anger or frustration for him- quite the opposite- the man is happy because he and Bob have something in common- they have a bond. Bob took a picture with the guy, and it is clear in the picture (digital cameras are great, you can pass them around in bars in Hoi An) that the gentleman in question has no foot, and is standing on a large round peg instead.

This is Vietnam.

The first day we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, we arrived to a press of people all shouting, asking us if we wanted a taxi, a motorbike, a cyclo (curious carriage instruments that in other countries are called pedicabs or tuktuks), a pack of cigarettes, some books- all standing in a semicircle beyond the arrival gates. We negotiated with a woman behind the tourist counter for a fixed-rate taxi (five dollars), and pushed through the crowd and into the cab. A note on Vietnamese currency: The official Vietnamese unit of currency is called the Dong. One US dollar will get you thirteen thousand dong. This means that when we changed out money at the airport, we ended up immediate multimillionaires. We will, for the simple fact that this blog is a family show, resist the urge to make sophomoric comments about dong. Resist.

Ho Chi Minh City is divided into numbered districts. District 1 bears the original name of the city- the prewar name: Saigon. After Reunification Day, the name of the city was changed to reinforce the sentiment that the populace had changed after the soldiers had left. Anyone who fought for the South Vietnamese Army was, at this time, in a great deal of trouble with the Law. Even now, these men and the families of these men cannot get normal jobs. They are the men who drive the cyclos, speaking the perfect English that they learned working alongside American servicemen during the war. They are the motorbike taxi drivers, vagrants, and beggars. The State blocks them from employment, and as a result there is no shortage of impromptu tour guides who are more than happy to show you around the city, the country, wherever.

The traffic here is also something else. Lights are suggestions, and your place on the priorities list is directly proportional to the size of your vehicle. Pedestrians, being so small in the road hierarchy as to be naught but a nuisance, walk with impudence through the traffic as motorbikes swerve ahead and behind. Even they, however, fear the bus and the truck, as they are giant-kings.

The taxi, interestingly is really the only actual car I see on the road. Every so often someone will have a personal automobile, but it’s pretty rare. Everyone has a motorbike. As such, our taxi driver cut through the mass of bikes at a pretty good pace, pausing only for those piloting a beast larger than his own, and got us to our hotel in about twenty minutes. The Peace Hotel, located firmly in the backpacker ghetto of Saigon, was home for the next few days.

After checking in and getting our stuff up to the room, we went forth in search of food. This being night 1, we weren’t so adventurous as to hit up the roadside food stall right away- I saved that for later- so Richelle and I found a restaurant less than a block away and ordered up some Pho- the quintessential Vietnamese noodle dish. A hearty, eat-like-kings multi-course dinner for two: About three dollars. Vietnam is awesome.

After dinner, Richelle was feeling tired, and went back to the room. I went forth in search of adventure, wandering the back alleys of our little backpacker district. Turns out we were only a few blocks from the Ben Thanh Market, a giant indoor marketplace that we’d visit the next day. For now, however, I found all this:

Ho Chi Minh By Night!

A concert in the park! Note the awesome propaganda backdrop.

This is that rotunda I showed you earlier- the one with me wading through traffic. It is just as busy at ten at night as it is at ten in the morning.

This is a closeup of the statue- I’m not entirely sure what it’s a statue OF, but it’s a statue.

After a good amount of nighttime wandering, and a bit of work endearing myself to the local street-child population (who wander around much like I did, except they do it with cases of cigarettes to sell, packs of gum, books, counterfeit sunglasses and cheap costume jewelry) I returned to the hotel and collapsed.

The next day, I woke up really early and decided to go out for another walk. The locals exercise really early in the morning and really late at night to avoid the heat, which already was so hot as to encourage midday siestas in air conditioned rooms. So when I went down to the park, I found:

People getting ready for some early-morning martial arts practice- the local art seems to revolve around hitting things with sticks.

