Monday, January 30, 2006

Short Post before Work

Today's my last day at Ritto Jr. High for the next few months. I'm heading over to school #2, Hayama- good kids, but Ritto is three steps off my back porch, and Hayama's half an hour out in the country (by bicycle, 'course). The kids at Hayama are great, but I'm not sure if they can match this:

Yesterday, in one of my 3rd-grade (9th, in America) classes, the girl who asked me to sing Amazing Grace way back when I got here came to me with an interesting question. It was in the middle of an exercise, and one of the worksheets had a picture of a ninja scaling a building (today's subject: Prepositions! The Ninja is on the wall!). She pointed to the picture, and asked, politely, "Andrew-sensei, how do you say Ninja in English?" As you all know, the English for Ninja is Ninja. I tell her so.

She was waiting for this, I can tell. The giant smile of a kid who's won one against the teaching staff erupts on her face.

"So the CIA and FBI... ninja?"

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Not Much to Report

Lots of planning is going on- there's some big stuff coming up that I'll allow to remain a mystery until I'm sure I can pull it off- but planning doesn't make for interesting reading. So, rather than a blow-by-blow of my boring weekend, have an anecdote from work today. Great taste, less filling.

My third-grade students are now less than a month away from their High School entrance exams- which means that the focus of all our lessons has shifted entirely towards preparing them. As such, the speaking tests have become daily events, and their homework has risen to ridiculous, unenviable levels. I've got moral issues saddling middle-schoolers with piles and piles of homework. Given my past performance in that department, handing out assignments and expecting them to get done is an exercise in grandiose hypocrisy. The prisoner is trying to run the jail.

That said, the preparation for these tests is not a laughing matter, and it certainly doesn't matter what I think about the philosophy of crushing students under metric tons of xerox copies. Not up to me. On top of all this work (but wait, there's more) today we held mock interviews.

The high school acceptance process is finely crafted cruelty. Not only do they have to take a test just to get in, each school has their own tests- and the tests all happen at the same time. You may take ONE. This is not your father's SAT. If you mess up the test, you have to wait a year as a ronin (the old word for masterless samurai) and retake it the next year- there are no "second choice schools". After the test, the aspiring student then has to survive a battery of interviews- and one of these interviews is held in English.

So, behind a comically small desk, I sat today and interviewed students as if I was a member of the review board. CHILDREN ENTERED MY ROOM CRYING. They're insanely afraid of even practicing for this. So I followed the script, and did what I could. Here's a from-memory pseudotranscript of one session. Names are changed to protect the innocent. Italics are in Japanese.

Child enters the room. "Excuse me."
Teacher: "Please, sit down."
Child: "Thank you."
Teacher: "May I have your name?"
Child: "Akiko Tanaka."
T: "And how old are you?"
C: "I'm 15."
T: "What middle school did you go to?"
C: "Ehhh? Ano... Pardon?"
T: "What Junior High School did you attend?"
C: "Ritto Junior High."
T: "Why do you want to study English?"
C: "Eto....ano... English is Fun!"
T: "..." (Directions were to wait, and make them say a bit more)
C: "I want to interpreter. I want to study... ryugakusei wa... study abroad."
T: "Good! Now, we're going to look at some pictures. Who is the boy playing guitar?"
C: "Mark."
T: "What are these people doing?" (Picture is of about fifty people cleaning up a river)
C: "They are volunteer."
T: "Have you ever been a volunteer?"
C: "EhhhHH!? Er... One more time?"
T: "Have you done an activity like this before?"
C: "Yes. I have."
T: "When?"
C: "I cleaned a river in elementary school."
T: "Very good! Thank you. We're finished."
C: "Thank you. Excuse me."

Child stands, goes to leave. Now is when we (myself and my wingman, who has been sitting silently next to me THE WHOLE TIME) take five minutes to offer a critique. The wingman TEARS INTO this kid, just goes nuts on her, picking apart just about everything she did. I had absolutely no material I could touch on that he hadn't, so I just extended a fist forward in the universal gesture of support. "You rocked. Calm down, have fun with it, and you'll do even better on the real thing." (All my students can conjugate "to rock". I am a proud man.) She smiled, tapped my fist with hers (I am as proud as a new father- I taught the fist-tap to one class of first-graders, and now it's all over school), and sent in the next victim. They all went about like this.

These poor kids.

To change topics just a touch, the following is an open letter to the American Beef Industry:

JAPAN IS LAUGHING AT YOU. Evidently, your guys sent our guys a cow spine, violating Japanese standards for prevention of Mad Cow. It's all over the news. There have been countless reports showing American officials bowing and scraping, emphasizing that their meat is safe. Bush even went so far as to say that if Japan wasn't going to open their ports, he'd have to be "more aggressive (long pause) in convincing them." (paraphrase). The anchors on the news show wasted NO TIME comparing this to Commodore Perry's Black Ships- the first time America decided to aggressively convince Japan to open trade. They still haven't forgotten. Black Ships are a byword for "terrifying foreign action", and is a sure way to swing public opinion against capitulating and accepting American beef. Nobody likes getting pushed around.

