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


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Margarita Pizza has got to be one of the greatest things ever invented

I mean, mozzarella cheese, big pieces of tomatoes and basil? How much more right can you get?! Or gluttonous, for that matter. And to anyone who talks smack about pizza in Japan, sure the portions leave a little to be desired and the sizes are smaller, but everything is smaller here! You really don't get eggs, mayo and squid pizza unless you ask for it, so don't believe the hype.

So what's new with me? A whole lot of nothing, that's what! 日本語ばかり勉強している = I feel like I'm doing almost nothing but studying Japanese. Not that that's a bad thing, but I've honestly kicked it into high gear, sacrificing most of my leisure time toward studying. I may be generally lazy or mild-mannered, but when I stubbornly set my mind on something, I see it through 110%, just so long as I don't lose interest. Which hasn't happened yet, as languages are a lot like endless puzzles, where exploring one nook leads you to a whole 'nother vista of inquiry you knew nothing about beforehand.

Case in point: rude Japanese. I love speaking rude Japanese, it's fun and people are even more shocked than when you speak in an overly polite manner (us foreigners always seem to achieve one or the other, it's an endless struggle). Naturally I only talk in such rude language among good friends... Although I've already once made the regrettable mistake of trying to be jovial with one of my bosses, only to be reminded by the look of sheer, audacious shock on his face that the respect hierarchy is not to be to be tampered with, in language or in action. In or outside the office, a subordinate speaks to his boss in keigo ("humble form"), bows him off of trains, etc. etc.. Of course I am not as subject to these standards as most Japanese, since I'm not expected by any of my fellow staff to speak Japanese, and am conversely expected to carry the aura of "native speaker" around with me, like a floating cultural orb. (It's one of the selling points of the company) If I do however decide to try and speak it, it's a "tread lightly" kind of situation. And just like in any country or culture, some people are way more lax than others, it really depends.

As should be obvious by my lack of formatting, I'm completely winging it this week. The theme was finding unexpected surprises in languages... ah yes. naname means diagonal. Whenever I record a word in my notebook, and subsequently place it into my flashcard program, I always double-check a second source to make sure I have not only recorded the meaning correctly, but also that I am not ignoring other potential meanings. I thought that diagonal surely couldn't mean anything but just that, but checked it on principal anyway. Glad I did, because I now know that gokigennaname means "in a bad temper." I'll be sure to use that one as soon as possible!

I had band practice today and it was rather by the numbers, except that now I've learned the majority of the songs and I'm beginning to get a chance to write my own stuff. It's always the most fun part of the being in a band for me: everything is still fresh and new, anything one wants to alter is still subject to change, and one can get useful feedback from fellow band members. The writing phase can be truly magical, as you are only limited by your own imagination, and you never know what shape things may take. It's as if the music sometimes becomes it's own living, breathing entity! And I don't feel that any of that was over-dramatic in the slightest. At practice, myself and the ladies of F.I.D. were surprisingly enough both in the same boat, as neither of us have had a "real band practice" (one with a drummer) since last summer! Josh, I know you won't read this but I miss jamming with you.

As well as practicing the songs, I also greatly enjoyed the chance to hang out with my band mates - they are not only a few of the best friends I have over here, but they're also Japanese, meaning I can practice my language skills, we can bounce our cultural nuances off of each other, and most always have a good time. Maybe their being Japanese wouldn't seem like such a big deal, but being an expatriate with mostly fellow expat-friends, it is. That point about language practice goes two-fold, since our bass player doesn't speak English much but definitely wants to improve. I even agreed to help her study for the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), a bar of measurement almost all Japanese use to weigh their language skills, the single most important exam for careers and all that too. Hopefully if I can coach my friend a bit and get her thinking about it the right way, she can study hard, do well on the test and get an awesome promotion or something.

Oh, and by the way, on the subject of bands, instead of saying "check, 1, 2" or "testing, testing," Japanese people go: "ah ah ah ah" into a microphone. I still find it very amusing every time, without fail.

I have had the weirdest dreams lately. From nightmares of terrifying kids' classes (as I'm nervous about the new ones I will receive in the new contract year coming in April) to surreal dreams of Gabe shooting some arch rival and chopping up the body and hiding it in a, I can't make this stuff up. I'll level that back home, I used to indulge in a certain, er, plant which has the effect on me of not remembering my dreams. Here, I remember something vivid and strange almost everyday, for better or for worse.