Badminton is incredibly, inscrutably popular in Vietnam. Everyone plays it. Those that don’t play it play a variant that involves kicking a modified shuttlecock around a circle like a hackysack. Everyone in this picture is swinging at once in their two-person badminton pairs. There are no nets- they just hit the shuttlecock back and forth.

On the way back to the hotel, I was accosted by a pack of three beggar kids. I didn’t buy the act- it was fairly weak, and just asking for money doesn’t get you too far- but I saw a unique opportunity. I herded them up, walked them down to the closest Pho stand, and bought them each a breakfast. In return, I grilled them about their names, ages, whether they go to school (yep, they do) and why they were out begging (parents make them). I insisted they earn their meals by teaching me some Vietnamese- it’s a tonal language, so the pronunciation doesn’t make sense without a model or a teacher, despite the tonal notation that they append to the roman alphabet. I felt pretty good about the transaction: Feed a hungry child, learn some new stuff, and there’s no chance of them taking the pho back to parents who use it to buy booze.

Having taken care of my nagging Samaritan urges, I returned to the hotel to pick up Richelle, and we decided to go out and try to follow the walking tour of Saigon listed in the Lonely Planet. So we started at the Ben Thanh Market.

The market sells everything you would ever want to buy, at flexible prices inflated grossly for bargaining purposes. Everyone wants you to purchase from them- the aggressive sell is the only sales tactic that anyone in this country seems to know, from the moto drivers to the little cigarette saleskids to the merchants in the market- and everyone is willing to drop the price as far as 50% off the pittance they’re charging in the first place.

It’s crowded, and dark, and loud, and crazy, and I loved it. They were selling food (ready-to-eat and/or in giant bags; spices, coffee, meat, everything 1000 dong/1kilo or some ridiculous price) , clothes, gifts, jewelry, cloth, gold, children’s toys, whatever your little heart desires, it’s somewhere in the market. I found a place selling kitchen appliances, right next to a booth hawking shoes that looked like they had fallen off the back of a truck bound for a designer boutique.

After the market, we worked our way up through another market; a little street market that sold mostly drugstore-type stuff, but was interesting to meander through. We then tacked north, towards the old theatre and the People’s Communist Party Headquarters.Communist HQ is to the left of this picture, down about a block. This is the old Theatre Building, important for something but I’m not quite sure what. More interesting? The propaganda posters we found on the way!

Richelle finds that X marks the POWER OF COMMUNIST ATOMIC FUSION!

Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh himself, ladies and gentlemen) says Hello!

Richelle and I stand admiringly under the gaze of good old Uncle Ho!

Because Communist Republics with Anti-Free Speech Laws invite mockery.

As we rounded the corner to head towards the Reunification Palace and the War History Museum, we were taken by surprise! Seems someone had heard about our lampooning Uncle Ho!


So the Communists weren’t really after us, it was just a tank sitting (why? Who knows?) in a courtyard. Turns out this courtyard was fully stocked against incursion- it was the War History Museum, in a place entirely opposite of where our guidebook indicated it would be.

So there’s a tank.

There are also fighter jets.

And, in case everything goes wrong and the Americans attack again, there’s…

A wedding. At the War History Museum. This speaks for itself.

So, moving on, we saw a big cool university-type place. I like buildings that aren’t afraid to clash orange and blue. It bespeaks confidence.

We saw the palace and Notre Dame, but they were both closed for lunch.

So we hitched a ride with a couple of motorbike drivers and had them take us out to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, the last stop on the walking tour.

Temples in Vietnam are MUCH MORE COLORFUL than temples in Japan. They don’t invoke the same quiet reverence, but they definitely make me want to sing.

Storeroom in the temple- thought it was a cool picture.

Chillin’ on the roof.

Holy turtles in a dirty fountain.