You also might like to know that placemats in Japanese Mcdonalds proudly proclaim that their beef hails from Australia. Even your own guys know what's good for business. I have no solutions- I'm just an English teacher- but I figured you guys ought to know how things are going over here. It ain't too well.

Now, American Baseball is WORLDS more popular than American cows. The Seattle Mariners just signed another Japanese guy. This news spot took ten minutes. Mad Cow took only five, and three and a half were the anchors suppressing smirks and saying "Black Ships again, eh?"


Monday, January 16, 2006

I have a job. I forget that sometimes.

It occurs to me that I've somewhat neglected discussion on that thing that occupies 9 hours of my life every day, and the blog's been missing out on some comedy gold as a result. As such, bear with me as I break from madcap adventures (which will be addressed later in this post, I promise) to give you...


6:30 am: Punch alarm clock. Go back to bed.

7:00 am: Wake, shower, make breakfast. Today: 2 eggs sunny-side up, toast, coffee. (I must maintain my culture in the face of what is to come.)

8:00 am: Walk to work. Pull some water out of the communal hot-water-tap (every grade-level group of teachers in the Teacher's Office has their own hot water boiler at the end of the row- this is consistent among all my schools- these guys drink a LOT of tea) and have another cup of coffee.

8:15 am: Morning meeting. Listen to reports of suspicious people, arson, missing shoes, bicycle theft, and student activity- who's smoking in front of the 7-11, who's been spotted out late at the restaurants and bars when they really ought to be studying (Students + Bars = OK, but OK + Late = Bad), employee gossip and the like. The meetings are MCed by the Vice Principal while the principal himself presides to one side and oversees the action, occasionally adding a coment or a "Thank you for your kindness."

8:30 am: Homeroom. I sit in the teacher's office and stare at the walls. In the classrooms, they might be discovering the lost secrets of Atlantis. I would never be the wiser. Coffee #3.

9:00 am: Class Formally Begins. First hour, I run speaking tests with Mr. Banno, an altogether cool guy who teaches the 3rd-grade English class and is also the school's "Discipline Teacher"- which gains him a seat on the administrative row in the Teacher's Office! His English is frighteningly good, and he and I make geeky language jokes about Japanese dialects and English slang.

Speaking tests are conducted thusly: Students memorize a dialogue from the textbook starring the lovable and easy-to-pronounce Emi, Mark, Ken and Yumi. Today's Dialogue (not, as thought previously, the Videogame Debate- sorry, Em, that's next week): Mark Goes to the Doctor. It's five or so lines total, featuring Mark and, not surprisingly, a Doctor. Banno-sensei and I take up a position in the subarctic hallway (in Japan, the classrooms are heated, but the halls are not) and pairs come out and perform for us. The first round of these go easily.

In the textbook, they've got a "Toolbox" section with helpful extra pieces of English. Today, the kids learned to ask "What's the matter with you?"- sparking a nice quick explanation from Andrew-Sensei that we in America really don't say that unless our next line is "Are you stupid?" The textbook writers are well-meaning, but often out of touch. The kids learn to say "What's the matter?" instead.

9:45 am: First hour ends. Ten minute break. Tea.

9:55 am: Second hour, with Furui-sensei, a kind woman about 50ish (maybe) who stands about 4'8" in heels. The moment I get through the door, a cheery 3rd-grader walks up to me, sticks out his hand, and says "Hi, Motherf*****!" with the biggest, most innocent smile in the world. He's a big American movie buff. Every day, he's got another curse to turn the air blue, and when I explain (DELICATELY!) why it's wrong to say, he laughs and waves as he returns to his seat. "Donmai! Donmai!"... the Japanese way of saying "Never Mind"- how never mind goes from Never Mind to Don't Mind to Donmai is a mystery to me. All my kids, courtesy of Japanese language-acquisition, butcher "Don't Mind"- that, "Sankyuu!" and "Bai-Bai" have been full-on adopted to the point that most of them don't know they're speaking English when they say it.

Later during class, we're administering the Speaking Test when a girl comes up, gives a fairly good performance and recieves a fairly good score. She sees the paper, and looks as flustered as any human being can be. She protests in Japanese for a few seconds, turns to her friend and quickly conferences, and then turns back to me and Furui-Sensei. In careful English laced with exasperation, she exclaims: "I... was... PERFECT!"

10:40 am: 10 minute break. I keep laughing about "Perfect", have another cup of tea.

