The bloggings of an Upstate NY-born Tokyoite. Now with 20% more verbosity!


Friday, January 30, 2009

Beware of falling shoes

We are right now caught in the nasty beginnings of what could be coined as the Even Greater Depression. Everything is being cut: spending, jobs and peoples ability to spend freely. Security and peace of mind for some, others merely switch to basic cable or stop downloading so many new ringtones. Me, I don't feel it much over here in Japanland, but the news reports I read make me wonder it's like living back home. Most especially in the heavily taxed state of New York. How far do we have to clutch onto faith before it peters out, and how much can one new administration do to push against the oncoming tides of worldwide economic collapse? I sit and wonder. Simultaneously, I stand on the sidelines while businessmen squirm in their suits and pull at their neckties. I'm happy to be a low man on the totum pole and let someone else cut 2,000 workers from his or her respective company. I don't need that kind of responsibility.

But enough about the world and its perils! The heel fell off of my shoe the other day in class. Strange as it may sound, I quickly stood up after being informed I was teaching in the wrong room and later realized my left rubber heal had come clean off. It made for an uncomfortable walk home, and I'll be wearing sneakers in to work the next two days until I can get these guys fixed. A mile of walking a day really does a number on a high class set of Bostonians, huh?

What's gone and what's coming. Hmm. A few students I've known for a while have started to become like friends to me, which is nice. I had one asking if I taught any 80 minute advanced classes, since he was tired of the normal (and totally unstructured) 40 minute lessons. That was flattering. Another student who is quitting is in agreement about become language exchange partners, which is fantastic, since I need all the help I can get.

Yesterday a co-worker was talking about children, asking a British bloke if he had any. 11 years of marriage and he thought that the "cons outweighed the pros," therefore never did. Overpopulation, financial insecurity etc. etc. She looks at me and says: "I can tell you'll be a father." Was that statement good, bad, ugly? Fake or genuine? Superfluous or a prediction of my future? I sometimes buy the overpopulation argument myself...

My overly animated face (called muppet by some back in the 518 zip code) has been said to entertain crowds of all ages.

Today, I had a great kids class. My kids are like freakin angels. Incredibly well-behaved, they hang on most everything I say, ask good questions, and most importantly have a lot of fun paying games. I taught them all "NOTHING!" for when they lost in a dice game, and "ROLL!" for when they roll the die. The one said "ROCK!" instead, which was ultimately much funnier in person. One of my students, a 9-year old (senior of the other two) and a really smart one is switching days for ballet class. I was kind of sad about that, it'll only be a class of 2 now, but we'll see where it goes from there. Either way it's 50 minutes of fun I find myself looking forward to each and every Friday, and beats most of my regular lessons by far. Can I get 3 adult students all desperately trying to snap their fingers like me and be subsequently as cool, or play shoot the basket and flip out if I start moving it around? An easy audience to be sure.

Oh those pesky adult lessons. Sometimes, when the lubricative juices of conversation just refuse to flow, I find myself thinking: "I should have a rusty set of pliers and several teeth in my hand after that lesson!" But really it's not so bad, I'd say they are 75% enjoyable and often quite fun.

Some stuff going on at home, certain people tell me not worry about certain others, which I'm certainly incapable of controlling. Expatriation is a real double-edged sword: Priceless experience at the cost of being far from the ones you love back home. Like Chris said, I don't know how I'd do this without the internet. I can't imagine life without it at all, for that matter.

I'm hardcore studying at least an hour or 2 of Japanese everyday, on the trains, during work breaks or even *gasp* at home in my free time! And I'm already feeling an increase in comprehension. Listening and dealing with numbers are still my ultimate jakuten (weak point), but I can feel the tide starting to turn. Japanese manga makes more sense, bit by bit. I don't know what exactly I'll do with these skills, but they'll be fun and worth the hard work, I'm sure.

On a side note, I was so tired in my last lesson due to staying up late with my older punker neighbor from Cali, watching the American Hardcore movie (totally bias but cool) that the next day I was thrashed in Japanese class. My creative juices were not flowing, my brain wasn't working, and I was spacing out. In fact, I learned Boutosuru, which means to space out. Useful!

I'm watching a documentary on Hunter S. Thompson. What a guy. Tomorrow is work and nothing in particular, but Sunday means band practice, hanging out with friends and most importantly Shai Hulud and other sweet bands. My first show in like 6 weeks, far far too long to wait. Also Kylesa is playing next weekend, very excited for that.

How is January already almost over?

"Don't you realize that evil lives in the motherfucking skin?" - System of a Down.

"I'm sorry, someone has to lose in this game of life. And tonight, that someone is yououuuuu!" - Cold World

"Everything you know is wrong" - Weird Al

Sunday, January 25, 2009

When I was a kid, I was the most positive kid on the team

I was also the worst baseball player.

I used to be looked at by other people as different and weird by my teammates because I would clap and cheer for my team in the middle of games, and encourage people even though I myself was a terrible baseball player. Little League was definitely not my thing - I would often be falling asleep standing up in the outfield, or become entranced by the dandelions rustling in the wind and the heat smothering by body. I often struck out, blinked right before the ball went by and was in general not a good player. I remember being blamed for losing a game and sobbing like a little girl, running off the field. I remember accidentally hitting a kid in the knee when I was in the batters box; I'm fairly sure that was an accident. I even remember throwing my bat in frustration, one time mere feet from my coach and still getting the sportsmanship trophy (because everyone on the team had to get a trophy for something).