So we left the Jade Emperor Pagoda, got some lunch, and returned to the Reunification Palace. The Palace used to be called Independence Palace- everyone’s seen the tank busting through the gates and heard the famous quote from the South Vietnamese president to the North Vietnamese soldier who crashed his door: “I have been waiting here since morning to give power over to you.” “There is no question of you giving power. You cannot give what you do not have.”

So here are the pictures THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE:


The Presidential Casino! Poker table up front, blackjack in back, mahjongg to our left… and to the right, definitive proof that the South Vietnamese President was cooler than any other presidents I can think of (‘cept maybe Clinton):

Ladies and gentlemen, Jim Morrison. How can you forcibly extract a man from office who proudly displays Jim Morrison in his gambling den?

And what’s more, he’s got a Presidential Dance Floor.

Note Richelle breaking out "The Lawn Sprinkler"; a North American favorite.

In case he has to flee his hordes of screaming fans entranced by the emotive power of his dancing, or if the cops show up to bust his party, his helicopter is but a stone’s throw away.

After the top floor dance-floor, we were led into the basement, which made for some disturbing pictures:

The Radio Room (why put it in the basement? Reception’s gotta be lousy),

The Bomb Shelter (duck ‘n cover like you learned in grade school)

And the Kitchen (I have nothing funny to say about this.)

The Reunification Palace finished, we went for a hike to visit the Post Office. Uncle Ho, as always, presides over this beautiful old building.

After that, back to Notre Dame.

I think this says everything that needs to be said about Notre Dame in Ho Chi Minh City.

Well, that, and this:

Note: All those little plaques are purchased by church supporters, asking Mary for mercy or grace in French, the langue d’eglise around here. In the religions that have taken hold more strongly in Vietnam than Catholicism (notably Confucianism and Buddhism) buying indulgences is perfectly fine- you want a car, buy a biiiig stick of incense from the temple and burn it, and your prayers will be heard. These plaques seem like the same kind of indirect simony- somehow, it just doesn’t seem to be just donations.

With Notre Dame off the list, our walking tour was complete. So we skipped back towards the hotel, got some dinner, and again I was alone to wander. I ended up going to “Apocalypse Now” a longtime fixture of the Saigon nightlife scene. I wanted to know what it was like. I give you this review: Dark, expensive, but the music was funny. Anytime I can hear the 4 Non Blondes followed by that popular-for-no-reason “Dragonestea din Tei” (better known as the Myla HIIII, myla HAAA song), we’re at the right level of campy, stupid music for a decent night. All the same, I skipped out early, and learned a very important lesson.

After dark, everyone in Saigon becomes a pimp. Every motorbike driver offered not a ride home, but a “massage” and then, even more disgustingly, “boom-boom.” People came out of locked, dark storefronts to offer me this “boom-boom”. I ended up just walking home to the hotel. OLD LADIES offered up boom-boom! OLD MEN! Young guys on motorbikes WITH GIRLS ON THE BIKE BEHIND THEM! Hounded, I escaped to the hotel and resolved to leave Saigon for awhile- get out to the country, find out what Vietnam’s really like- beyond the traffic, the noise, the boom-boom peddlers.

So the next morning we got on a plane and flew north to Danang, with the intention of renting a motorbike and riding south to Hoi An. We couldn’t find a bike- Danang is a big city, but the airport’s a few kilometers from the city center, and we had to make do and take a taxi down.

Hoi An is a tailor’s village- a small town on the bank of a big river filled to bursting with shops selling custom-made clothing and shoes. They turn out work here that would cost thousands of dollars elsewhere and sell it for pennies. They can copy or fake up anything you bring them- and they’ll do it in a day. I myself bought new shirts, pants, shoes and a coat here- and am kicking myself for not dropping the twenty dollars on a suit. Yep, 20 bucks, tailored, custom-made suit. I am a fool.

But besides from being a shopper’s paradise, Hoi An also sports an impressive collection of French colonial-era architecture.

Once here, we rented a motorbike to get around (no sense in getting taxis everywhere, with the distances we wanted to cover) and set about exploring the countryside.