10:50 am: 3rd Hour. Again, with Furui-Sensei. At the beginning of class, there's a group of boys in the back who won't sit down- about eight of them just cluster at the back, trying to hide what's going on in the middle of their little circle. The Mighty Gaijin goes to investigate. Two boys are crouched on the floor, doing their best imitation of Sumo wrestlers. They stomp, they bow, they rush each other and one tosses the other against the classroom door. He claps, smiles, and squats to mime recieving a drink in an impossibly tiny cup from one of the boys in the circle. The victor then looks up at me, and says:

"Ohh!! Andoryu-sensei! sumo shiteiru? ie, ie. Do... you... know... Japanese Sumo?"

"Of course, but it's English class now. Not sumo class."

"Ano sa, yattemiyou?"

With only that warning, the kid stomps once and hurls himself at me. He is the world's tiniest sumo wrestler. He's not a fat kid, nor is he particularly strong, and he keeps trying to toss me around as I lead him back to his seat and indicate to my combatant that now might be a good time to sit down.

11:35 am: 10 minute break. We now laugh about Hi Mofo, Perfect, and Littlest Sumo.

11:45 am: 4th Hour. Banno-sensei, more speaking tests, and an ultimately uneventful hour (aside from the theatrics that some of these kids put into their dialogues- "I think I have a medicine! Err... Headicine! Medicache! HEADACHE!") which passes fairly quickly, given that we're still sitting in the hallway slowly freezing.

12:30 pm: LUNCH! Today was a bento day- for three dollars, we get a box of cooked white rice, a packet of miso soup (to be mixed with hot water and drank from your coffee cup), and a box of assorted small portions of things that are alternatively delicious and terrifying. Some pickled stuff, some tempura, a dollop of thin noodles covered in sauce that looks and smells like axle grease. It's still better than the normal school lunches, which can be unassumingly normal (bread, soup, potatoes, meat) or terrifyingly Japanese (whole fish about the size of sardines, to be eaten whole- head, bones, digestive tract all intact- in one of two varieties: plain, or stuffed so full of fish eggs that their little bodies are bursting) - and no matter how crazy it is, I eat it out of a certain sense of cultural ambassadorship. The little fishies are actually starting to taste a whole lot better than they did when I first got here- my tastebuds have decided to walk off the job.

1:00 pm: Cleaning Time. I sweep the teacher's room with the Vice Principal.

1:15 pm: Fifth Hour. Class with Nambu-sensei and the 2nd graders (in America, 8th grade). This class is calm, compared to Sumo Sumo Mayhem, but they like to ask questions. Today, they wanted to know if I: a) Bleached my hair (no) , b) Wear color contacts (no), c) Have a girlfriend (no!) d) want to date *this student* (NO!!!!!!). This is the same class, last week, that I walked up behind a pair of students chatting and generally ignoring Nambu-sensei, and they nearly fell out of their chairs in shock and fear, exclaiming loudly in Japanese that I was like a "Kaiju." What's a Kaiju? A giant monster. Like Godzilla- Gojira around these parts.

2:00 pm: Sixth Hour. I didn't have to teach this hour today- so Andoryujira prepped for tomorrow and messed around with the email on the cellphone.

After a whole lot more sitting around, preptime, and chatting with students and teachers, I went home at 5:00, opened up the laptop, and tapped out this entry. That's today.

Now, we'll go back in time really quick and touch on what I did with my weekend.

Friday, I left school and hopped on the bike to entertain some curiosity. Turns out I have to ride one kilometer to leave all conceit of "city life" behind and find...

The Wastelands. The moment you get out of town, as if you've crossed a magic line of demarcation, tightly-packed buildings and tiny roads give way to unthinkably large expanses and the looming mountain range that stands sentinel between Lake Biwa and the city of Kyoto.

I present, also, a little quirky shrine I found in the middle of one of these fields:

And its strangely dizzying shrine lantern.

Just for contrast, later that night I found this crazy thing:

This shop sells nothing but implements with which to cook beef. Some things don't need my wordy self getting in the way of their natural beauty. That evening, dinner at a Nabe restaurant- the ever-popular everything-in-the-pot winter food- and I ended up having a delicious bowl of something that I couldn't identify- so I asked- and it turns out that I've committed an unpardonable sin.

I have eaten whale. In my defense, I didn't order it. But it was tasty- guilt is delicious, evidently.

Saturday was a wash- didn't do anything exploration-tastic or touristy. Just had a few friends over to cook risotto, as we were all having garlic withdrawal. The house is now safe from vampires.

Sunday, however, was a different story. The White Stripes were set to play at Zepp Osaka in Osaka's port district, and I, by hook or by crook, was going to go. The friends who were going to accompany me decided to either get sick or be lazy, so I alone rode the train in. I alone met a few really cool photography students, one of whom had just returned from a two-year study-abroad in Britain, and as such speaks the coolest English in the world (I don't know why, but people who speak a second language with a clearly identifiable accent are AWESOME in my book) and I alone strolled confidently up to the doors of Zepp Osaka to find...

That Jack White has lost his voice, and as such has postponed or perhaps cancelled the Japan tour.