What am I getting at you may wonder. For one thing it's all true, and for another I want to write today about some things for my sake and yours, such as what am I doing living in Japan and why do I take fairly well to existing in such a foreign environment? Why do I like teaching?

I remember feeling isolated and different pretty often as a kid, usually being treated as the outcast of the group. Whether it was to try to make friends, a reflection of my Christian upbringing, or some other thing that inspired me, I was always really enthusiastic and positive when the other players did something right. I don't remember ever receiving this treatment back, and somehow I think I knew I wouldn't (because if I did something right it was a total fluke anyhow), but it felt like the only contribution I could make to the team without messing up. So I clapped or cheered from the lonely right field, regardless of everyone else's attitudes.

I realize looking back that I was a kid who didn't think like a normal kid. What the others prioritized was winning games, hitting the hardest or running the fastest, maybe even showing off for their parents or friends. My priority was surviving practices and games for the hot dog or pizza at the end. But in all seriousness, it usually was. That and trying to contribute something, show some love and maybe get something for it in return?

The point in all this, besides getting a few good laughs as I am content with myself and even the more unflattering bits of my past, is that I like giving to other people. I receive some elusive and deep pleasure to be unconditionally encouraging towards another who is trying hard at something. I know that this idea of treating others as you'd like to be treated is a very Christian one, and even though I'm not a practicing Christian I consider the morals valuable and worthy to live by. In the classroom and in the real world I like to be brutally honest (not always a good idea) but also as supportive as I can be in general of other people's ambitions. I'm sure I slip here or there and I'm not always 100% in the giving mood, but most of the time I base my actions along these lines. Say what you want about the flaws and paradoxes of religion, the tyrants who've ruled by it and the people who've suffered due to these writings and in the name of God, I think there are some innate moral truths underneath all the fog and smoke.

But enough about my past, religion and baseball. I recently taught a lesson which had, as a conversational question: "Is it better to have a lot of acquaintances or a few close friends?" This is a question perhaps you've heard or thought about before. The student in this case actually read my mind, saying that a few close friends is better, but the advantages of an extended social network are abundantly self-evident (those weren't his exact words of course). Ever since I've moved to Tokyo, I've had to shift from being more set on just hanging out with these 3 or 4 close friends to being more flexible and social. I think this is good for me, as it has forced me to come out of my shell a bit and I've got to meet interesting people from different parts of the world - mainly America, the U.K., Australia and of course Japan. I did maintain such social networks when doing bands and such back home, but I always had my real friends to look to and fall back on. Here I don't. Here I have a few people I feel I can trust 100%. Fewer still are those who I simply get, feel comfortable around and like their personalities and the feeling is mutual. I know lots of people who I just don't click with like that - Was it Plato who said the deep, philosophical friendships were the best and rarest kind, Greg? - but I still like talking to them, or having someone to shoot the shit with in between classes or at the bar or on the trains. It can be stifling though, hence part of the reason I felt so down the last time i posted on here, to only be friends with people you don't really know. I can't expect the same things I do from people I've known for years or shared my passions with or my soul with - but I find myself wanting to do just that. To put my trust in people I don't know well enough, and to open up because at times I'd give anything to just be myself and speak my mind without having to filter and consider and re-word every little thing. Sometimes this gets me into trouble. Actually depending on what you call trouble, you could say it gets me into something every day. I wish I knew where I stood with like 8 different people right now, but that story will be told when it happens. I'm sure there'll be comedies and tragedies abound.

Not very Japan-related today, gomen ne. (sorry) I started taking Japanese lessons last week, twice a week, 2 lessons per day Monday and Wednesdays a bit earlier than I would like, but that will force me not only to study harder but to sleep in less. All positive things. I have no real long term goals here in Japan except to become as fluent as possible. Ganbatte! (I'll do my best!)

I went to Ian's place on the military base in Fussa for a quick dinner after work on Friday (quick because I live 70 minutes away and the last trains come all too soon when you get out of work at 9). He made burritos, and subsequently made me the happiest man alive. I have a real passion for mexican food, but hadn't eaten burrito shells, corn chips, refried beans, guacamole or sour cream in easily 5 months. All of those things are hard to find here, and if you find them they're expensive! Luckily for Ian the military base provides a grocery store with everything Americans could want to keep them happy.

I went to my friend Renee's birthday party last night, and at the risk of incurring feminine wrath I'll go ahead and post this picture of me looking way cooler than I actually am:

As anti-photogenic as I am, that is probably the best picture of me that will ever be taken. The party was great, went to the famous 100 yen bar (100 yen draft beers, that's like $1 a pop folks) in Shinjuku and took the place over, must have been 40-some people there just for Renee's party. They ran out of proper mugs and started giving out these little baby glasses. They ran out of pitchers and got slow for a while which prompted me to make a quick run to the convenience store out of sheer impatience. I had an awesome time and wish last train didn't always hang over our evenings and end such great parties so prematurely! Although some people choose to go out all night, I just don't pace myself like that... plus 12-5am is a looong time.

Ok, that's it! I'll try and get back to my normal posting habits, although I've been keeping busier! Keep reading and hey, if you like what I write, tell a friend or something and spread the word! I'm puttin my all into this thing, might as well tell the world.