So this was a random post, was it not? I have toyed on and off with doing VLOG's (Video-blogs), and they are just so popular nowadays, but I think I express myself much better through the writing process. Besides, what do I really have to say that's so important you need to watch a streamed video of my face for ten minutes? The real thing is hard enough to take for ten minutes, and the virtual equivalent would most likely transmute me into some kind of demented Lawnmower man, choppin' up yer brains with my virtual-lawnmower.


"What an extraordinary situation is that of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he feels it. But from the point of view of daily life, without going deeper, we exist for our fellow-men — in the first place for those on whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends, and next for all those unknown to us personally with whose destinies we are bound up by the tie of sympathy." - Albert Einstein, "The World as I See it."

Monday, February 16, 2009

St. Valentine was clubbed, stoned and beheaded in 1493 for marrying Christian couples

Thanks, Wikipedia! And unexpected as it was I've had a better V-Day than any in recent memory. So many holidays have metamorphosed into their own separate entities here in Japan, and Valentines Day is no exception. How, you may ask can it get any more commercialized? The answer is White Day, a holiday invented only 30 years ago as a chance for "men to pay the women back." For whatever odd reason, here on V-Day only women are supposed to give chocolate to men. Ergo, one month later on White Day the men are supposed to return the favor. It all seems rather superfluous and unnecessary to me, and not just because I'm single! I thought to myself: "this year, I won't get any chocolates, so none to give back!" Then the Staff Director at a certain school gives me and the other teachers these bad boys:

Apparently they are really expensive too! Rightfully so, it was really, really good. The first chocolate I've eaten that wasn't a kit-kat dipped in peanut butter in veritable months... more like a piece of fancy soft cake.

Also, most likely just because the schools like to have school parties so that the teachers and students can mingle and drink outside of class, there was a Valentines party at one of my schools. I probably would not have went. except that my friend and staff member Kana was quitting the job to become a Primary school teacher! So I pretty much had to go. But I wasn't really complaining, my weekend was fairly quiet otherwise so it was something to do.

On the way there, I got reminded that the Yamenote (main circular loop-line in Tokyo) is NOT my least favorite train to ride... it's the Chuo. This might sound overly negative and it is intended as such. I love the train system here, but the crowds, closeness and just plain cuckoos you encounter are a rife pain. Case in point:

I'm riding the line when I hear some woman speaking indecently loudly (Japanese people are usually really quiet on the trains, except for the occasional semi-loud bunch of kids), so much so that by her words and tone of voice I thought she was being molested or something. "Thank God I'm on this side of the traincar," I thought, having recently watched "Soredemo boku wa yattenai," ("Even so, I didn't do it!") a Japanese film about a man who gets accused of molesting a girl on a subway, all the while protesting he didn't do it. The serious problems with the Japanese legal system - no mistrials, lack of a jury, bias toward law enforcement agencies - are all outlined by a dude who basically gets his entire life wrecked because some girl thought she groped him on a packed train. Guilty until proven innocent, if that's even possible, kind of stuff. Scary.

Tangent! The point is ever since watching it I've been keeping my hands up in plain sight or somewhere where no poor young girl could accuse me of a crime that would have me deported. So this lady is apparently crying about something for all to hear, everyone just ignoring it of course. Time passes - it's a 25 minute train ride. About 10 minutes afterward, a girl walks in on the opposite side of the car, texting on her cell-phone, a normal enough scene. I need explain that in every train-car here they have a special handicapped section, where there are signs not to use your cell phone (apparently due to the fact that maybe 10 years ago cells could have possibly interfered with pacemakers). Suffice it to say the girl wasn't adhering to this rule, and that's also totally normal. There's no danger unless you're talking on the phone in a loud, rude fashion, and that's just the danger of getting mean stares from old people.

Out of nowhere, there's a loud "EEEEEEEEEEEKKKK!" like a bat caught in a cocktail blender. I jumped out of my skin, crawled back in and looked around. Then, the same voice as before, but much closer to me saying something along these lines, really loudly: "Stop using your goddamn phone! Can't you read? EEEEEEEEEEEK!! STOP IT, STOP IT!" The girl looks like she's completely bewildered but hiding it really well. She says "I'm sorry," and the woman says "SHUT THE HELL UP!" And goes in ranting really loudly in the poor accused girl's face, using a lot of words I didn't catch but that anyone from anywhere would get the gist of. Finally she quiets back down and at the next stop I see this protesting woman waddling off: short and middle-aged, with a spiteful face like she had been terribly wronged.

Now there's a decent chance (maybe better than decent) that this woman was mentally handicapped somehow. That's all well and good - it reminds me of how certain mentally disabled people in my life back home would take things as black and white as they were written, so in other words "no cell phones" means NO CELL PHONES, end of story. But still, I wonder what her story was, and in any case am thankful that I rarely have to ride that particularly busy, packed train, the kind which always carries along with it an extra batch of nutters.

