Saturday, December 27, 2003

Funny thing about x-mas in Nippon is that they are crazy about it, but they don't really know what it's about, and they don't know what to make of the religious basis. For them, it is PURELY capitalist--granted, in the US it is headed that way, but here, there is absolutely no religious aspect to it. Rather, new year's is a bigger deal. Christmas is apparently a couples' holiday, so I guess a sort of Valentine's day type thing, which is nice, but New Year's is a family time to reflect and clean the house together and cook some traditional Japanese food which is eaten cold. Then, apparently--and this is one of those weird phenomena in modern Japan--they watch some sort of American Idol type of show where two teams of singers, one male team, one female team, "fight" to see who's best.

Last week on my day off from teaching death-English, I took a great hike in the Tanzawa range with my good friend and fellow white-ass goofball, Tim Schwartz. We hiked for about three hours up expertly-constructed bamboo stairs, me complaining about my yoga-sore bum, Tim complaining about the state of intellectual advancement in the educational establishment. We determined that one must decide for themselves what their style of thought will be, and that bending to the conventions of the establishment will result only in further advancement of the establishment’s goals, not one’s own, or something equally convoluted and superfluous. Now I know why Plato and Aristotle and all those other famous philosophers were so corpulent: it is just too hard to walk AND talk.

We passed a number of fellow hikers—all of the Japanese persuasion—only to be disappointed to find that they were all listening to their radios as they walked. Tim and I preferred our aimless conversation, punctuated by the regular blasts of artillery as the American forces practiced with the Japanese “Self-Defense Forces”. Our rest-stops happened to coincide perfectly with our views of the venerable Fuji-san, of which I truly cannot say enough. This mountain is absolutely amazing. It is a perfect ________ cone and is just so cool the way it emerges out of the Kanto plain all alone, so majestic, so immutable, so peaceful. The blank is because I can’t remember the geological term used to describe Fuji, which is used often as a reference point for the type of volcanic cone of which it is a perfect example. The first person to tell me what kind of cone it is gets their name in my blog, so yell ‘em out!

Anyway, we got to the top of the peak to find that a number of Japanese were sitting around smoking cigarettes and eating instant noodles, not even looking around them at the horrifying urban sprawl that was visible for hundreds of miles, just below the equally horrifying smog that clung to the landscape. Of course, the middle-aged man who we had seen chugging past earlier with about 10 gallons of water on his back was up there too, pouring his cargo into a couple of tanks.

**In apology for the poor quality of this transmission, I am afraid I have to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the aforementioned bogan who is currently lounging on my bed and distracting me.

I saw an ad for a storage space just now that gave me the funny idea that maybe the Japanese are running out of space for all the stuff they consume. This consumer culture is going to drive the inhabitants out of the city as they completely fill their homes with consumer goods, rendering their already cramped living quarters into glorified storage sheds.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

I had a nice “dinner” at an Okinawan restaurant the other night. I was out with my Japanese rugby friend, and he wanted to show me this little place he knew of where the owner was an Okinawan rugby player, which apparently is something to be impressed about...We tried some funny Japanese “Shochu”, which is a more traditional, older version of Sake, made—in this case—from rice and lots of sugar. However, it was uncannily like a clear, light whiskey! Very nice. We added a little strong citrus to it too. The food I tried was a bit of shredded pig’s ear and some aged tofu. The pig’s ear was a bit crunchy, very good...light and delicately flavored. The tofu reminded me of smoked gouda. It was very strong and dense. The rest of the food never came, although we ordered it an hour and a half before. Apparently, that just happens sometimes, because Okinawans are so relaxed that they move slowly and sometimes don’t get anything done. The restaurant itself was remarkable in that it was absolutely tiny. There was seating for 8 people hip-to-hip along a thin wooden bar counter on which all the restaurant’s liquor was perched. At one end of the parallelagramesque room was the door and some shelves for personal belongings, and at the other end was a tiny kitchen with one cook. Apparently, there was a room upstairs, but I never had a chance to see it. This gives and idea of how small it was—one couldn’t actually stand up, because the wall behind the bar was so close that one couldn’t pull one’s chair out enough to straighten one’s legs. Thus, for one person at the dead-end end of the counter to get out, everyone else had to maneuver their way out of the restaurant and stand on the stairs. Despite the cramped conditions and seemingly impossibly slow service, this place apparently does very good business and is always full!