"I know you, but I don’t know you, You can not tell me what’s inside, why can't you swallow your pride?" - H20

"Cross out the eyes, Blur all the lines, Tearing this canvas from the wall"
- Thursday

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ben talks about Stuff! [El Fiesta Remix] feat. Opinionz on Brobama and a national debut of meRANTINGaboutMYjobANDjapanesePPL

You know those days where every little thing goes wrong? Well I had one today, and here's a breakdown because who doesn't love a little e-angst? I mean, in a society where it's expected to repress all true feeling and not show your emotions, where else am I going to vent? And will I ever stop asking rhetorical questions?

I'll back up to soften my emo-blow here (because complaining about anything is "emo" nowadays, and I should just wear a smile of dumb happiness like I do at work all the time? Forget that). Yesterday was a good day, and it contained what may have been one of my best classes of all time. I had a student whom I felt very comfortable talking to - her level was quite high and I'd had her before. She is one of a non-rare breed of students who teaches English to kids but can always use extra help from a native speaker. Somehow I got on to the subject of exercise, and explained that until a few years ago I had really been a regular slob with bad eating habits and no real motivation to better myself. Due to events I chose to omit for obvious reasons (but will go into more in the future, such as my late brother Bruce and the impending realities of adulthood), I gave her my success story as humbly as I could; But I'm not going to lie, I did feel good talking about it. I could never imagine going back to the way I was before, I'm a lot more happy with myself nowadays.

Anyhow, she says to me: "Wow, you have such a strong will." And me, cynic/realist me says to her that pretty much any kind of life change is possible if you want it badly enough - you can do what you put your mind too. After this I could tell she was hesitant about something so I pressed her a bit, and she revealed to me that she has been taking a Beginner-level correspondence course for learning medical English (such as Orthodontist or Pediatrician), but it had become quite daunting and when the course was up in February, she was thinking of throwing in the towel. I told her she should stick with it and that it's really a totally doable goal, the real key to it lies in learning some of the basic Latin roots to make sense out of the words. The real kicker though is that she seemed downright touched by my encouraging words, and told me that when she told other teachers about learning medical English they just said things like: "Why?" or "That's way too hard." I find this kind of negative nancy attitude in the workplace - yes, I taught her that too - to be seriously depressing and downright offensive toward my job as a whole. Yes it's a conversational school and not a psychiatric ward, but to be so discouraging of a student with lofty goals is just pathetic. It comes across me as the equivalent of: "oh my life sucks, you're doing something worthwile? You suck, you can't do that." I told her she pays for the lesson and should have the right to talk about whatever she wants. At the end of 40 minutes she said: "It's over already?" I don't think I've ever gotten such a nice response before.

But enough with the positive shtick - if only every student had heart and ambitions like that - or at the very least wasn't a total robot. Yes, the collectivist Japanese attitude and the hoards of "empty shells" (as another teacher so succinctly put it) is starting to get to me. If your biggest hobby is shopping, I don't know why you're wasting our oxygen with your existence. If JPOP is the only kind of music you listen to, you probably care more about what's cool to like then what is actually anything close to good, passionate music. If you want to be in a conversation class, at least pretend that your life is more interesting than watching every episode of The View back to back while trapped in a small room with a ping pong paddle, two sticks and a dustbin.


Last night I was enjoying a quiet evening at home, drinking some beers and watching Clint Eastwood's new flick "Gran Torino." It might be the best thing I've ever seen him do since the 70s. I had a some amount of beer which caused me to be a little sluggish the next morning. Fair enough. It seems every Thursday, basically my last real "workout day" of the week, I'm hurting and have trouble motivating myself. I usually sleep in copiously and by the time I get out of bed, get to the gym and finish up, I have something like an hour to go home, make a lunch, get my stuff together, change and walk back to the train station to catch the train on time for work. And yes, I realize I only do this to myself with my erroneous scheduling.

And to top it off there's this dude named Sakao who speaks fluent English and works at the gym.

Oh, Sakao. Who said the road to hell was paved with good intentions? Well they were right. I talked to this dude one time, and now whenever he sees me he's smiling, waving and asking me how I am and what I think of this or that as an American. I mean, I respect the man and his curiosity and all but it's a bit annoying when you have a set schedule to adhere to and are trying to exercise. I'm nice about it though - and it is cool to have someone talking to me and not giving one of 3 token responses: 1) bowing and saying "Otsukaresama desssu" (you must be tired after working so hard), this obviously being from the staff only. What kills me is when they say it before I've even started - I'M NOT TIRED YET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11111 Just one of those phrases that has lost all literal meaning. I also hear it in echos and droves at work. And in my sleep.

Anyway. Token response toward foreigner Ben #2: Look away or ignore. I don't mind this one so much, I go to the gym to do what I do and leave, not to socialize. Though maybe I feel like an unloved gorilla in a bad zoo exhibit sometimes. Response #3: Probably the least common but it still happens, the occasional "WTF" stare, or curious stare, or unknowing stare, however you want to interpret it. I'm used to this so it doesn't bother me much anymore.

What was I talking about again? Oh right, Sakao. So today we were talking about the recent Obama inauguration, a real hot topic over here at the moment. (Obama is like a superstar in Japan right now: black, cool AND relavent!) He asks me if I think things will turn around and I gave him my honest opinion: I think that it will all take more time than the fickle American people want to admit. People have built up Obama like a second coming of Christ, and while he's a great speech writer and his rhetoric is awe-inspiring, his Presidential "change" really has yet to be seen. It's going to take more than 2 months of Obama to turn around the economical trends that have been decades in the making - more than 2 years even. I think that realistically Obama could be a great President and still things could be in the shittier when he leaves office. Consumer confidence only can be pushed so far by one man, powerful and representative of the C-word as he may be. I also made some comparisons between Taro Aso, the current Japanese Prime Minister, and Bush, and Sakao noted how even though Aso entered the position something like a year ago, his approval rating went from a then-60% to a now less than-20%. The masses truly are fickle and impossible to please.

