Saturday, November 29, 2003

Classic example of how safe Japan is, but first I need to explain the bike locks here because they figure prominently in the story: a LOT of people ride bikes here to get around. Being Japanese, they came up with an ingenious, convenient, low-profile bike lock. It is essentially a retractable ring of steel about a quarter of an inch thick which encircles the wheel and is attached near the base of the seat. If it is in the closed, locked position, and someone tries to ride the bike, the spokes of the wheel smack against the steel ring of the lock and, with enough force, break the spokes and render the bike temporarily useless. When the lock is open, the key must be inserted into it, and when one closes the lock, the key releases so one can carry it away safely in one’s pocket.

I was in a bit of a rush yesterday to get to work, so I forgot to take the key out of the lock after I closed it outside my home train station, Tsunashima. I realized this stupid indiscretion upon arriving at my school, but a quick look at the clock dashed any hopes of running back to “Tsunash,” as we sometimes call it. I had to kick myself for the rest of the day. My coworkers all told me not to worry about it—that it would probably still be there when I got back. And they were right! I parked it directly in front of the station entrance, so literally thousands of people must have walked past it, and despite Tsunashima’s reputation for being a hotbed of “Yakuza,” or Japanese gang activity, it was not so much as one Japanese centimeter from where I left it. Way to go, Japan; you have a lot to learn about petty theft.

This reminds me: if anyone is interested in making a career for themselves as a pickpocket, Tokyo is without a doubt the place to be. With literally millions of unsuspecting, well-heeled Tokyoites wandering naively through the labyrinthine train stations that dot this concrete earthscape, a deft artisan of the ol’ bumper or any simple handbag fisherman could make a tidy living for themselves. When someone eventually catches on, don’t look at me though—I’m absolutely terrified of the law over here. Apparently, you have to woodchip someone to get their attention, but the legal system here has virtually a 100% conviction rate!

In truly Japanese form, there was a full-to-the-brim hip-hop dance class the other day going on in the gym. Of course, everyone was extremely serious, and the teacher broke down each move into component parts, which the students then assembled into coherent dance steps. It was highly amusing to see such a spontaneous, counter-cultural phenomenon analyzed in a scientific manner. Unfortunately, I believe that the lack of spontaneity and creativity on the part of the students resulted in the less than “soulful” performance...

I learned from a student today that there is such thing as Ramen Magazines. Apparently, ramen noodles are so popular and important to Japanese that they can actually devote MULTIPLE magazines to the topic. I imagine their names to be things like “Ramen Lover,” or “Ramen Enthusiast,” or “Bowl & Spoon; the Ramen Periodical for Serious Ramen Connoisseurs,” or “Ramen Aficionado; High Blood Pressure, Here I Come!” (ramen broth is extremely salty). Anyway, this student also told me about a place where there are 100 tiny ramen shops all together in a mall, so I am going to check it out sometime. I have already been to the Ramen Museum, where a 1950’s replica of Tokyo has been constructed in the basement of a parking garage and patrons can sample the eight official “types” of Ramen from different parts of Japan. I learned there that Ramen noodles were an import from China, and that the first person to eat them was a certain Samurai in about 1750. They actually pinpointed the first Japanese person who put Ramen noodles in his mouth and said “ummmmm”!

Thursday, November 27, 2003

I had a boring day of studying for the upcoming LSAT—I feel nervous if I don’t study but studying tends to make me nervous when I get questions wrong. There is no solution so I am trying to find a happy medium. I ran out of Logic Games to do, which is a bit scary, considering that’s the hardest part of the test...Anyway, in other news, I saw a drunk salaryman, mid-thirties, puking on the train platform feet from the onramp to the escalator, such that every one of the hundreds of people piling off the train were forced to take a detour around him. They of course did this with the most impressive politesse. There was not a gasp nor exclamation of any kind in reponse to his “sharing”. I also got another taste of the incredibly crowded Tokyo rush-hour train traffic, and its tendency to change at any second. One minute, I am being crushed by people forcing their way onto the train, and two stops later, I am able to sit down and read my book!