Disappointing, but it did let me poke around the port island a bit before the sun went down. It was eerie- on Sunday evening, the majority of the island seemed deserted.
There was a flea market in a parking lot just to the left of the above picture, with a live band and a cover charge. I tried getting a picture of it, but none of the pictures quite captured the Mad-Max flavor of this tent city in the middle of a gravel parking lot surrounded by this concrete insanity...
There was a sign, however, that pointed to further items of interest...

The Osaka World Trade Center! Seems all Trade Center architecture shares the "Let's make this a SERIOUSLY big building" ethic.

The trade center's the one on the right. On the left is the NTT (Think AT&T, Japan-style) building.

This is the view from the harbor behind the Trade Center, at sunset...

After that, I got some dinner at the Christon Cafe- a church-themed bar/restaurant in Osaka. Gold, crosses, red velvet, a giant statue of Mary... It was sacrilicious. The interesting thing here is that they have no idea why what they're doing is subtly wrong- communion-wine vessels for salad dressing, disco balls over crucifixes.

Anyways, that was pretty much my weekend, and from now on I'll be giving better reports on what's going on at school. The little rockband that could, for the record, is still practicing every time the brass band meets- and they're getting better. They're still not going to open for the White Stripes, or anything...

but it looks like they've got some time to practice before the White Stripes come back.


Monday, January 09, 2006

Boys, Be Ambitious!

There's a bronze statue on a hill outside of Sapporo, Hokkaido of a Western man, his arm outstretched towards the city. On the base, the words "Boys, Be Ambitious" is inscribed in English. These words attacked me the moment I stepped off the plane at Chitose Airport, and haunted me the entire time I was in Hokkaido- appearing emblazoned on streetcars, on signs in the street, written on the backs of ski lifts and engraved on manhole covers. It wasn't until I returned to Shiga and fired up the internet that I found out what the story was. An American teacher spent nine months in Sapporo, and they gave him a statue and adopted his parting words as the city's mantra.

I've got some work to do if I want a statue- that guy's a tough act to follow.
Let's back up a bit, though.

I started my trip to Hokkaido at Osaka Itami Airport- I wrote a short cry for help from the coin-operated computer just before I left. There is one other item of particular note there at the airport:

It's a furniture store. It's a furniture store prior to the security checkpoint, no less. Should I decide that there's a lamp or, god forbid, a couch I simply can't live without, how exactly do I get it onto the plane and off to wherever I'm going? How do I smuggle a shoe rack past airport security?

That aside, I promised a picture of the PokePlane that I rode in on the way to Sapporo.

There it is, taxiing into the gate. Can't really see it too well- blame airport security. I also couldn't get any pictures of the interior- I have a cameraPHONE, and a live cellphone is verboten on the plane. I'd like to say that the inside was a brightly-colored pokewonderland, but that is sadly untrue. It was instead a normal plane, with pictures of Pikachu on the headrests.The flight attendants, when serving drinks, donned pokemon-themed aprons as well. Nobody thought twice about it. They even went around handing out Pokemon postcards everyone on the plane- and EVERYONE liked them. From the oldest grandparent passengers to the youngest children, absolutely every passenger exclamed "AWW CUTE!!" and took three or four.

A word on Japanese flight attendants: They are at once flight staff and the most exquisite marketing scheme I have ever seen. Their uniforms are designer-label clothes (yeah, even the neckscarf), and all of the Attendant Wear is for sale in the in-flight catalogue. Even their watches- which are all standard-issue. I got to talking to one (she used to be an English teacher- cool person, name's Runo, lives in Osaka, studied in Vermont for a year), and they're evidently not HAPPILY serving as mannequins for a manufactured jetset lifestyle, but it's part of the job- and "breaking character" to chat and kvetch with the gaijin would get her in a bundle of trouble, if the supervisor spoke enough English to understand us.

Anyway, after a very Pokemon flight to Sapporo (Air Nippon Airways-mon, I choose you!), I got off the plane at about 12:30, and caught a bus out to the Sapporo International Ski Area.
While on the bus, I was an idiot tourist and took a few pictures.

This picture is still within Sapporo city limits- we're not out into the mountains yet.

The snow in this country is amazing. There are buckets and buckets and buckets of it, and it's all light, fluffy powder. Snowboarding on this stuff is more like surfing than anything else- there's absolutely no resistance, no scraping or shudders. Sapporo Kokusai is the smallest of the four mountains I visited this vacation- and it is still large enough to be, at a glance, forbidding. There are gondolas and avalanche warnings. I loved it.

After the first day of snowboarding, the bus returned to the hotel (at night, on narrow mountain roads, in the middle of a blizzard- awesome), where I checked in and dropped my stuff off. My hotel room was literally an eight-foot cube- eight feet in every direction with an attached five-foot cube bathroom. TINY. I took pictures, but they didn't really turn out. Sorry.

What did turn out, however, is the view from my hotel window.
Whats that white thing in the middle of the picture? Could it be?