So I said something along those lines. The dude has a pretty good vocabulary and said he was impressed that my expectations seemed so realistic. He said in fact that most Americans he had talked to have shared my passive enthusiasm and hopes for the future. I told him I thought that was not representative of how America actually is - it's a mass of people undereducated in politics who vote more like they're voting in a High School popularity contest, on appearance and charisma alone. I said that I think maybe the more knowledgeable Americans (or at least those in college or with a BA like me) just had the notion that getting the !#$% out of dodge for a few years wouldn't be a bad idea right now.

Wow, hell of a rant. So when I left the gym, my day slowly began to slip into the crapper. It had been drizzling all night and would be all day, so the weather was cold and miserable. Getting back I found what I thought to a totally unnecessary new sign JUST put into my guest house in Japanese and English: "Please take off your shoes AT THE DOOR!!" I do this anyway even though it's a royal pain, and everyone and their mother knows about this particular cultural aspect! We're in Japan for pete's sake, why the need for a sign, especially a bilingual one?!

I realized as soon as I walked into my apartment that I had a stack of dishes and wouldn't be able to make my token eggs and sausage breakfast - in fact I was out of sausage and the green peppers I usually put into my omelettes all went bad overnight somehow. So I went with just eggs which was OK, but the real kicker was when I realized that I had no clean suit in my apartment! I had worn a fairly scummy suit Tuesday because I had failed to drop clothes off at the Dry Cleaners in time. That was no biggie. Then on Wednesday I found out that the place is closed every Wednesday, so another day in the scumsuit. Yuck. Today being Thursday, despite the lack of time I had no choice but to haul ass over to the dry cleaners (a 4 minute walk) and get my suits. I did and came back. Finished washing my dishes since I thought I had time. Put on a freshly laundered pair of pants and, low and behold, there's a tear in them in the same @#$%ing spot above the pocket that there was a month ago when I paid those people to fix it. Curses! So I got ready quickly and hauled ass once again with only about 2 minutes of extra time to drop off my damaged goods at the "High Speed Eagle," as it's called, followed by me not understanding some Japanese and going like "HUH just let me pay for the freakin pants" and finally realizing that it was free of charge, most likely because they had fixed it before. I thanked them and made a mad dash to the train with about a minute to spare.


Two uneventful train-rides later I was on my way to school, but the weather and everything else had just tired me out and made me feel like anything but "teaching." I also realized around this time I had forgotten, for the first time in veritable months, to pack a lunch. That delicious and healthy sandwich on whole wheat bread, one of the awesomest parts of my shift would not be partaken today. I sighed and thought hey, no problem, I'll just go to that cheap rotating-sushi restaurant instead! This pepped me up a bit.

The damn place was closed for repairs.

I ate a Wendy's double cheese instead - not too bad and almost identical to the American equivalent, except perhaps for the sesame seeds on the bacon. I went to work, clocked in and wanted to dropkick a baby seal when I read the note attached to my timecard. It was news about my sub duty on Saturday, and this bears some explanation: Usually I get sent to a random school to hang around and help out where I can, and don't have to substitute-teach anybodies actual shift on Saturdays. I really don't mind sub shifts at all, it's just that they tend to start a good 2 hours earlier, and considering my schedule of 3:30-9:30 on weekdays, 10:15-4:15 on Saturday is no fun at all, especially when the school is a good hour away. The last 2 weeks I've been subbing for this Aussie who is out on a long vacation - fair enough. I had a trainwreck of a class the first time teaching those wacky 3 year-olds, as mentioned a few posts back, but the second time went pretty good. In fact I even had a 1 on 1 model lesson with a 3 year old girl that day which was super fun. Regardless, turns out the Aussie is for whatever reason calling in sick and most likely just extending his vacation. I did not expect to have to teach 3 year olds so early in the damned morning again so freakin soon, and am just not looking forward to it. I'm going to Ian's for a quick dinner (before my unfortunate last-trains come all to soon) Friday night after work which will involve me getting home late, then Saturday is an early day AND I have a birthday party I'm supposed to attend Saturday night. Should be an interesting weekend.

Back to my day though, since you're all dying of suspense here. I also found out my first student was one who made me feel really uncomfortable by hitting herself in the back of the head when she made mistakes and I corrected her a few months back - I dreaded having her again and today of all days, I did. It wasn't so bad in the end, I picked an easy lesson and was as lenient, babying and encouraging as I could be to a 50-odd year old owman, but I swear if she only ever actually studied outside a biweekly 40 minute session she might actually learn something. Such is the case with many of the (often annoying) hobbyists who frequent our schools: Their attitude is more like "Oh my god! I get to talk to a foreigner" than "I really want to learn to speak a foreign language." I now totally understand all the monkey-in-a-suit comparisons that come from jaded English teachers who rant on the net like I have succumb to doing right now: We are objects of entertainment for many, and that is what keeps the English Conversation School business alive and kicking. It's really a zoo out there...