There were a few bikes, over the next few days. We couldn’t keep any given one for more than 1 day, and they rented out at $5 USD a day. So we just swapped them out for new ones- just as well, as some were kind of suspect in the quality department.

Gas around here comes either from petrol stations (in the cities) or at these roadside hand-pump petrol stands. Even the price of gas is something you can (and should) bargain for- they routinely mark up the price for foreigners.

The first day, on the green bike in picture 1, we went to My Son. My Son is an archaeological site, a temple complex of the ancient Cham civilization. It looks, honestly, like a movie set.

Stuff like this doesn’t exist in real life.

So we wandered the ruins for awhile, found some cool spots to take pictures, learned all about the ancient Chams and their craaaaazy brickworking skills (evidently, there is no mortar in any of these photographs- the bricks were somehow fused together). Interesting finds:

Decapitated statuary,

Recapitated statuary,

Cool bridges,

Daring escapes from Vietnamese prisons…

Long walks,

and little kids. In fact, on the walk into the ruins we were befriended by a middle school class of thirty, who talked with us all three kilometers in. Their English was excellent- they evidently practice with all the tourists.

After bumbling around the ruins for an hour or two, we hopped back on the bike, rode the 40 kilometers back into town, and just kept right on going North into the Marble Mountains.

Everybody likes a bit of a free climb.

These mountains are, as the name suggests, made entirely of natural marble. They aren’t particularly tall (by mountain standards), but the fact that they're sheer lumps of marble that look as if they've been dropped from the pockets of distracted giants more than makes up for their lack of ohmygodthat'sbig-itude.

Inside the mountains, there are huge natural caves in which the locals have built temples.

In fact, the whole mountain is a temple complex- there are temples inside, temples outside, temples on top… everywhere.

The place felt holy- it was quiet, there were hardly any other tourists around, and the immensity of the caves gave the same feeling as being in the great hall of a church. As we wound our way up and around the mountain, we came across places where so many hands and feet had rubbed before that the marble was polished smooth- there was a narrow chimney of rock rising out of a cave full of natural handholds- some rockslide a long time ago had left something approximating a ladder of jutting rocks- and each new little handhold or foothold was waxy-smooth marble.

When we climbed back down, exhausted and sunburned, we hopped back on the bike and rode back to Hoi An. Even out here in the country, we managed to barely avoid hitting or being hit by:

  1. Trucks
  2. Buses
  3. Taxis
  4. Chickens
  5. Cows
  6. Weird Rube-Goldberg Motorcycle/Wagons
  7. Schoolkids
  8. Schoolkids ON BIKES

We dropped off the bike, and spent the evening clothes shopping.

Well, clothes shopping, looking at boats on the river, and having some food down in the restaurant district. Can’t shop all the time.

We spent another day in Hoi An, and I just wandered the city while Richelle went shopping. Walked out past where the city ends and into the village surrounding, and found, in the space of any one block, a thatched hut and a modern mansion sitting side-by-side.

Wandered across a rice paddy with an old woman out working- had to take a picture.

Not quite sure what’s going on here, but it looked cool.

The next day was our last day in Hoi An, and so we picked up our clothes from the tailor’s and went to the beach. The beach was beautiful, but I (like a fool) took no pictures DESPITE having my camera with me. Met some Israelis on vacation just after finishing their mandatory Army service, ate some squid fresh from the ocean, swam, and generally relaxed. It is my vacation, I am occasionally allowed to just blow a day at the beach.

That evening, we went back to Danang only to find that our flight had been delayed FOUR HOURS- supposed to leave at 7, in fact were scheduled to leave at 11. So we waited, and while we waited, I tried Mystery Item 3 on my Weird Stuff I Ate This Trip list.