I saw Mt. Fuji from the train yesterday—only the second time I had seen the famous “Fuji-san” because the smog here is so bad—the first time was on the morning of my second attempt at the LSAT, so I am hoping it brought me good fortune. It is such a thrill to see it rising above the urban sprawl, so perfectly shaped and clearly immutable. I can’t wait to have a chance to climb it! It has some sort of power over me, perhaps because it represents the great outdoors, which at this point, as I am stuck in the middle of this enormous urban expanse, is like the promised land.

Last week on my day off, I went to an exhibit of plasticized human bodies which was absolutely fascinating. The exhibit was was not meant to joke about death or desecration of human remains, but it is difficult not to see how they failed in their attempt at being serious. The bodies were essentially presented as a textbook would, in order to illustrate various individual bodily systems. For example, one of the bodies illustrated the entire nervous system. There were a number of bodies that were displayed in strangely humorous ways, however. One woman was cut almost completely in half, except for a central core consisting of her spine and some central organs, with her brain and eyeballs at the top of the core, and the entire sexual reproduction system at the bottom. Her skin and muscles and ribs were together, outside the central core, and her left arm held her digestive system, while her right arm held her liver. Amazing, somewhat grotesque in it’s semi-autonomous presentation, and quite informative. At the end of the exhibit, patrons were able to handle a human brain, as well as one of the bodies. I was surprised at the lack of revulsion amongst the Japanese all around me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

As some of you may know, the public toilets over here often do not provide sanitary tissue products, as it were. Thus, the many people out on the streets cooing nasally as they hand out tissues with ads in them are not just effective marketing tools, but are also quite convenient toilet-paper dispensers, in a sense. With that notion in mind, I decided to spice things up, albeit in an inside-joke sort of way due to the language barrier, by telling people to “Wipe with NOVA” or “Blow with NOVA”, as I handed out tissues the other day—although the majority of people had no reason to believe that the wide smile on my face was due to any mischief, the occasional Gaijin who caught me by surprise was likely to share in my enjoyment. I also enjoyed using incomprehensible slang as I offered up my plastic-wrapped wood-pulp products. I found that “Get all up in that NOVA piece”, and the like, was one of the most effective phrases in terms of offer/success ratios. This sort of ad-hoc experimentation is something I have always enjoyed, and Japan is a perfect place for it.

Having been a Psychology major in college, I can’t help but want to apply what I learned on this unique culture. In one of my lessons, I have one student describe a picture of two astronauts sitting on a mound of earth, holding an apple, with their spaceship behind them—a science fiction version of Adam and Eve. I have found that the majority of students—without hearing any description of location—tend to draw the snake on the right side of the picture, facing left. I have written out a list of things to describe, so from now on students will all hear the same thing, and I am having them write whether they are right or left-handed, so I am hoping to get some pretty good results. I have already gotten about ten students to participate, and my bosses know that I am doing it and they are fully supportive!

Here’s a riddle for you: a student was describing her recent vacation to Hawaii the other day, and she explained that they stayed there for 6 days and 4 nights. That immediately caught my attention, but the other students, despite having the task of asking follow-up questions, didn’t make any mention of it. So I jumped in and asked her to explain what happened to the fifth night. Needless to say, she was unable to explain herself, and the other students seemed unable to account for her account, by all accounts. By the way, she’s an aerobics instructor. I thought that was enough to explain it, but when I brought the issue up in the staff room, my boss said he had heard that sort of thing a fair bit! Who knows...