It puts food in my stomach anyway. Oh and the aforementioned self-mutilator student only hit herself twice, relatively lightly, so I'd call that a success? The rest of the day I felt like crud, and I had one good class which involved brutal stories of double-bike riding accidents and intense sunburns, but the others were just forced and dull conversation about things I didn't care about. I felt tired, somewhat cranky and not like teaching, just one of those days. The funniest thing that happened all day was at the end, when me and 3 of my female colleagues were debating stairs vs. elevator - they said stairs and for whatever reason I said something like "OK FATTIES LETS START BURNING CALORIES" and the few students waiting by the elevators thought it was hysterical while I waved an authoritative fist and Kate jogged in place. Oh, the exciting life I lead.

I know that now I'm writing in kind of a sour mood, and the events of today really weren't all that bad. I'll look back and think: "wow what were you so annoyed or upset about?" But I've come to find that this retrospective unacceptance is self-defeating, as I've literally destroyed old journals, poetry and even music I felt ashamed that I had created, and now of course I deeply regret it. (As a certain old pal would never let me forget, I did DJ SPINJAM in my basement when I was 12-14, before I ever had a real band - god would those tracks be great for a laugh right now) So in conclusion I'm telling it like it is, the way I wanna tell it, cuz it's my blog so SUCK IT. At least I don't do those annoying vlogs (video-blogs) where I talk to myself for hours and expect people to be so bereft of any kind of social interaction or worthwhile hobby that they would actually listen - that's just weird.

P.S. Due to hanging my umbrella off my work bag and forgetting about it, then subsequently thrusting my bag up onto the rack above the seats after entering the train, I almost impaled/definitely splashed some residual water on two different poor and unsuspecting Japanese women today, both before and after work. I felt like such an ass.

"First thing I remember was asking papa, why,
For there were many things I didn't know.
And daddy always smiled and took me by the hand,
Saying, someday you'll understand.
Well, I'm here to tell you now, each and every mother's son,
That you better learn it fast, you better learn it young,
'Cause someday never comes." - Creedence Clearwater Revival

"Round and round and round we spin
to weave a wall to hold us in
it won't be long.
How slow and slow and slow it goes
to mend the tear that always shows
it won't be long." - Neil Young and Crazy Horse

"Yea I'm fine everything's great. I lost my job cuz I was five minutes fuckin late!" - Cutthroat.

P.S.S. Awwwwww Yeeaaaaahhh

Monday, January 19, 2009

We live in a MAD world

Watching someone so drunk try to walk up the platform stairs that they fall flat on their face is a fairly common spectacle here. The throngs of Shibuya's hachiko-exit area are like a giant, pulsating mass of bodies and wills, all with different places to go and not enough time to get there, unless they have too much time. It's the same every Saturday night, and is bound to make you feel like you're part of the bustling city life or conversely isolated from the human race. Depends on the day you're having. Three-year-old children love colored balls, tried, tested and true by yours truly. If all else fails, chuck the lesson plan out the window and give them something to shoot into a basket. F.I.D. had our first band practice in a month and we have been unofficially dubbed B.B.B., for Bilingual Baka (idiot) Band! This is in reference to how stupid me or Kana can feel when we are using Makiko as a translator between us. Speaking of which I'm going to start taking Japanese lessons for the first time since May, tomorrow! There may be hope for me yet. My tiny room is once again my room as my mate went back to the States. Some motorcyclist almost ran me down on the little sidestreet I live on the other day. He was easily going at least double the speed limit, not at all uncommon.

These sentences careen into one another without reason, much like the pace of life outside my apartment doors. Things happen nonsensically, randomly, at fast speeds and with complete disregard for innocent human life (not to mention complete disregard for the welfare of mankind). There are all sorts of pictures I will upload soon but it's been an unsual weekend. I've slept maybe 8 hours in the past 48. I just ate some rice, marinated duck, kimchi and broccoli, because who needs recipes when you can just make random amalgamations?

"When my day is through all I wanna do is slow down" - Ignite

"I have been awake for several days with time to think. It has been so long since I needed sleep to dream" - Bloodlet

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Panda Sumo Shooting Spree!

More wacky dreams lately. One particularly startling image of furless pandas I don't think I will soon forget... I haven't even watched Hellraiser recently!! Another involved me having triplet boys around 4 and meandering through a Walmart.

Sometimes, I'm glad dreams don't come true.

I went to a Sumo match the other day. It's incredibly ritualistic and deep-seated in Shinto, the native Japanese religion. For example, the circle which the basho (bout) takes place is considered a holy place, and no women are ever allowed within. The legs are spread traditionalyl to show that one is carrying no weaponry. Also, salt is thrown to purify the ring of evil spirits. And so on and so forth, once again wikipedia is your friend if you want details.

A match only lasts several seconds on average, with these arduously long, ritualistic actions in between. The buildup is intense, but often comparable to blue balls when the guy slips, falls over and loses 1.7 seconds in. The coolest thing I saw was this one high-ranked Sumo wrestler, Baruto, toss another 350 lb. dude sideways out of the ring. Also, the fans were so adamant, it was like Japan's WWF as Kevin so accurately put it. People would scream the names of their favorite wrestlers, cheering them on even from the nosebleed section that we occupied. Some dude nearby was wasted on beer and glass jars of sake, and was flipping out for this one wrestler, yelling stuff like "Yea! You can do it, kick his ass!" or some fascimile thereof in Japanese. Whenever the wrestlers would make their exaggerated movements, and finally get to the center to face each other, they would (a minimum of 3 times) walk away to wash up, make herculean and apish gestures and incite wild roars from the audience, before returning to the center of the ring to face off and possibly walk away another time or two before actually initiating the match. (Should I add "run-on sentences" into my tags?)