There is a special kind of coffee that they only drink in Vietnam. All Vietnamese coffee is delicious- I couldn’t get enough of the stuff- but this is supposed to be particularly good. They select the finest crop of the year, and feed the beans to a certain species of weasel. When the weasel has digested the beans and is, well, done with them, they go in and extract the beans from the excrement. These beans, fermented by the weasel’s stomach, make the crème de la crème of Vietnamese coffee. So I bought some, and tried it.

It was a complex, layered flavor. I, despite myself, enjoyed it greatly. I just have one nagging question:

WHO THOUGHT OF THIS? Who dove into a pile of weasel excrement and said “Hey! Let’s brew this! I bet this would taste absolutely delicious!”

Whoever it is, I’m in their debt. That was some delicious coffee, and it made the stupidly long wait go by that much faster.

By the time we finally got back to our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, it was 1:30 in the morning.

The next day, it was back on the bike. We wanted to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels, but we missed the tourbus (slept in) and didn’t want to contract a private driver (so much money!)… so we took our lives into our hands, and motorbiked Saigon. Armed with a map and a bike (a bike with a broken speedometer, but a bike), we set out to do battle with the swarm of crazy traffic that I had earlier described. It took us two hours to get out to the tunnels. At one point, we were so lost that we stopped at this little roadside café, and paid the owner’s son two dollars to show us, on his motorbike, how to get back to the main road. My limited Vietnamese vocab was stretched to the absolute limit, and we managed somehow to make it to the Cu Chi Tunnel system.

The tunnels are what the Viet Cong used to move undetected around the countryside. It’s a spider’s web of paths and houses that used every innovation they could think of- venting systems, enclosed ovens that could store up smoke to be released at night (when it wouldn’t tip off spotters), tricks, traps, the whole deal. When we arrived, we were first shown around the Cu Chi Resistance Village, which was set up kind of like a Disney Vietnam Funland.

You could mill grain, just like a member of the village resistance!

Stand by an American APC! I’m not sure if you can see it even if you blow up the picture, but the reason I’m standing here is to indicate the writing on the side; it says “Oh Carol”, which I wasn’t quite prepared to decipher. Anybody out there in TV Land know?

You could also have your picture taken with the Cu Chi Guerilla mannequins, but that seemed a touch too much. Similarly, there was a shooting range at the end of the tour where you could fire any number of Vietnam-era weaponry- M-16s, AK-47s, the whole works. After Hiroshima and what I’d already seen in Vietnam, I was perfectly happy living my life without firing an assault rifle- this stuff does quite well at taking your taste for wanton violence. (That, and they wanted a dollar a bullet, minimum 10! Come on, now!)

Next on the tour came the Propaganda Room.

They sat us down here, again under the watchful eyes of Uncle Ho, to view a video about the Cu Chi Guerillas. It was, in short, atrocious. I quote: “This is Lu Li. She is short- too short to see out of the trenches- but her hatred for Americans lifts her into the sky! She was awarded the title American Killer Hero.” It was narrated by some French guy- his accent was wonderfully atrocious- and it was the most slanted, hateful reporting I’ve seen since Bill O’Reilly. There was, by chance, an American with us when we were watching the film and touring the tunnels. Turns out he was a Vietnam vet, and we both laughed about the crazy, hyperbolic “American Killer Hero” stuff after the film was over. It was so angry it was silly.

Funny thing? The tour guide/guard and the veteran proceeded to chat about the site and the war like old friends, all through the tour of the tunnels. These tunnels are REALLY small, despite being expanded a touch for tourists- it’s strictly hands-and-knees suck-in-your-gut business. We were served tea and tapioca in one of the chambers- not tapioca pudding, but chunks of the tapioca plant. Not bad. Not too good, if that’s all you could eat, but not bad as a late afternoon snack.

On the way back, Richelle caught a ride with the American war vet and his wife, and I rode the bike back alone. This is just as well- it was rush hour. If someone asks you to drive a motorbike through Saigon rush hour, you would be wise to decline. Going too fast places you in mortal danger. Too slow? Mortal danger again. Lots of fun, though. Just not fun I’d like to have twice.