So the school party was actually pretty fun. I got a good buzz on at school which was a little weird. At first it was quite funny: there were the 3 female staff members, 3 male teacher and about 10-15 middle-aged men in attendance. And more and more of what seemed to be nothing but men 35+ kept coming in. Quite the romantic occasion! -___- Eventually - and I recall saying "there is a god if the next person who walks in is a woman," and being pleasantly surprised - the gender ratio evened out a bit. It was fun to get to hang out with Kana before she left for good, and here's a picture after she gave a speech to everyone about her leaving:

As the night progressed I looked up the fact I started this entry out with on Wikipedia. For obvious reasons I didn't really try to explain it to anyone who couldn't speak English fluently (somehow "beheaded" just doesn't come up in the textbook vocab lists more often than not). Later one of the other staff members was pop-quizzing me on character readings, pointing at the various stuff on the computer and saying: "what's this?" and me wowing the students that I could read 4 characters. They are way too easily impressed!

We went out to a short-lived after-party at a local "Irish pub" - short-lived since we are all slaves to the last train - and it was nice to drink a dark beer like Bass again. A shame it costs 900 yen...

That was that night in a nutshell. Nothing major happened this weekend except a whole lot of Japanese studying, the usual. I want to be able to pass the level 2 JLPT test at the end of the year, which is a very lofty goal I will admit. However, if I continue at this rate, I might just pull it off. I'm currently reading Silence of the Lambs as well, just finished Henry Rollins' "Get in the Van" (short and very sweet), and am listening to Chuck P.'s "The Haunted" and Richard Dawkins "God Delusion" on my Ipod (sorry Mom and Dad).

And in closing, yoinked directly from Japan Probe:"Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa gives drunken press conference at G7 meeting"

Even if you don't understand any Japanese, watch this. It's hilarious and incredibly disgraceful on the part of the Japanese government. This dude is drunk, but later claims were that he was on "cold medicine." He asks the questioners to repeat themselves, and at the very end he's asking which way to face the camera.

"If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses." - Lenny Bruce

"Money is funny - how a piece of paper can make or break your very existence
Quick as it come, quick as it go - you better know about the ebb and the flow
You get money in droves, trick it on cars and blow
Throw dollars at black queens 'cause, for the dough they'll strip their clothes
And for the right amount of money
A king will pimp his queen into being a ho on a stroll
Life will always be hard when you choose to make money your god" - KRSone featuring MC Lyte

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Japan's 4th of July

It happens in the middle of Winter. There are no fireworks or picnics, just a lot of people with a day off. 建国記念の日 kenkoku kinen-no-hi, or National Foundation's Day if you like, is summed up by Wikipedia as follows:

"In contrast with the events associated with earlier Kigensetsu, celebrations for National Foundation Day are relatively muted. Customs include the raising of Japanese flags and reflection on the meaning of Japanese citizenship. The holiday is still relatively controversial however, and very overt expressions of nationalism or even patriotism are rare." (Kingensetsu was Empire Day, and a big holiday up until WWII)

I thought maybe I was missing the celebratory actions, the traditions, the national gusto, but nay! This holiday is really just a day on the map. It's been nice for me though: I studied quite a bit today, and met up for the first time outside of class with my new language exchange partner, Ami! It was a lot of fun and I learned some fun facts I never knew before, such as: "When referring to McDonalds, Tokyo people say "Makku" but the Osaka dialect is "Makudo," and other fun random facts. How I love fun random facts!

Did I mention that I'm going to learn 2000 kanji by the end of the Summer? You can too, using the free spaced-flashcard software called anki, and the Remembering the Kanji series by the ingenious Mr. Heisig. This is not a plug but a recommendation from someone who has explored various study options over the last few years. That's all I'll say about that.

I took a look at learning hangul (the Korean writing system), which is believe it or not is claimed to be the most logical and easy to learn writing system in the world! (Here's a fun rap video about it!) This is because it was designed by a group of scholars in the 1440s because, prior to the invention of it they used Chinese characters (just like the Japanese). For this reason however, "the majority of Koreans were effectively illiterate before the invention of Hangul." If you are interested then google it. Anyways, since I'm going to Korea and have always wanted to learn at least some Korean, I figure I should squeeze it in before my trip. At least I'll be able to say some basic phrases, and read the signs to an extent.