I wanted to try chankonabe, the fish stew that is the traditional meal of the sumo, but missed out. Kevin did and said it was decent. I'll find out someday. Instead I ate some snack-food with various pretzels, wasabi peas and little dried fishies in it. Quite good, actually.

Half-way around the globe, other events have transpired. About 6 days ago, there was a case of a shooting on I-90, the highway that is in my hometown of East Greenbush, New York. Some dude was firing at cops, people were fleeing the scene, complete chaos. I even recognize the ambulence that takes the guy after he gets shot by a cop - it's a volunteer EMS vehicle from W.F. Bruen station. My next-door neighbor works there. Very surreal. Even weirder is that this all made me think of one thing: what a bitch it would be delivering pizzas with part of the highway shut down!

We never seem to shed the past, every experience somehow culminates into who we are.

I've been up and down lately myself. Nowhere near the verge of shootin at anybody though, which is good. However my life is not free of "pain time" as one student so elegantly put it: I had to sub a class of whiny, hyper 3-year old boys last Saturday first thing in the morning and - O Joy! I have it again this Saturday. I botched a few things last weekend so I sought help from a friend who gave me some good kid-distracting/time-eating advice....and informed me that rewind and fast-forward on tape players are reversed in this country. With any luck, I'll make it outta this one alive.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Vacation Recap - Days 2 and 3

Day 2 - Miyajima Island

[More pictures available at my Photobucket]

After getting up and heading downtown to Okonomura (a famous building with 30 Okonomiyaki shops) for lunch for the second day in a row, we set off on our trip to the luscious island of Miyajima. After finding out that the Passmo train-fare card that Kevin got was Kanto-region only, and subsequently buying him a ticket, we made our way onto a train. 30 minutes later we were in the port-area of Miyajima, a beautiful city with an indelible view of the island (and vice versa from the islands mountain tops).

The short boat ride across the waters was quite enjoyable - it's nice to see JR (Japanese Rail) has not only the biggest train network in the country, but also its own ferry! The first thing you see in detail upon approaching is the famous orange torii gate - a symbol for a gateway to holiness in Shinto. If you see it in the morning it appears to be "floating on the water," but I preferred this shot I took later on in the day:

There were many touristy shops of course, and even a fairly big residential area away from the main streets. I wonder how much a house there runs for! I also tried the Momiji-Manju, a kind of maple-flavored bun with sweet beans inside. It was OK, but nothing to exceptional. The real novelty of the island however was its massive deer population, perhaps rivaling even Nara:

Some real gorgeous sites.

We eventually started increasing our elevation, but opted not to take the cable car, since that's for old ladies and little kids in my opinion. It was quite the steep ascent though, and there were stairs, stairs and more stairs the whole way up. It was a bit tiring but well worth it, and after a few kilometers we had the pleasure of the gorgeous view from the mountain's top:

There was a rickety old shop at the top of the mountain so I bought some chocolate, sat on a bench and soaked in the breath-taking view. After so much time in the city, this was just what I needed. I took copious amounts of pictures of course. On the way back down we took an alternative route with seemingly less stairs and more windy paths:

Finally we got to the bottom and we were bushed. It was a fun hike and reminded me that I really should check out more of the mountains in the Tokyo area. Not much more to say than the pictures can tell, I believe.

Day 3 - Last Day in Hiroshima

I was honestly a bit sad to be leaving Hiroshima. The place we stayed, "K's Guesthouse" was very nice and the whole city just had this mellow vibe to it. I suppose it would get rather boring after a while though, and I'd have to make trips to Osaka see bands on tour and stuff like that.

We had lunch at Okonomura for the 3rd day in a row. I suppose I should explain a bit about Hiroshima's famous okonomiyaki...or maybe just copy and paste a wikipedia article:

"In Hiroshima, the ingredients are layered rather than mixed together. The layers are typically batter, cabbage, pork, optional items (squid, octopus, cheese, etc.), noodles (yakisoba, udon) topped with a fried egg and a generous dollop of okonomiyaki sauce. The amount of cabbage used is usually 3 - 4 times the amount of Osaka style. It starts out piled very high and is generally pushed down as the cabbage cooks. The order of the layers may vary slightly depending on the chef's style and preference, and ingredients will vary depending on the preference of the customer. People from Hiroshima tend to claim that this is the correct way to make okonomiyaki. This style is also called Hiroshima-yaki."

Yep. It's really delicious and seems relatively healthy, with all that cabbage in there. I am sort of craving some Hiroshima-yaki so I may have to find a shop somewhere in Tokyo. Here are some snaps of Okinomura, the famous building full of okonomiyaki stalls:

3 floors devoted to one kind of food.

The lunch rush.

Here's a crappy little video I took with my phone of the stuff being made. Honestly there are better videos on youtube if you are at all curious.

We started off the day by going to the modern art museum, which in all honesty was kind of a mistake. I mean the place was fine and as advertised, but so much of "modern art" is complete wankery. There was some before-after shot from 1973 of a guy falling asleep on the beach with a book on his stomach, so that he got suburned everywhere but there. The coolest thing we saw was a room where you were encouraged to pick up and place various instruments, and a doorway to nowhere in the middle would light up at the vibrations. Anyway, here's a few snaps:


Our next stop however proved to be one of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen in my life. I didn't have such high expectations and honestly we only went there because the other museums were closed for the holidays, but wow. Shukkei-en is a traditional Japanese garden that might numb you with awe if you have the chance to see it in real life. Everything is completely still except when a coy fish jumps out of the water to snatch a bug. You can see the sky in the water so clearly it looks like another world, it's just amazing.