YES! It's another Statue of Liberty! I think Japan's got to have the highest capita Statue of Liberty count in the world. This one lifts her lamp beside the golden door of yet another love hotel. My hotel, the Tokyu Inn, was a pretty ritzy arrangement of eight-foot-cube rooms, but it happened to be located in Susukino, the huge entertainment district of Sapporo. Susukino is famous for its high number of bars, love hotels and "massage parlors" all packed into a one-kilometer square.

I managed to find, in this snowy sprawl of neon and drunken salarymen, a Singaporean restaurant. The staff here were all Japanese, but (from numerous trips to Singapore) spoke Singlish almost exclusively in the shop. Well, Singlish mixed with Japanese- it was, however you describe it, the coolest creole language I've ever heard/learnt to speak. I went back every night after snowboarding, had some really good Mee Goreng, and just soaked up the language.

Confession: I'm a linguistic sponge. I love talking (big surprise), and I love listening to the different ways people have to express themselves. It's a constant fascination. This shop's brand of Sinjapanglish is, in my opinion, the eventual destination in the evolution of English in Japan- they're just ahead of the curve. It's a free mixing of English structures, Japanese and Chinese vocabulary, and Chinese interjectory particles. It's a fun way to talk. I really, REALLY want to go to Singapore- just to have a chance to speak like that all the time.

But I digress.

The next day, I woke up and destroyed the hotel's breakfast buffet. There were two lines of food- one Western, one Eastern. I like to think of myself as an international kind of guy- so there was no choice in the matter but to eat both courses. A few times.

After going all Godzilla on the food (and discovering that eggs, sausage, rice and miso soup go pretty well together), I hopped on the first bus out to Rusutsu. Rusutsu's about two hours from Sapporo, and it's one of the three REALLY BIG ski resorts in Hokkaido. The snow (and the mountain) are awesome- I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, as nobody really wants to read a dissertation on the state of snowboarding in Northern Japan.

That last one- the one that's not a picture taken from the top of a snowy mountain? That's the resort's animatronic band, Daniell and the Dixie Diggers. They sang and bantered- all in English, no Japanese translations- and belted out such hits as "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Dixie". Why a Southern ragtime band in Hokkaido, Japan?

I have no idea. We report, you decide. The locals love 'em, though. The benches in front of this bandstand were never empty, and when the animatronic animals kicked it into high gear I could hear people humming along. "To live and die in Dixie..."

Next to the bandstand (and you'll have to forgive the crappy picture, but this simply must be seen to be appreciated) was a vending machine that sold hot dinners.
Press one of the buttons, and a plate of spaghetti (or pizza, or whatever) drops into the little door at the bottom hot and ready to eat. We need more of these- everywhere.

That evening, back to the Singaporean restaurant. They're good people, it's inexpensive, and they asked me to come back- seems they're all pretty keen on having someone around that understands (and laughs) when they make rude comments about the customers in Singlish. If any of you out there go to Sapporo, I highly reccomend this place- it's called "Kopitiam". Tell 'em Andy sent you.

The next day (after another huuuge breakfast), I went to the A Number-One Best Ski Area in Japan- Niseko. It's three peaks, five ski zones, and waaay more places than I could explore over the course of one day. It was the first time that the trail map wasn't just a nice thing to have, but a necessary survival tool- "Now, if I take this run over to this lift, I'll have to take these runs to get back in time for the bus back to the hotel..." The powder was so deep that at one point I sank in to my armpits and had to literally climb back out sans snowboard. This wasn't in the backcountry- this was WELL WITHIN the marked trails... it's just that big, that even within the groomed area there are pristine, untouched fields of snow. Posted in all the gondolas were forbidding warnings that areas marked off by red ropes (two large sections inbetween the three peaks) were currently undergoing "snow stability testing" with explosives, and that anybody going in there was either going to end up dead or arrested. Yikes. On the upside, the trails that were open still had runs up to five and a half kilometers long. Five and a half kilometers takes a REALLY LONG TIME to snowboard down, for those of you wondering. And if that isn't enough, there are "Backcountry Entrance Zones" where you can ski off-piste without incurring the wrath of the ski patrol, for those of you who come prepared with avalanche beacons, shovels, and snowshoes... mind you, without the wrath, you also sacrifice the protection of the ski patrol. Forget that. There are WAY better ways to die than that. Warm ways. Ways in Bermuda.

So I avoided the ropes and stayed in the marked areas, but still got some pretty nice pictures. The first half of the day was a blizzard- great for riding in, as the snow's always fresh, but horrible for pictures, as the visibility's about ten feet- so I've only got these few to show off.

I think the last one's my favorite.

That night, back to the Singaporean restaurant (again! What can I say, they're nice guys- and I got back from Niseko at 11:00... way too late to explore the city), and after an evening of chatting with the staff and customers the owner calls me over. He messes around behind the bar for a second and emerges with a Kopitiam staff T-Shirt- which he insists I take back to Shiga, and wear, so as to entice all my friends to come to Hokkaido. Like I said, they're great guys.