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

So today was the big photo shoot! It turns out I wasn’t THAT special, because there were about 40 people there, and many of them were pretty unattractive, to be quite honest. However, I got called up to the front of the crowd when they took the final pictures, which means I will actually be visible in the ad! I was sent to the back of the tiny room in which the shoot took place, initially, because I was one of the tallest people there. In that rear position, I was completely invisible in the picture, but when it came time to take the real shots, they called my name and moved me forward, right into the middle of about 8 female models. I felt both special and self-conscious, like a kid who has been praised by the teacher in the front of the class, thus becoming an inadvertent and unintentional brown-noser. I knew I was blocking the view of a few people behind me, but what can I do? They called me up front, for God’s sakes!

Anyway, to give a little more background on the shoot, it was held in a well-known sports bar in the heart of the busiest nightlife area in Tokyo: “Shibuya”. The shoot went from about 12:45 to 3:15, and we were all paid $150. Not bad for a couple hour’s work, eh? Plus, they fed us and I got to watch a highlight reel of the Rugby World Cup. I even met a nice French guy whose current job over here is as a consultant to a video game company, where he plays the games and goes through all the language included in them to check for errors. I got to practice my French with him, which was great—it’s been so long!

Monday, November 24, 2003

I heard something weird today: apparently, there has been a physical change in the structure of the Japanese eyelids in the last couple of generations. While older Japanese almost invariably lack the sort of rounded-out eyelid that is distinct from the area of skin directly underneath the eyebrow, younger Japanese tend to have this structure. In other words, the older Japanese tend to have the stereotypical look of a sort of dewlap of skin which runs straight down from the eyebrow to the edge of the eyelid. According to one source who shall remain nameless, it was the fashion a few years ago for Japanese girls to tape this dewlap up in an attempt to make their eyes look more Western. Pretty crazy!

I also heard from another source that part of the reason Japanese children are so much taller than their elders is that they sit cross-legged so much less than the older generations once did, which means that their legs tend to be less bow-legged, and thus longer. I don’t know how true this is, but it is an interesting idea, especially to anyone with a little anthropological curiosity.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

I just got back from an interesting cultural phenomenon where shopkeepers and restaurant owners and such go to a Shinto temple and throw down big bucks for funny-looking ornaments that they then put in their places of business for good luck. The sellers of the ornaments have big wooden blocks that they clap together loudly as they chant something to the effect of “may your business be fruitful”. It was pouring rain but the place was absolutely swarming. It’s a once-a-year thing so people buy new ornaments every year. I bought a little doll-head type thing that is what Japanese students buy before a big exam. It says “pass” on it in Kanji. I color in one of the eyes and make my wish, and then if the wish comes true, I color in the other eye.

Last night all the teachers and staff from my school met up in an Izakaya and we did some Karaoke. It was a lot of fun, but I have realized that I’m not such a fan of the traditional style of Izakaya where you sit on the floor with your legs under the table in a sunken pit that mimics the traditional style but doesn’t force you to sit cross-legged. The problem is that once you get your legs under there and arrange yourself, you are committed to staying in that position. It is difficult to move out of it, and thus difficult to move around freely and talk to different people. Thus a free-flowing bar atmosphere becomes a formal dinner party atmosphere. On the other hand, once we got up and sang Karaoke, people got moving around, which is fun.

I noticed for the first time last night that at this Izakaya, at least, the waitresses come in the door and get down on their knees at least for a second, which is the traditional manner for Geisha—they always served on their knees. In this modern setting, however, the waitresses often just sort of touch their knees to the floor before standing back up again.

Two days from now is my debut in the Tokyo Male Modeling world! I was selected from a pool of undoubtedly thousands, to represent the typical bloke in a pub. The ad is going to be for Toyota and will run in the newspapers here. I’ll be sure to clip a few copies.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

I had a fun, spontaneous night tonight: I went to a little Irish pub to watch the Rugby World Cup final between England and Australia, and while there, I befriended a couple of Japanese rugby players. They play for a club team that has had tours to Europe and the South Pacific, and it sounds like they are a decent club. One of the men is married, and he invited me to have dinner with the three of them after the game, so I happily obliged. We went to a traditional Japanese restaurant where we had some of the freshest fish and delicious Japanese cuisine I have ever tasted. We tried a few kinds of sake before the meal, and they let me choose which one to have, which made me feel a bit silly, since they all taste so similar to me, but I did my best. They were very impressed with my use of chopsticks, and with the fact that I liked everything they offered me. At the end of the meal, the married man invited me to his wedding party, which is going down in about 3 weeks! That should be interesting!