Note to self: My new Life Goal is to be able to speak and read Japanese, Korean and Chinese before I die. :)

I spent some of my travel time today listening to Henry Rollins' "Get in the Van," for the first time. For those who don't know, it's an autobiography of his life in Black Flag from 1981-86. Suffice it to say it's powerful, almost unbelievably brutal and if nothing else captivating. It does remind me of my vague hunger to achieve a once relentless dream of playing music I want to play and traveling the world, but I've long ago shelved that one as a "would be nice if it actually happened but I'm not getting my hopes up too much" dream. Though hey, you never know.

Still some kind of rough events going on back home (in New York that is) that I would like to be around for, to support certain people during their hard times. But I am here, and they are there, so I have to make do with what I can do from a distance. I did get a chance to communicate with said persons last night though, and even through the limitations of computers it almost felt like being home again. I love you, don't forget it!!!!

I took a look at poetry again today for the first time in a while. Just like writing music, I go through random creative spurts. I've left you with something to chew on at the bottom, and if you like, check out my other writings here.

Doing a quick post since here I have the time; Maybe some of you out there are disappointed with my recent lack of pictures, or my less frequent updates. Well for one thing that's just how it'll have to be, but for my sake and the sake of keeping this blog alive and well I'll try to update it once a week at minimum. Thanks for reading internet zombies!!

"If I focus myself on it
with intensity, with clarity
I can run nowhere and
see the world.

Floating free through
the amorphous stew
of a life in lieu
of something to do.

which is a goal
?any shape size or color
paint it so black
you can't see the others" - Benjamin L. Belcher

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Nights like these won't be avoided, not by me

Sometimes everything just seems to fall into place. After the whole shoe fiasco, I was ready to expect nothing much out of my weekend, even though I knew it had potential to be something good. And how life does pleasantly surprise when you don't quite expect it.

Saturday night I randomly chatted with a former classmate of mine, Kaitlin, who happens to be living in South Korea as an English teacher herself. Through the magic of Skype, I was able to talk directly to her and see her lofty new apartment. It looks quite nice, although she lives in Gyeongsan, apparently one of the more conservative parts of Korea - meaning few foreigners. And not a few as in 1 in 500 like my town on the outskirts of Tokyo prefecture, more like 1 in 10000, to give a B.S. statistic. The kind of place where if you see a white dude, you do a double-take. The kind of place where you can only order Korean food from restaurants. The kind of place where little kids point and yell "FOREIGNER!" And Mommy doesn't smack them on the head, she says: "yes, that's right." And as it turns out, since Kaitlin was lovely enough to agree to house me for a week, AND the exchange rate is so sweet right now, AND I have 9 days paid vacation in the beginning of May, I figured I'd be stupid NOT to go there!

I actually just now (a week later) bought my ticket. Only $700 roundtrip, can't do much better than that. So I don't know much about Korea, really, besides some of its wacky laws: they can fire employees at will with no need for reason or explanation - same goes in Japan actually, but it has to happen within two weeks of employment beginning. And the fact that it's not as used to foreigners as Japan is. I do love Korean food, and the idea of going to a new country excites me greatly, since as much as I love Japan it's almost starting to feel somewhat normal to me. I need a good, cold slap in the face from my friend Culture Shock..

Anyways, more on travel plans as the time comes, April 29 can't get here soon enough! Or the 1st of April for that matter, when job contracts are renewed and I get to see what schedule changes (if any) have been made for the following contract year. Here's hoping for some closer schools, and still getting to keep my favorite classes!

Back in time, I knew Sunday would be a busy day so I also worked out Saturday night. Sunday morning I hit up band practice, always a good time. The girls were pleasant as always and overly complimentary about my apparent overnight improvement in speaking Japanese. Really, I've just been refreshed of what was in the dusty recesses of my memory and have had more grammar, speaking and listening practice lately, the kind of stuff I really need. We had a solid practice, and I was informed by our vocalist Makiko that she had done an interview with a Czech metal magazine about the band, making the first public announcement that "there's a white American dude named Ben playing guitar now." When asked about the implications of a once all-female band, such as feminist ideals or what have you, she simply put it like it is: "it just happened that we were all girls in the first place, nothing more than that." I really hope to get a look at the interview some time.

Also in band news, concerning our drummer situation (Tomoko, the currently MIA drummer just had her baby!) we managed to meet up with Ian later that day, and as it stands now he'll be playing drums. I am incredibly excited about this, as a real drummer means lives practices without having to follow recordings, and many more opportunities for writing music. Hopefully some shows will be coming by late Spring! I have been looking forward to playing a gig in this country ever since I got here.