That evening, my traveling companion, Richelle, returned to Japan and left me to spend my last three days in Vietnam alone. I signed up for a two-day tour of the Mekong Delta, and planned to spend the last day catching up on things I had missed in HCMC.

That evening, I went for a walk out to get some dinner along the Saigon River. I was accosted mid-walk by a little girl wanting me to buy some gum. I had long ago given up on ignoring these kids, and decided instead to amuse them until they gave up. So I danced with her, she play-fought with me, we ran around and acted like big idiots until a member of her family (not her mom- her mother was watching all this) came up and asked me if I lived in Vietnam. She took my email address, asked me out to coffee. She wasn’t too happy to hear that I was leaving in a few days. I gave the kid a five-yen coin, by way of a gift (kids usually love coins from other countries, and the trick has worked on SO MANY of these kids thus far this trip- they forget what they’re selling and just become kids again) but she laughed, dropped it into my shirt pocket and said “No, Vietnamese.” She then sat on my foot and held onto my leg, staying there for half a block as I walked away. Cute kid.

Next morning, I hopped on the bus to go to the Mekong Delta. I was on there with about twenty other foreigners- my new 20 best friends for the next two days. Everybody was pretty cool- some Americans, a few British, a few Aussies, some Canadians, a pair of Israelis, and two Spaniards. Took awhile for people to open up and start talking, but this is the way of any group of people dropped into a bus with little to no introduction. The bus ride was about three hours, followed by a boat ride of about 45 minutes before we stopped for lunch.

Some houses on the Mekong.

We stopped in a small village to visit the fruit market.

Tell me he doesn’t look guilty- like he shouldn’t be doing whatever he’s doing.

As we traveled the river, every so often we’d come across these floating houses. The people who live on the water like this use a system of cages in the foundation of their houses to catch fish and supplement their food supply.

Cute kid in a boat!

Mekong Swimmer!


We visited a native village where they make coconut candy, honeybee tea and banana wine. Coconut candy is delicious- just coconut oil, honey, and water, stirred and boiled ‘till it hardens. Honeybee tea is also pretty good, but the method of manufacture is a little scary…

Yep. Bees.

Banana wine is more accurately termed banana whiskey- or just plain paint thinner. It’s the kind of drink big, strapping lads claim will put hair on your chest.

While we were enjoying our bee tea and coconut candies, a group of folk musicians came by and rocked out for us. The Vietnamese guitar is a funny thing- they scoop out the area between each fret until it’s a deep, concave cup- makes the string ring differently, evidently, and lends a really twangy, tinny sound to the guitar.

We made our way back to the boat, and then onto a ferry to take us to the next piece of the delta, where we would stay the night.

Spanish people! On the ferry!

(They, incidentally, were cool folks. Musicians and wanderers- Vietnam’s the latest in their “part-time-jobs to travel the world” scheme.)

Sunset on the delta.

That night, as I was walking to dinner with a few new friends, we passed a man on the sidewalk giving a peculiar kind of massage. He was taking cups- glass cups- and passing a lit brand underneath them for a second before pressing them against the back of his customer/victim. We stood and watched for a moment, and he grinned. The man motioned for me to sit down, and pulled my sleeve up, and stuck a cup to my shoulder. Seems that when the flame passes under the cup, it burns away the oxygen and creates a vacuum. This creates a great deal of suction when the cup is applied to the skin, which evidently pulls the blood to the surface and cleans away toxins.

So we think “wow, that was interesting” and go to dinner. For dinner, I order a Delta specialty: snake satay. The whole time, I’ve got a spot the size of a coke can on my shoulder. On the way back, he was still at it, but one of the reed mats was empty. After some quick bargaining. I took my shirt off and laid down. WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.

So here I am, relatively unmarked.

Just the one. Man, I’m a skinny whiteboy.

All right, so then…

And then…

Look at how far the skin is drawn up inside the cups. This is… terrifying, now that I see it myself.