My last Japanese class had a couple of funnies: first of all, my teacher started off the class by saying to me: “You’re a monkey, aren’t you!?” I was a bit taken aback, but then I remembered that we had been talking about the Chinese New Year calendar in the previous class, and had ascertained that my birth year was the year of the Monkey...It still seemed like a funny way to start the class, and a funny way to bring up the topic. The other funny thing was that I learned how Japanese people talk about their meat. I had learned previously that breakfast, lunch, and dinner (in the typically literal Japanese fashion) are, directly translated, morning-rice, noon-rice, and night-rice. In this past class, I learned that meat is simply the animals name ending with the word for meat, so beef is cow-meat, pork is pig-meat, etc. Thus, the American Beef Association’s tagline “Beef: it’s what’s for dinner!” would be, literally translated into Japanese and then back into English: “Cow-meat: it’s what’s for night-rice!” That one had me falling out of my chair, but of course, it required a lengthy explanation to my two Japanese teachers and my German rocket-scientist classmate.

I just learned today from a man who works for a waterworks infrastructure outfit that the streets in Sapporo, the biggest city on Hokkaido, the Northernmost island in Japan, are lined with hot-water pipes underneath them that are activated as necessary in the event of freezing rain or as snow accumulates. Soooooooo Japanese, desho? (isn’t it).

Thursday, December 04, 2003

blue jean vending machines...year of the monkey...sumo ring sandbox...chopsticks cause arthritis...warm yogurt with honey...

These are the notes I write for myself occasionally to remember things I want to write about. I’ll start at the end. I enjoy warm milk with honey occasionally at night, so on my way home from work, I asked a young woman in the convenience store which milk was lowfat. I couldn’t make myself clear about the lowfat part, although we both understood that what I wanted was milk. Nevertheless, she remained close-lipped when I picked up a carton of drinkable yogurt and thanked her for her help. Thus, I found myself wondering how the microwave turned my milk into yogurt.

I read a funny article today that reports that a group of researchers in the US found that using chopsticks throughout one’s life is a risk factor for developing hand arthritis. However, when the researchers presented their findings to a number of Chinese authorities on the matter, they were rebuffed with comments that simply dismissed the study’s results and further claimed that using chopsticks was healthy in that it increased hand strength. And it’s part of their culture too, so there! Anyway, I thought that was pretty funny, especially since it warranted front-page coverage in the Japan version of the Herald-Tribune.

Today I was studying for the LSAT a bit in a local park, where I enjoyed the last fleeting glimpses of the much vaunted fall colors, when I realized that the sumo ring in front of me was actually a sandbox. The similarities were uncanny, and must have been a matter of design rather than coincidence. This may not seem terribly interesting to those readers who have not had the privilege of spending time in this land, but to me it was just so...I don’t know—Japanese. From an early age, the children here are actively and passively taught to love and embrace their culture, more so than most other countries, I would guess.

I found out recently that 2004 is the year of the monkey, which is fitting, since I will celebrate my 24th birthday then, which means that it is my birth year in the Chinese calendar. I feel like of all the animals in the Chinese calendar, the monkey is the perfect one for me. I like climbing stuff a lot, and I like joking, goofing, and horsing around like monkeys, not to mention the fact that I absolutely love picking lice out of people’s back hair and eating it.

Here is a perfect example of the vending-machine culture over here. You may have some idea of the extent to which vending machines cover this land, and the extent to which they cover the spectrum of products offered. For example, there is the full range of coffee, espresso, tobacco, and alcohol consumables available either hot or cold, as well as a number of soup options. I understand there are book and video vending machines, some of which specialize in pornographic material. But recently, I heard of a product that simply never crossed my mind as being a viable option for vending machines: blue jeans. Apparently, one can find the full range of cuts and sizes in one machine. I wonder who owns these machines—does Levi’s stock their own while Diesel maintains separate ones?
Anyway, it is yet another example of the degree to which human contact is being cut down by automation. One could easily go through a day here without interacting with another human being. Even relatively good quick eateries often use a vending machine system to place and pay for orders. Now, don’t start thinking that this is a phenomenon peculiar to Japan. I recently read an article saying that this issue—of reduced social contact—is becoming a problem in the US. The article specifically cited self-service checkout, which I am surprised to say has not made it big here. It can’t be far off...

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