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Sunday, September 28, 2003

9/28/03
One of my favorite things about Japanese culture is the shameless drive for stylishness. While in the US, most people cultivate an “I don’t give a shit attitude”—sometimes to the point that it is doubly apparent how much they actually care about their style, when their hair is always perfectly tussled and their clothes all tattered just to the right degree—in Japan, there is no self-consciousness about trying to look good. Granted, not everyone tries to look good—plenty of Japanese are perfectly happy being slobs—but many, if not most, clearly take a lot of care with their appearance.

Because style is so important, it seems that there must be new fashions constantly. Unlike in the US, where there are four seasons (correct me if I’m wrong), for example the tennis skirts that swept the Villanova University girls this late summer and early fall, Japan has more like 52 seasons, which accounts for the fact that one never sees the same thing twice.

Despite the perception that Japanese are extremely homogeneous, I couldn’t possibly categorize them based on their styles. Each person truly has a unique thing going on. And they will wear absolutely anything. You might see a girl with a tattered Punk-rock style sweatshirt hanging off one shoulder 80’s style, Catholic school girl plaid skirt, slouch socks that don’t cover the feet, and shiny Indian sandals bejeweled with faux rubies and such.

Hair is another interesting topic. Many young men cultivate the sort of uneven, spiky, larger-than-life cartoon hair reminiscent of Japanimation. Often they will have blond highlights, which accentuates the effect. I am fairly certain that the general principle among young men here is to cut the hair such that no two hairs are the same length. They will do anything to avoid their natural follicular state. Walking past barbershops, which (like most things) are generally open until well past 10 pm, one is likely to see a brilliantly coiffed barber scrutinizing his patron’s head for any stray uniformity.

At first, I thought that they achieved their mussed swatches of human-fur by simply not washing their hair (a practice I have some experience with) but after having stood in a number of extremely crowded subway cars, in which my nose is often located precisely above the heads of several men at a time, I realized that they are most certainly using liberal amounts of hair products. Last night, I was at a funny little party in which the host was trying to promote some films, and as party favors, they were handing out bottles of mousse left and right.

9/25/03
The other night my friend and I inadvertently conspired to make a funny faux pas. We ate at a place that specializes in meat, especially beef. I had a nice Japanese curry combination, but that is beside the point. The funny thing happened as we were paying. I realized that I needed to pay up front—it seems one never leaves money on the table, for instance at a restaurant—so I stood up with our combined money and paid. My friend was being a little slow, so I was waiting for him up there for a good two minutes or so. For the first minute, I stood there in blissful ignorance, patiently waiting. Then I realized that the Japanese cooks and waiters, who had been scurrying about busily moments before, were simply standing with their hands clasped in front of them, sort of giggling and smiling at each other, and at me. Apparently, they had to wait for me to sit down or leave before they could return to their work. Finally, my friend gathered his belongings and stood up, and in total ignorance said, “Ready, mate?” in that endearing British way. The staff all laughed and said thank you very much for coming and that sort of thing. I explained to my friend what had happened and he looked back to see the staff with their faces pressed against the windows, watching us as we walked away!

Today, I had a funny lunch. I saw some men putting money into a vending machine which was integrated into a little café in the train station. They then went inside and sat down. I walked up and checked out the plastic model noodle bowls in the display window, compared the Kanji (Japanese characters) with those in the vending machine, and purchased a ticket for a bowl of udon noodles (the really thick white ones) with curry. I went inside and sat at a little stool next to a stranger, at a long wooden table. Everyone around me was noisily slurping up their noodles in the typical manner. I handed over my ticket, and in a matter of moments, a woman emerged with a steaming bowl of noodles. It was quite good, and for less than $4.

(By the way, the beer I am drinking as I write this is a Sapporo “Fiber” Lager. It tastes like anything else, but I just had to try it) I just finished on the job training today. It was pretty exhausting. Coming up with entirely new lesson plans in smaller and smaller amounts of time was hard, but once I have done enough lessons, I will get the hang of it and be able to improvise more and such. Lessons are taught in small cubicle-like areas separated by clear walls that don’t quite reach the ceiling. Each room typically has a kidney bean shaped table and four or five chairs, with just enough room for five people to sit comfortably. Classes can be one-on-one or four students and a teacher, with the average somewhere in between, probably at three.
The basic rule of thumb at NOVA is to get the students to talk, so we try to have them converse with each other a lot, and when we ask questions, we tend to ask one student to ask another student the question. We use role-plays and scenarios, or games, to get the students to talk amongst themselves. However, there is a bit of drilling involved as well. The lesson typically starts with introductions and a request of the students to find out some information from each other and then report it back to the teacher, in order to get them warmed up and relaxed (many students are quite nervous and tense in lessons, despite the fact that there are no grades and NOVA is an entirely voluntary thing they are doing). Then, we introduce a topic such as travel, in order to get them thinking about the theme they will be addressing in the role-play later. We elicit information from them, and then talk about a picture in the text. Then the teacher assigns questions to the students and asks them to remember them for later. We read the text and then the students ask each other the questions and try to answer them as well as they can. Then the students read the text and ask the teacher questions if they don’t understand something. Next, we repeat some key phrases that involve the language structure of the lesson, do some drilling and work on mistakes. Finally, the students play a game or do a role-play in which they try to use the skills they just worked on.
While this is quite formulaic, it is really just the basic lesson structure for a beginning teacher. Later, we may bring in our own materials and do something quite different. There are also some different types of classes. Within that basic structure, students range from 7C, in which they can rarely say more than “My name is...” through 7B, 7A, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2, to (theoretically) 1, which is fluent. However, some students choose to take the “Business” classes. These consist of Western-style business vocabulary and customs. There are also NOVA Kids classes, which range from 3 year-olds to perhaps 11 or 12 year-olds. I noticed a gap from about that age to about 16. Some of the kid classes consist mainly of running around and keeping them from breaking stuff, but they also use a lot of props and play more games. Finally, there is “Voice Room,” which is an unstructured, unscheduled setting for students to practice. If a student comes in between 2:15 and 9:15, they may find other students to whom they may converse about whatever, or they may get a sort of free private lesson. Voice is structured only insomuch as the teacher raises topics of interest. Otherwise, students of all levels gab away as they wish.