The last morning of the trip, I descend upon the buffet like a pack of ravenous crows for the third and final time. Then, it's back on the bus (I spent a lot of time on that bus!) to go to Sapporo Teine Ski Resort. It's not huge like Rusutsu or Niseko, but it's a lot of fun- it's a very family-oriented resort. They've got a mascot, who wanders around mugging for photos.

They've also got a theme park that is only accessible by ski lift. There are signs on the backs of the lift chairs like "Enjoy Go-Carts!" and "Happy Together Family Time!"

Unfortunately, they weren't running the coaster in THE BLIZZARD, nor was the Ferris wheel going. I'm a sucker for Ferris wheels.

After a day of wholly enjoyable snowboarding, my sore carcass clambered on the bus, transferred to a train, and got to the airport two hours before my flight left. So I decided to grab dinner at the airport cafeteria. You order your food in the line, and you get a box about the size of a paperback book with a flashing light at one end- and then you're told to go sit down. Every table has one of these.
So you place your "waiting-box within this sheet limit"- and the microchip under the sheet tells the waiting-box which table you're at. The waiting-box transmits that signal to the register, and the waiter brings you your food- always the right food, always the right place. I'm amazed- it's a great idea. Now all they need is to figure out the English language- I mean, come on. "The visitor of reciept"?!

My plane back to Osaka was ANOTHER POKEJET- this one even cooler than the first.

They were so proud of it that they had a model on display in the airport lobby.

Color me impressed. It, too, had the Pikachu headrests and the stewardesses in Pokemon aprons. There's something really charming about the unabashed way that they embrace "cute" in this country. On a completely different track, our "inflight movie" was a live broadcast of the sumo championships. Nothing funnier than watching the big guy next to me- who the whole time watched the sumo absolutely intently- erupt into an exclamation of "CUTE!!!!" when the flight attendant came by with the tray of Pokemon postcards.

Plane ride, bus ride, train ride later, and here I am in Shiga again. Upon reflection, the best part of Hokkaido was the fact that they have central heating up there- central heating, and insulation. The cold isn't so bad when you can look forward to a nice warm house. Here in Shiga, it's cold ALL THE TIME.

No time for worries about that, however. I have a plan for the next adventure... I must find the Koka Ninja Village.

Somewhere in the town of Koka, there is an old ninja training ground. It is, supposedly, absolutely awesome. Koka is on my local train line. It's practically in my backyard. The fact that there is a ninja village here, and that the ninja village's whereabouts have escaped me for this long...

I would be shaming my family and ancestors if I didn't find these ninja. (note: the plural of ninja? Ninja. Why? I don't know. It's like moose. Maybe that way you never know how many ninja there are- one ninja? Eighteen ninja?) But before that, it's back to work- opening ceremonies is tomorrow, and as I understand it I do still have a job. Can't all be snowboarding and ninja.

Wish it could, though...


EDIT: I don't think the original post quite emphasized how cool it was up there in the mountains- there were times, when it was just me, the snow, and the suicidal dropoffs, and it felt like I was the only human being in the world. It was like a cold, silent and solitary heaven- to delve into pop culture, I was a trespasser in the Superman's Fortress of Solitude- and as my fellow suburbanites can attest, when you grow up surrounded by the constant roar of the freeways, silence and open space like that are nigh unto holy.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Let's Enjoy Internet by 100-yen coin!

No, honestly, that's what the scrolling text at the top of my screen says AT THIS VERY MOMENT. This missive is coming to you courtesy of the coin-operated '@station'- yes, a coin-operated computer- next to the Starbucks in Osaka Itami Airport. Osaka Itami looks exactly like every other airport I've seen- a large, neutral-white waiting area filled with expensive restaurants serving cheap food. This isn't, unfortunately, the airport built on an artificial island- that one's about a half-hour to my south.

The giant bright spot in all of this is that I was, by pure chance, lucky enough to score a seat on the PokePlane. The jet I'm about to board is painted- every inch- in bright, happy Pokemon characters... my ADD is screaming for mercy.

Gotta go- I promise, there will be pictures of the Pokeplane. Call it a promise.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Chapter 78: In which strange things are consumed incidentally, mundane things accidentally, and a bell is rung occasionally

To begin, Happy New Year, everybody. Welcome to that three-to-five month floatspace in which we all still write 2005 on the checks. This has been a madcap Winter Break- the details of which I shall elucidate below. First, though, a warning: Should the reader still maintain a delusion that I am anything shy of a complete idiot, you'd do well to disabuse yourself of that notion forthwith. It'll prepare you for what's to come.