Thursday, November 20, 2003

I forgot to write that I won a “Chankin” (rock, paper, scissors) tournament at a Halloween party in an Izakaya (Japanese-style bar). It was pretty dang exciting, actually (actually). I had to advance through at least 4 rounds, and the crowd really got into it. In the final, it was tied at 3-3, and the next throw won...I thought about it, and smothered her rock with my paper! Ha-Ha! I was so overwhelmed that I gave my opponent a hug, and then my adoring fans rushed me and the announcer presented me with an Asahi beer pitcher full of money, which added up to about $100! It was doubly funny because all the nice Japanese people I had met were seriously impressed—they thought I had used some sort of skill because I had mentioned that I studied Psych in college, so they thought I used mind control or was just really smart or something, when of course we all know nothing like that was involved, especially after a few drinks.

I met my nice friend at the bank again yesterday. He is an older man who works as their security guard. There are a huge number of seemingly unnecessary security guards and crossing guards and such here. This guy likes to practice his English, so when he saw me taking money out of the atm, he came over and intercepted me between the machine and the door. I indulged him and asked his advice on where to get some good coffee. Of course, he took me outside and down a block to a store where he knew the owners, and they gave me a discount on “Kilimanjero Blend Gold”. Then, the guy proceeded to name every member of his extended family. One of those funny things where you just don’t know what to say. Kinda like the young woman I met at the squash court the other day, who introduced herself and then promptly informed me that her friend who she was sitting next to was 23 and had two sons. As the security guard was walking me back to my bike, which was parked outside the bank, he told me the phrase he had learned the night before: “son of a bitch”. He learns one phrase a day, and this one was particularly exciting to him. He kept grabbing my shirt front at belly-button level and saying it to me in a conspiratorial manner, as if anyone could understand him.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Had my first audition as a “male model/gaijin (Japanese for white-boy) talent” yesterday. I guess it went all right, but it was impossible to tell because I had my eyes closed. That’s right, they need someone to pretend that their peacefully sleeping for $120 a day. I can handle that. Maybe it’ll be my ticket to the big time. In fact, when my “manager” from the talent agency stepped out of the room for a moment, another of the managers slipped me her card and gave me a little wink, so I think I’ll sign up with her, too.
I was pretty nervous about the whole thing, but I started to feel quite relaxed when I heard that all I had to do was pretend to sleep (and I really did get relaxed lying there on the inflatable mattress while they filmed me). But when I first walked into the room it was a little hard. They didn’t really speak any English, and the dozen or so crew and director/producer people were all sitting there stone-faced. I smiled and said hello and sort of bowed, which got them laughing, because I nearly hit the lights hanging from the ceiling. They filmed me standing there, holding my little information sheet in front of my chest, while I introduced myself. Normally the talent says their name and home-country and occupation, just to give them an idea of our voice, which is what my manager told me they would want, but they were apparently so wowed by my stature that they asked me to simply state my name and height. When I said I was 190 cm tall they all started laughing and covering their mouths as if I said I had flown the shuttle to the moon or something.
After the intro, they brought out an inflatable mattress and sort of gestured towards it. I took that as my cue to lie down, so I lay down on my back and started to relax and try to look peaceful. They told me to lie on my side, so I rolled to face the camera. I lay like that for a good while, until my manager told me “You can move sometime.” I opened my eyes and he gestured to me to roll over the other way, which I did, but he immediately gestured to me to roll back. Then he whispered that I “could move” so I started sort of wiggling and stuff. Like I said, I have no idea how it went, because I couldn’t read their expressions and the instructions were so vague.
In any case, it was an interesting experience and I think there’ll be a lot more opportunities. My housemate who suggested this talent agency already had a photo shoot for the cellular phone company Vodaphone, who is making a new brochure of their products. My agency called me a couple days ago to tell me that I had a chance of being selected to audition for a part in a South African sitcom or soap in which the part is of a man who has been gang-raped by Japanese women! (The operative words are “has been”, unfortunately. The agent told me that there would be no need to depict those scenes. Pity)

I got this email from some girl today (I have no idea who she is or what she is referring to):

“By the previous telephone I didn't understand the means what you say. Therefore if good please send by mail Possibly. Is it angry?”