To answer some common questions from fans:

1) No, I am not the tallest man in Japan. However, I am too tall for my apartment and for the subway. The doors are usually only about 6 feet high, which just about at the level of my upper orbital, so I don’t necessarily see them until too late, at which time I try to duck, and simply succeed in smacking the TOP of my head against the corner of the frame, even harder than otherwise. Luckily, I have only done this in my apartment, and the swelling from the first few days has already gone down. I haven’t embarrassed myself on the train—yet.

2) No, Japan is not ridiculously expensive, unless you are trying to get a huge, high quality prime rib. I have eaten out most meals and still don’t spend much on food. If you remember from earlier, it is relatively easy to find a good-sized portion of noodle soup for under $5, and I have found a place that has a big bowl of noodles with tempura shrimp and vegetables, as well as a bowl of rice with something tasty in it (I don’t remember what, but they never serve boring plain white rice) and a block of tofu, for less than $8.

3) Is Tokyo huge? Yes, it is the biggest city I care to imagine. I believe it is safe to say it is the biggest megalopolis in the world. Just to put things in perspective, if you were to take a train at 60-80 mph from one side of the metropolitan area to the other, it would easily take several hours. There are more than 30 million people here, almost 25% of the Japanese population. Interestingly, I heard that Tokyo has a population density three times that of New York City.

That’s all for now. I’m exhausted.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

9/23/03
First day on the job today. Had orientation yesterday at the main headquarters in the busiest business district of Tokyo yesterday and today I’m going to Kawasaki, which is my branch office between Yokohama and Tokyo, for some on-the-job training. Later, I will be working just one train stop away from where I live, which is amazingly lucky. The average teacher has at least a 30-45 minute train ride to work. I only have to go one stop!

Friday, September 19, 2003

9/18/03

What would it be like to be sucked out of a jetliner cruising at 571 miles per hour over the Pacific? Would it be possible to relish the unbelievable rush of going from a climate-controlled capsule environment to the deafening whistle of wind whipping past the ears at 160 miles an hour? I would like to think so. I would like to think that we could somehow enjoy those last few seconds of life on earth, before we passed out from oxygen deprivation at 35,000 feet; that we could appreciate the unique experience of the incredible acceleration and rich sensory stimulation before we ceased to exist as a conscious being.

Why do humans react positively to feelings of acceleration? It seems as if we are preprogrammed to enjoy those sorts of experiences, yet this is another case of not having had nearly enough time to encode those preferences in our genetics. Have we ridden horses long enough that those who rode were able to pass on their genetics to the rest of us because they were more successful due to the very fact that they were riders?

God, I can’t believe I am about to see Japan from 35,000 feet. I am envisioning snow-capped mountains and idealic scenery, which won't be there, because this is the coastline, and it is still late summer.

Shattering all preconceived notions about gender relations in Japan, the cleaning lady in the men’s room was bustling about around me and several other men as we relieved ourselves in the urinals. I think she even tried to catch a look at my tallywacker.

This truly is the city that never sleeps. Rush hour doesn’t stop until the trains do—at midnight or later!

I had a delicious spicy noodle bowl and beer for dinner number two. The first one was a cheap little traditional box lunch on the train from the airport. That was surprisingly good. The woman described it as chicken and egg, but it could as well have been flavored caulking paste spread over rice, for all I know.

Saw my first Japanese driving range. Although we whizzed past it at high speed, I think it had at least four levels, and it was definitely full at 10:00pm.

9/19/03

Delicious Japanese take-out breakfast this morning for cheap. I put all the items into one plastic dish as one would do at an American salad bar, and the woman seemed very distraught, at which point I realized each item was to be separately packaged and weighed. She figured it out for me, though, in the end.

An example of Japanese efficiency: I called the Asahi Shimbun/Herald Tribune office to renew my newspaper subscription (which, in a moment of genius, my Canadian roommate cancelled because he was afraid they would charge him for it) and I found a copy delivered to my door less than six hours later, on the same day!

I just wandered around a Japanese supermarket/department store, in which I tasted a couple scary worm-looking items that were being offered--I think one of them was raw squid tentacles--and wandered around in complete bewilderment, looking at all the neat, individually wrapped pickled plums or $15 cantaloupes. Although their produce is shockingly expensive, I gotta hand it to them, it is impeccable. Not a spot or blemish on any of their fruits or veggies. They must throw a ton of the stuff out.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Check it out- my address in Japan for all of you who have been anxiously waiting to figure out where to send those care packages:

#201 Bell Wistaria
1-26-6 Tarumachi
Kohoku-Ku
Yokohama-Shi
Kanagawa-Ken
222-0001

That's it for now since I am still wallowing in the banal surroundings of my hometown.

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