With that out of the way... This past Christmas Day, I decided to go into the mountains in pursuit of a stereotypically White Christmas- and found it, in abundance. The day was spent up in North Shiga, snowboarding in the mountains. No bones were broken. We shall try again, next week (starting the 5th) ... here. Niseko Resort, Hokkaido.

That, however, is in the future. To pick up where I left off, the day after Christmas I hopped in a car with the owner of my local ramen shop- who is, in fact, a great guy. Momentary tangent: This man, on Christmas Eve, cooked me roast chicken and mashed potatoes. He is, for that alone, a king among Ramen Guys. It also helps that he speaks fluent English.

So he, and the rest of his ramen shop staff, decided to take a field trip to Kobe, which is evidently the Japanese ancestral birthplace of ramen. It's about two hours by car from where I'm at in Ritto, to the south past Osaka. We left at about 9:30, and made a beeline for Kobe's famous Chinatown.
What, pray tell, do you think we ate (in a city famous for it's delicious beef)?

Yeah. Ramen. Don't get me wrong- it was great ramen, and certainly didn't set us back a few hundred USD like the beef would have- but I was shocked. After we poked around the Chinatown a bit (and the Ramen Shop guy, visible as the bald man in the foreground of the picture above, shocked us all by speaking fluent Chinese in addition to his English and Japanese- this guy needs to get out of the ramen business), we decided to head for the Harbor.

On the way, we passed this cool little slice of cultural juxtaposition.
Don't know why, but this just struck me as cool-looking. Same goes for the harbor.

The temptation to commandeer a seaworthy vessel and set out for the open blue was strong, but any piratical tendencies swelling in my breast were squelched by a simple reminder from the ramen crew that they were going to go have some cake at a little restaurant by the harbor, and that a mad dash for the high seas would pretty much destroy my chances of coming along. So I put that fantasy on the backshelf, had some cake, and went home happy.

The next day was our Board of Education Bonenkai- the "forget-the-year party". This was, without question, one of the strangest experiences I've had yet in this country- and that's saying a lot. The Board met at City Hall at five-forty in the evening, and piled into a bus that carried us all of three blocks to the restaurant where the party was to be held. Just a dinner party. Not too crazy. We (about thirty people, including the Superintendent and various educational luminaries) were shown to a special room in the back of the restaurant about the size of a classroom, and seated on the floor around a series of low tables, each with a burner in the center. Having seen this sort of configuration before, I didn't really think about it. I figured we were just going to have nabe- the communally-cooked, everything-in-the-pot soup that's a winter staple around here and the preferred chow of sumo wrestlers everywhere.

Except that the dish for the party was turtle soup. By soup I mean an entire turtle, bones and all, in a pot. The shell figured largely in this design- the poor creature was cooked inside himself. They spared not a single organ in this meal- everything (save for vegetables, spices, and the everpresent side dish of rice) came from the turtle, and everything that issued forth from the beast was, at some point, consumed. Everything.

We started the night (and this should have sent out warning flags, really) with the traditional toast- except each guest was given a shot glass full of something bright red, and smelling of iron and alchohol. I had a feeling I knew what was going on, but just in case I nudged my coordinator, sitting next to me. "What is this?" She smiled, shrugged, and said simply: "Chi."

Blood. Turtle blood, in fact, mixed with sake. I wasn't going to be able to get out of this without a lengthy apology and a great deal of shame dealt to my family and ancestors, so down it went.

I can now say, safely, that blood and ricewine tastes almost exactly as you'd expect it to taste. A bit like rusty well water, and a whole lot like a thousand cultural alarms going off at once in your brain telling you that drinking blood belongs only in the realm of classic horror films. It didn't really taste that bad, but I can say I feel just a touch unclean.

After the turtle was summarily consumed, and everyone had seemingly drank their fill (some of these older Board of Ed members can really pack it away!), the ritual of exchanging sake cups began. Evidently, this is just a Shiga prefecture thing- people in other parts of Japan don't do this- so to impress your friends with your knowledge of obscure cultural folkways:

First, drain whatever's in your sake cup, and hand it to your intended victim. The victim rotates the cup (so that they're not drinking off the same spot you did) and holds the cup feebly, knowing full well what's about to happen. Then, you fill their (your) glass, and sit smiling at them until they drink it and return your cup to you- at which point you are required to drink again. Repeat ad libitum.

Shortly after the flurry of cup-passing, at roughly eight-thirty, the party came to a formal conclusion. There was another speech, more clapping, and more bowing- and then the second party started.

This is how formal company parties occur in Japan. First there is the dinner party, and then there are "floating parties"- groups of people who decide the party isn't over, so they decide it's time for karaoke. I had the good fortune (?) of being included in this "floating world", and being ferried away in a taxi (one excellent thing I can say is that they take the utmost precaution against DUI) with six or so of my coworkers to a "snack shop"- the grown-up version of a karaoke bar.