Then he reapplies the cups in ANOTHER place! In this shot, you can see him sticking the brand underneath to burn out the oxygen.

Then he put them on my chest! Ack!

Final result: Polka dots. They’re STILL ON ME- four days later. I’ll keep you posted as to how this ends up- or, if they’re still around the next time I see you (whoever “you” are), I’ll just show you. *UPDATE* The marks faded after about a week and a half. They didn't hurt until the very end, where there was nothing left but weird bruises.

So the next day, we went to the floating market. We didn’t get out of the boat and try and barter- what were we going to do with fifty kilos of watermelons? It was not a retail floating market. Some guy did try to sell us Coca-Cola, boat to boat…

After the floating market, we went to a rice paper workshop. Ever wonder how they make rice paper? All right, here ya go.

Step 1: Grind rice flour. Add water to make a sticky soup. Spread soup onto a piece of wet cloth stretched out over a hot fire.



Pick up mixture with your special rice-paper-wiffle-bat.

Picking up…

And away!

Spread onto reed mats to bake in the sun.

After the rice paper workshop (they then use the rice paper to make spring rolls, candy wrappers, what have you) we went to a little village whose sole purpose in existence was to house the coffee shop that paid our tour company money to bring us by there. Literally, that was it. That and a metal shop. Oh, and a cute kid.

With that, it was back on the bus and back to Ho Chi Minh City.

So five hours later, it was time to grab some food, hang out in the park, talk with some local people and generally have a good low-key evening. The next day was my last, so I really had to have one last good day.

Biker boys- two young guys in front of the local moto repair shop

So I went to HCMC’s Chinatown- Cholon. There are all sorts of interesting historical notes tied to this part of town- like the fact that it is only now being repopulated with Chinese people, as they all fled when the American War ended (this is what they call the Vietnam War. Wouldn’t make much sense to call it Vietnam, from their perspective) and are now brave enough to come back and reclaim the family business.

I got to Chinatown in a cyclo (xich lo in Vietnamese)- that strange pedicab number. It’s a bicycle in back, baby carriage in front. I never want to travel that way again. It makes me feel too colonial somehow, in a way that a taxi does not.

It did give me a good chance to snap some non-busy HCMC traffic, though. This is at a dead time- just before the lunch rush.

Here’s the shoe section of the Chinatown covered market. Nothing for sale in this picture is not a shoe.

Market courtyard.

It’s a big Chinese lion, but I don’t know why it’s got a ball in it’s mouth. Maybe this celestial lion plays fetch.

I spent the rest of the day touring temples- there are two particularly old ones in Cholon.

Here’s one…

And here’s the other. The spirals hanging from the ceiling are incense- they are hung (like the guy on lower right is doing) with the name of the purchaser and their prayer attached.

The signcarver’s hallway.

The last temple I visited was a Catholic church. Strange thing, though- the priests all spoke French. No English at all. Nice guys, though.

Just before I left Vietnam, I came across these guys, playing Chinese Chess in the street. I had seen various pairs of men playing the whole trip, but this is a pretty spectator-heavy game. Everyone was offering advice and placing bets while the two men tried to concentrate- pretty funny.

After this, and a little light dinner, I wandered past a circus (wow!) and a bunch of kids playing soccer with a half-deflated ball. Of course, when they asked, I joined in. More people this past week called out to me, talked to me, and generally badgered me than in my ENTIRE stay in Japan- Vietnam’s definitely friendlier than I thought it would be.

Six hours and one overnight flight later, it’s back to Japanese soil, people who speak a language I comprehend (well, more than Vietnamese, anyways) and life returns to … normal in Japan. Which is pretty out there, anywhere else.

Past few weeks have been insanely busy- family came and went, we're on our way to Kyushu this weekend, and there will be many more "Andrew-gets-lost-in-foreign-country" stories to come. Oh, and I teach sometimes.