I think tranquil may be the perfect word for it. Anyway, that's just about it, we killed time for the rest of the evening in anticipation of yet another fun night-bus, only this next one proved to be the worst of our 3 trips. No arm rests, no reclining seats and being squashed together, along with stops every hour that include announcements and lights being turned on, and to top it all off a bunch of girls from Osaka being really chatty all made it a pretty miserable journey. We were happy then when we finally arrived at 5:30am in Kyoto...

To Be Continued...

Friday, January 9, 2009

I wanna ride through the adirondacks in my Jeep Cherokee, listening to Clutch with no particular destination in mind

I had so many weird dreams last night. Some of them had to do with going flying home - I've been getting my first real poignant bouts of homesickness lately, of course due to the holidays and the fact that my family is all going to Disneyland, a tradition which I have never missed out on until now.

I remember my dreams the most when I'm drifting in and out of sleep, and due to my vacation patterns of waking up at 7:30am I've been doing that a lot the past few days. Getting back into the routine of work hasn't been the easiest thing, but I'm almost there. I'm a boring guy, I like my routine, it's comfortable and mundane but just exciting enough.

Anyways about those dreams. Some of them were downright bizarre, some unmentionable here.... I remember my bed falling apart underneath me. I never actually took a flight, I was just here one day, and then WOOSH, back in New York 14 hours earlier, so I showed up in my old room at 2am or something. And I didn't have enough time to see anyone before I was zipped back home. There might be some kind of meaning in that, I suppose.

I think there's some underlying anxiety about my job in all that too. I have reason to believe that come contract renewal time in the Spring, some people won't get asked back. I think that due to the recession, despite the company I work for being a big one, they must be experiencing negative numbers like everyone else and will have to cut costs somewhere. For this reason I'm making extra sure to do everything I can right, and considering I've only been late once (by 2 minutes to a school I'd never been to before) I'd say I'm in pretty good shape thus far. This might sound incredibly trivial, but in Japan being late, even slightly is a really big deal. Punctuality seems to take precedence over even appearance or job performance - just being there is crucial, even if you forgot to shave and your tie is backwards.

Anyhow I'm pretty confident my job is secure, I always give 110% and genuinely like what I'm doing, but I think the real fear here is just what the hell will I do after this? I have no real job opportunities with my English degree in the states, unless I go back to school. And not only is the job market in peril, but prices on the cheaper, state-funded schools have just been jacked up too, along with many other New York state taxes. The point is I'm living comfortably here and making decent money, and until I see a good exit strategy I'm going to have to keep it that way.

But enough with all that serious crap! It's just been eating me a bit lately. In other related news the Ben-fan club met again on Wednesday - these 3 middle-aged women who love my class and laugh at almost everything and don't seem to learn much, but are really fun. For example they spent roughly half the class laughing about the English pronunciation of McDonalds: (Mick-Don-Alds) vs. (Makudonarudo). They proceeded afterward to request my class again the next week, and hearing this of course made me feel pretty happy.

Boy am I glad I just checked the weather today - I hate getting stuck in the rain with no umbrella! And if meteorologists are correct (which they seldom seem to be) it might just snow in Tokyo some time soon. A light dusting would result in numerous unnecessary train delays, airports being shut down, and most likely my school being closed. Even regardless of theses things, it would be nice to see a coat of white on this metropolis, if only for a few hours.

I see things happening in my life, possibilities and opportuniies and so often I just shun them outright. I am a total hypocrite in that I like trying new things, but am stubborn and like things the way I know and understand them. Simple. I believe in opten-mindedness, but am generally set in my views and opinionated, though democratic. And I like being single, life is much easier this way, if more boring.

I really do want to drive my jeep through the Adirondack mountains and listen to Clutch, with no particular place to go. Driving is a liberating feeling I knowingly took for granted back home, it was empowering and a total high when it wasn't mundane and boring. Driving around and listening to music is great, I almost (but not really) miss delivering pizzas to strangers and blaring metal around East Greenbush and Rensselaer. And while the paycheck here is oh-so-much nicer, there is no complimentary pizza to go with the job...

More vacation stuff coming soon, I'm being rather lazy about it. In the spirit of things, here's an animated portrayal I found of "deer-bullying" in Nara:

"The girls said I know what it means too" - Polar Bear Club

"They're pushing you and testing you, but you won't cave in. You can't cave in." - Terror

"I'm prepared to fight humanity every day for the rest of my life." - Shai Hulud

P.S. Trash Talk is playing in about a week and a half, and Shai Hulud is playing next month. STOKED

Monday, January 5, 2009

I'm back! - Vacation Recap Part 1.

12 days later I'm a little more well traveled, a little tired of riding night buses, and very satiated on good food and good times. The vacation was a big success with very few hitches overall. I'll spend the next couple posts giving a breakdown of my vacation, along with a selection of the copious number of photographs I took. (All photos eventually will be accessible via photobucket)

Day -1: Kevin arrives

As you all know my friend Kevin who is usually so on top of things slept through his original flight (which he will never hear the end of from me). What you don't know is that he managed to catch a flight out of Chicago mere hours before some huge snowstorms hit, so it's a wonder that he managed to get here on time at all. As it happened, he was arriving on Christmas Eve, my last day of scheduled work. I didn't know exactly what time he was coming in but gave him the a list of my break-times when he could call my phone, since I can't answer in class and he would be calling from a pay phone.