Interesting...I guess I’ll email her back. I am curious!

I have developed a bit of an aversion to the blue moles that Japanese women often have. Many women here have prominent moles, and I can’t get over the fact that the moles are literally dark blue. It’s weird. One girl I work with says she thinks they are sort of “vanity moles” – artificial beauty marks. I don’t think so, though, because I have noticed a lot of women with these moles all over their arms. And the men don’t seem to have them. I can’t figure it out.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

I went back to the little noodle bar and asked the lady about the little tool she was using and it turns out it somehow measures the salt content of the broth. She likes to keep the salt at a level 7. Pretty high tech!

One of my favorite Japanenglish pronunciations is that of Mexico. They say “May-ku-see-ko” because of the way their sounds work. It just doesn’t roll of the tongue with that Latin flair. I wonder how much of an influence language has on culture. While Latinos are bold and passionate and full of fire and soul, Japanese tend to lie somewhere at the opposite end of the spectrum. Perhaps the Japanese language doesn’t enable one to have that “attitude”? On the other hand, I have been noticing that a lot of the teenage students are pretty bubbly and full of attitude. I wonder if they are the leading edge to a cultural change or if the culture here squeezes that individuality out of them by the time they finish college. Who knows. I’ll have to do some more observing.

I watched some awesome rugby last night. The All Blacks looked dominant against an uninspired South African team, and the Scots stepped it up but were unable to really get into the game against the Wallabies. I am even more excited for tonight’s lopsided matchup between England and Wales. The Welsh have the best rugby culture in the world in my opinion. Unlike the Kiwis and Aussies, Welsh fans don’t expect perfection from their team. How could you, coming from a country the size of New Jersey? Rather, they rejoice in the fact that the “Men in Red” play inspirational, creative, attacking rugby.

I haven’t heard it in a while from anyone, but almost every new person I have a conversation with tells me that I am “too young”. While the use of “too” rather than “so” is almost certainly a grammatical issue, it is amusing nonetheless to hear this comment on a regular basis: “how old are you?” – 23 – “Oh! You are too young!” (Oh? Too young for WHAT?).

Thursday, November 06, 2003

I saw something funny and apparently inexplicable the other day. I was eating lunch at a little stand-up noodle bar when the woman back there took the top off the big pot of broth and ladled a little into a little tool of some kind. Then she put the tool to her eye and looked through it as if to test the broth for something. It reminded me of a pool attendant checking chlorine levels. She went through the same process another couple times but I guess everything was up to snuff because she didn’t add anything to the broth. I asked a bunch of people about it but no one had any idea what she was doing.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Bike-riders. There are crazy people all over the sidewalks here riding their granny bikes like bats out of hell. Not only are they crazy and fast, but the sidewalks in this country are virtually nonexistent, not to mention the fact that they are always incredibly crowded. This combination results in the inevitable situation in which bikers are always whizzing past and it is necessary to “check the proverbial rear-view window in order to walk around someone.” If you aren’t careful, you might get mowed down from behind.

It is Friday night, by my personal time. In other words, I have the next two days off, so despite the fact that they are Wednesday and Thursday, it is my weekend. Sorta sucks in that all NOVA people are staggered throughout the week, but I can probably change my schedule a bit later in the year.

I went to a Karaoke place the other night. It was really fun. Although you may envision a bar with a single person on stage, these places are actually laid out as a bunch of little rooms for small parties of 2 to maybe 10 people max. You can order food and drinks on a remote control, and the staff brings it within minutes. It's funny how serious the Japanese take their Karaoke. They apparently practice their songs until they sing them perfectly. I realized how few songs I actually know the words to.

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