Since my friend Koba, bass player for one of the opening bands agreed to take my guitar and put it in the backstage area, me and Ian were able to go straight to the show. It was awesome, and I wish I could have taken some pictures or something, but I was having too much fun. Crystal Lake put on a great set, and Shai Hulud played so many old songs and put on one hell of a show. Ian did the west-coast circle-pit thing and I did mine, it was really just an awesomely cathartic show, and left me feeling good the rest of the night.

Funny side story - we had put our jackets with my guitar, and later were hanging out backstage to watch the bands and avoid the slew of sweaty teenagers. So we find my guitar in the overly cramped space for bands, but no jackets. We started to get a bit nervous, and the headlining band (Parkway Drive, a generic snoozefest in my opinion) was playing so we couldn't look for our stuff. We tell Koba, and 2 minutes later I see him look briefly, then apparently go to the side of the stage to watch with everyone else. I figure he just gave up on our stuff and would help us later.

However, like a hardcore holyman, the dude somehow cannonballs into the crowd, and comes back mere moments later with both of our jackets, I have no idea how. Maybe you had to be there to appreciate it but it was random and really cool of him to do. I once heard a guy say that "Japanese friends are hard to make, but if you do, they'll stick by your side 100%." I've also always made the connection of music with people I've felt close to, so it's nice to know that even all the way out here, we can share that bond.

WOW this is starting to sound campy and lame. In much cooler news I met the "I wanna go to troy" guy (remember him?) he was drinking a bottle of jack all night, but i talked to him for a bit about cutthroat, that old Albany hardcore band he liked. I told him about the Swollen Shut CDs, and that I'd get him a copy. Figure he'd appreciate it - I've been listening to it nonstop at the gym (thanks Torn)

Monday was a typical down-day, but fine by me. I went to class, and studied pretty hard. I also ordered a book which has changed my perception of Japanese characters, one most students of the language probably already know about: Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji." Basically, you identify parts of the characters, give them meanings and make silly stories or other mnemonic devices to help you remember. It works a trillion times better and faster than rote memory (repetition) and has helped me learn and identify over 100 new characters in the last couple of days. At this rate I hope to hit the 2000 mark by the end of the Summer, at the latest. Couple this with the 2-4 hours a day of Japanese study I've been putting in, and I'm gonna get good. Real good. Like 10 levels up. And if I can continue this motivation, and keep up at this pace, I'll really reap the benefits (those benefits being the ability to understand shit around me, read comics and talk to people easier). It feels good to be working towards a goal out here, and not just wandering around aimlessly.

Speaking of Japanese, funny story about last week as well: I have Japanese classes not only Mondays but Wednesdays as well, which involves getting home from work around 11 Tuesday night, and getting up at 8:30 the next day. Sounds easy, but I'm bad at that. I usually set 2 alarms (cell phone and computer) for my job and other priorities, in case one fails. Skipped the computer one Tuesday night, and paid the price when I awoke at 10am. Why did my cell phone not deliver the goods? Because I dropped it off my bed, which must have hit the button on the side which turns off the ringer. Completely bogus! Not making that mistake again.

What else, what else. Saw Kylesa, and some other bands in Shin-Okubo on Saturday night. It's funny because, since I went straight from work I showed up in my suit, snoopy-tie and all, and the British dude I know who always wears the Dead Guy shirt just says: "I don't feel right talking to you now man! You should be wearing a punk t-shirt under that or something!" I'm glad I came early though, because I got to see TERROR SQUAD, maybe the Municipal Waste of Japan. "TOKYO! METARU! FIIIYAAAAA!" So fast and thrashy, I'm definitely going to see them again. And Coffins were great as always, like methadone for the ears. Things were thrown off the stage as well as people, and it was a fun time. Unfortunately I drank more ambitiously than I could handle and had to leave early.... not to mention having the first time experience of falling asleep standing up on the train home. That was weird and slightly disconcerting. I blame you:

I introduced a friend to my favorite movie ever in the history of the Universe, UHF. It's quirky, random and chock-full of Weird Al's special brand of humor. Always puts me in a good mood. I haven't done too much else this weekend but study, which is a good thing. I started reading Silence of the Lambs. Oh, and I almost feel stupid for owning 3 video game consoles and barely playing them... I mostly just play my DS on the trains! Although Mario Kart Wii has been happening on occasion. Again though, this is most likely a good thing, I'm feeling determined about learning and for the first time have the ability to focus all my efforts (outside work and daily life) on this language, so I will own it. No question about that.

P.S. Things I'm eating as of late: bean sprouts (because they're cheap), tantanmen (Chinese Ramen because it's spicy, cheap and delicious), and microwavable pizzas (because you can take the foreigner out of the country but...)

"Today we're teaching poodles how to fly!" - Raul's Wild Kingdom

"Something profound"