After spending the whole day sort of worrying about whether he even made it out of Chicago or not, whilst I was helping a staff member move some items for New Years cleaning, I finally got a call around 8:55 from Kevin telling me he's in Shinjuku station. Sweet relief. I met up with him there and was happy to see he opted to use the luggage-moving service I recommended him (just hauling your carry-on through the subways here is troublesome enough), and coincidentally I ran into a few of my co-workers and students who were going out for ramen, so we tagged along with them. Kevin got to try his first authentic Japanese ramen and learned how the coin-based ticket machines worked. He kept saying that it was so surreal being in Japan, it didn't even feel like he was there - with all the creature comforts like a plethora 7/11s and Starbucks that seem to follow one halfway around the globe.

Day 0: Bye bye Tokyo, Hello Hiroshima!

Showed Kevin around town a bit, got our bags ready and left for the bus station around 7. Me being slightly paranoid and extra cautious as I always am, I gave us ample time to find the bus station. We were standing outside for roughly an hour before people started to converge into our area with luggage and whatnot. I asked a girl in Japanese if she was going to Hiroshima, and she said "yea, we're probably taking the same bus." So all seemed well enough.

10 minutes before we were supposed to leave, wondering where the bus and where the rest of the people who were riding it could be, that same girl comes up a flight of stairs and is saying something that I don't quite understand. Something about going down, and finally I get that she's telling us to check in with the bus people downstairs in the concourse. Naturally when we got there there were nearly 100 people standing around waiting - the night-bus has gotten quite popular as of late, considering that it normally runs around half the price of the shinkansen (bullet train). We checked in, and not a moment to soon, since we only waited about another 5 minutes before we boarded. The bus was decent, comfortable enough and we could recline somewhat despite the curse of our tallness leaving something to be desired for leg-room. It was a 12 hour ride though, and I only managed to sleep for about 2 of those hours, but survived nonetheless. Kevin however could sleep through an earthquake measuring 10.5 on the Rickter scale.

Day 1: The Peace museum, the A-bomb Dome & Hiroshima castle.

It was a nice feeling after that long bus ride to be greeted cheerily by Mami at the bus station around 8:30am. Mami was the T.A. (Teacher's Assistant) for my Japanese class in my last semester of college, and I told her I planned to visit her if and when I moved to Japan. There's one promise kept. Her energy seemed contagious, and after dropping off our bags at the ryokan (Japanese-style inn) we were staying at we made way.

En Preparacion.

Hiroshima is, to me, a beautiful little city. It's so small-time compared to Tokyo that if it wasn't for the unfortunate events of 1945, it would scantly be on the radar, paling in comparison to the other monstrous metropolises I've seen thus far. The visible mountains in the distance and the sheer openness of everything was like a breath of fresh air to me. The rivers and bridges integrated with the city were also quite beautiful. Still more unlike Tokyo, Hiroshima has a tram-line that goes through some major parts of the city for easy access. Our first stop was the Atomic Bomb dome, a dilapidated building which was directly beneath the a-bomb and was therefore spared from complete destruction.

Atomic Bomb Dome.

A city view.

The Peace Park begins with the A-Bomb dome and leads to the much visited museum, so we went there next. It was big and quite beautiful despite our sleep deprivation. Mami said that she had been to the museum several times when she was younger on school trips, but was most often chatting away with her friends or not really paying attention, so this would be her chance to really learn something. After a failed attempt at a tour from a volunteer guide who seemed to be looking more for free English practice than anything else, and subsequently ditched her as fast as possible without being blatantly rude and took a subsequent sidequest to experience Hiroshima's other claim to fame: Okonomiyaki (literally: "Cooked as you like it")


Sidequest complete and bellies full, we returned to the peace museum. As it turns out they systematically structured the museum to get gradually more and more depressing as you go through the thing. It starts off innocently enough, with a rather truncated history of events before, during and after the war. Then things get gradually heavier until you're seeing pictures of melted bodies and actual tongues and other actual bodily components kept intact to display the havoc that radioactivity reeked upon them. The most moving thing to me was the stories of individuals, broken lives and people scrawling names on bricks in vain efforts to find information on family members. I'm glad I made it through there but have no plans on going again any time too soon. There were also other cool bits to the museum like a letter from Einstein, and information such as leaflets dropped by the U.S. Government and destroyed by the Japanese during the war.

After all that we needed something lighthearted to take our minds off the monument to tragedy we just witnessed, so we went to Hiroshima castle! The place was beautiful and offered numerous photo opportunities.

Hiroshima Castle.

The moat!

Our ever-vigilant female Samurai guide, Mami-san.

After all this we were pretty beat, but still we pressed on since Mami was leaving for Grandmother's the next day and wouldn't be around to hang out with us anymore. We had some delicious Kaiten Zushi (Rotating Sushi) - you know the kind of place where they have fresh-made plates you can choose from rotating on a conveyer belt - and finally did a bit of Karaoke. I passed out some time around 8, knowing that going to Miyajima island the next day would be equally as exciting, even without Mami: less atomic stuff, more wild deer!

To Be Continued...


For more pictues, see my future site for hosting pictures (since blogspot has a cap), Photobucket.