Karaoke bars are mostly little, dimly-lit rooms where your party can sit and sing uninterrupted, your only companion an occasional waitress. When a karaoke bar is no longer seedy enough for your veteran tastes, you graduate to a snack shop. A snack shop is a karaoke bar where everyone sits together in a velvet-coated room (walls, ceiling, sofas- the floor alone escapes the velvet treatment, and it's shag carpet)- about twenty of us now- and is constantly attended by Mama- an aging, kindly, matronly woman in a maroon satin pantsuit.

I could not make this up if I tried.

We were there until midnight. There is nothing more amusing than seeing your sixty-year-old Board of Education Director croon out a lovesong in front of all his comrades- and every single one of them (us) hung on his every word. All laughter, no matter how scraping and gravelly the voice, no matter whether the singer could carry a tune or if they dragged it along like a child to the dentist, and always, ALWAYS supportive. Not a soul cracked a joke at the expense of a poor musician.

The next day, everyone was back at work as usual... well, everybody but me. I went to see Mr. and Mrs. Smith with a friend (HILARIOUS IN JAPANESE- probably not so much in English) and bummed around the house.

The next day: Osaka or Bust. There wasn't much of anything going on, so I decided to go get lost in my favorite city by the sea. I was largely successful. In the course of getting lost, I found this oddity.

What could it be?

This vertical park has a path that winds up eight floors of terraces, and under (in?) the park is a shopping mall. At the top is a bandshell, and a wonderful open-air view of the city.Later that night, I went down to Shinsaibashi to explore the crazy neon shopping district.
It goes on like this for miles and miles- people, shoulder-to-shoulder (or, in my case, elbow-to-ear) without a break. Osaka does not know solitude. What it does know, however, is how to surprise me. I ducked into a stairwell alongside this road, and dropped down into an underground city.

Under a great deal of Osaka is an interconnected labyrinth of tunnels, subway stations, and shopping districts. You can walk, underground and without surfacing, for quite a ways- so much so that you can track changes in architecture from one hub plaza to another.
This one, for example, has a fountain- and a bunch of little kids more than happy to play in the spouts. I'm intrigued by the possibility of exploring Osaka Below- next time I'm in the area, that's a mission.

Parting thoughts for the city: Osaka has, without fail, the most interesting collection of McDonald's stores I've ever seen.Note the naugahyde.

After an ultramodern day in Osaka, it was time for New Year's Eve in Kyoto. I left the house at about 2:00, with the intention of scoping out good temples to visit. On the train, I ran into a young couple from Texas in the area for the holidays, and got to play tourguide for awhile. It really is a good deal of fun showing people all these little places I've discovered, or had shown to me- and I figure it's a good way to build up interesting-place karma. If I share with them, someone else will share with me, eventually.

New Year's Eve in Japan is very much a religious holiday. There is, in Kyoto, no giant ball and no Dick Clark to ring in the new year- rather, they have bells. Lots and lots of temple bells, and starting at 12:00 midnight each temple bell is rung 108 times, to purify the body of the 108 worldly sins. The temples themselves are lit up and look like, as an Australian who I met in the subway mentioned as we stared up at this gate, things out of a fairy garden.

The mood of the city is halfway between a religious service and a carnival. There are food booths out on the street, all the temples are open, the streets are littered with monks and women in kimono. It's absolutely surreal. At each temple, I burned a stick of incense for my family, for my friends, for everyone I know who was at that very moment walking in the sunlight as I stood in the dark before large iron cauldrons, surrounded by the tolling of the bells. If you are reading this, a stick was burnt for you- best wishes for the new year. Trust me, it happened- there were a lot of temples, and a lot of incense. I ended up burning a few sticks for "anybody I forgot- ow, my fingers, that was hot- this one's for you." by the time I got around to the end of the long stretch of temples and minor altars at the end of the district. At one of the temples, I recieved a pair of cakes of what appeared to be very hard, solid mochi- rice pudding cakes- and when I broke one up and shared it with the Australian and a guy from Baltimore, we all took big bites and immediately were struck with the realization that it was, in fact, wax.

I told you I was an idiot. This wax mochi is supposed to be taken home, and put in your tokonoma- your decorative altar/nook at your house. Most definitely not meant to be eaten.

It takes, for those of you interested, a very, very long time for the temple bells to toll 108 times. Hours, in fact. At some of the temples, the monks toll them alone- behind closed gates. At some, the public steps up and rings them- lines of people winding along gravel paths and around firepits, waiting to take their place for a moment at the giant swinging hammers that strike the bells. There were, at these temples, monks standing behind large casks of amazake, sake with bits of sweet mochi (this time, real) stirred in, handing out cups for free with their blessings. It was respectful, and joyful, and a little sad. Everyone- all the clumps of people I passed- was smiling and talking softly- no loud voices, and no rushing. We moved in slow, measured steps, as if dreaming, and every time one of the huge temple bells tolled I could feel the sound rumbling through me, shaking the tips of my ribs and walking up the backs of my fingers.


Happy New Year.