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


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Doing things I've never done before

(written last thursday, posted late)

Today was my last day at the school in Shinjuku. I've worked there one a week since September, and while it's been fun, it's so busy and the trains are always so crowded coming and going that I just wanted to get out. The break room is also scantly big enough for 3 people, yet we usually have 5 teachers minimum coming and going. Thankfully, I got my request for a closer school on that day instead. The sad part is that the staff and my co-workers are all really cool people, so I bought them a few bags of candy for a final farewell.

I'm not the only one who wanted out though - one older teacher described his relief of being able to switch schools after five years by showing me this picture:

I also brought my guitar in at one of my friends' request, to go to a blues bar I had heard much about. We had Sayaka on trumpet, Katie with her alto saxaphone, Matt with the harmonica and me with my guitar. I instantly felt so out of place there: picture a bar full of drunk businessmen, small and cramped, with guitars and other instruments clumsily stacked against the walls. There's a drumset, several amps, various doohickies and a piano. As I walk in there's some big Japanese guy, butchering some song lyrics in English, rocking out on one of those big, bridge-raised blues style guitars. You know the kind with the wavy pattern of indentation on the front of the wooden body, like B.B. King or something. And while I knew that me with my hardcore stickered ESP amongst a bunch of dudes with fender customs and big-bodied blues guitars would stand out a bit, I still felt like even if I botched it, things would be O.K.... or at least that's what I told myself. I was really nervous but by the time I got to play a lot of people had left, so it was less pressure.

After about 2 hours of waiting (we had our names on a list, and everyone is a guitarist these days after all) we all got to go up with a few other random musicians. Even though my playing was far from perfect; the owner behind the bar reminded me to tune in between songs, which was quite funny: "Ben-san, chuning wa...." There was a kind of chemistry going on there unlike what I've felt before in metal or hardcore bands. Everything in a band is 99% pre-planned unless it's at practice, but this style of blues jam means pick a progression and let it fly. Matt wailed on the harmonica, Sayaka's trumpet boomed like her own boisterous persona, Katie's sax sang out her heart and I did my own things too. I even did something else unprecedented, and actually attempted vocals. Of course anyone can do a blues verse or two, and as Lisa Simpson would say "the Blues come from in here" (pointing at the heart).

Despite a mad dash to catch the last train it was a memorable time. I hope to brush up on my scales, acquire a more refined taste for this or maybe another style of music and continue playing. I still wanna play fast and thrashy stuff, but it feels good to try something new. To test the comfort zone and push myself out into a different realm. Perhaps some of this will come off as overly poetic, but if you've never shared the feeling of playing music with friends, it just does something to your brain. At that time you're on an magic plane, interacting through this kind of fleeting, untouchable medium that can never be grasped, just experienced.

I really need to play more.

"...When it occurred to me that the animals are swimming, Around in the water in the oceans in our bodies and another had been found another ocean on the planet, Given that our blood is just like the Atlantic. And that's how the world began, And that's how the world will end" - Modest Mouse

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Chapter 5: Cedar in the Air.

The other night I wound up, by some various hair-brained circumstances, hanging out with two Japanese friends of mine from Kobe and wandering aimlessly around Kabukicho, Shinjuku's famous red-light district. The two girls' reactions were quite hilarious: "It's so embarrassing walking through here!" They say as we pass love hotels, host clubs, strip joints, and what are probably soap houses (legitimate brothels). This area of town used to be run in a more heavy-handed manner by the Yakuza, and quite dangerous; Now it serves as more of an area teeming with varying forms of night-life. This was the night before Spring Equinox (national holiday) and there were foreigners abound. Other than the usual black dudes and other foreigners (not to sound prejudice or something, but it's like 80% black dudes), out to hustle you to going into an overpriced adult club of some kind, there were foreigners, salarymen and everyone from everywhere you could think of, all out to have a good time in this ubiquitously well-known, over-crowded area. Tokyo is an exciting place to live like this, and I guess I take it for granted at times.

I escorted the two ladies to the cheap bar I knew there, but it was full up since we showed up late, having celebrated early holiday with overpriced (but non-Japanese) beer for a belated St. Patty's Day. Again, the girls said they felt weird but we turned a corner and poof, like magic, we went from perv-ville to a huge display of hundreds of colored balloons, various cheap dresses on sale and stuffed animals. One block away was the hotel district, and two more was a 20+ story hospital. The sheer abundance in such small spaces is dizzying. Japan is condensation. The town I live in is more dense and probably bigger than Albany, the capital city of New York that I am "from" (really five minute across the river). But this 100,000 person or more area is considered somewhat rural.

When there are neon signs, 24-hour eateries and 3 convenience stores in 1/8 of a mile, I don't quite call that rural.

*note to self: place clever transition here*


Feeba (Fever)

After the veritable breeze that last fall was, as far as no noticeable allergy afflictions, I thought I had left my horrendous pollen allergies behind with my old life in New York. You see back there, every Fall and Spring were murder on my sinuses, so I had tried everything to counter-act it, from pills to nasal sprays to allergy injections. (!!) I even brought some of the nasal spray with me to Japan, but stopped taking it and noticed no difference - good for me, since acquiring and refilling prescriptions are supposed to be a royal pain here.

As you may have already guessed, I jinxed myself hard on this one. Spring is in the air, with temperatures reaching up to 70 this week, and Japan's over-saturation of cedar-based pollens has rocked me pretty hard today. Headaches and a sore throat when I woke up this morning, nothing unmanageable, but today I earned my chips, substituting 3 kids classes in a row, 2 of which were levels I've never really taught before. 2 of them went smoothly, despite being craft-based: making playdough was a right mess but fun, and coloring Easter eggs with a bunch of 5 year olds is really no big deal. I did have a class of 10-12 year olds though who were really, really hard to get through to, like they wouldn't pay attention to a word I said and I was continually being talked over by more than one person, and I have to work on some methods to counteract this. I think they call it discipline? I call it my least favorite part about my job, since I just want to be the cool, down-to-earth kind of teacher I always enjoyed back when I was a kid, but sometimes it's necessary. More on that as things develop.

I got my new job contract! (In case you don't know, everything starts in April here, school, new fiscal years, etc.) It's only tentative at this point, but it's looking good. I have five kids classes which I think is a good number, and some closer schools thanks to management acknowledging my requests. I'm leaving some students and classes and schools behind which is a strange feeling, as it's the first time I've really done something like this. It feels like a weird situation, between me and my students... We only have a student-teacher relationship, but I really want to know what will happen to the young guy who specializes in agriculture moving to the country who I've taught since I moved here, or how the 5-year-old who I just started giving private lessons to will get on in the future. I'm so stubborn about leaving things behind, and change and all that, which you wouldn't think considering where I live, but I am.

Took a trip with some friends to Kamakura on Monday. It was a great time, getting out of the city and seeing the ocean. Pics coming whenever I get off my lazy butt to upload em. (...or I guess that would be on my lazy butt, with a camera and USB cable in arms reach).

I was experiencing some chronic wrist pain when lifting so I bit the bullet and saw a doctor the other day. I was gonna go to a hospital but my friends in Japanese class convinced me that a Clinic was better. This bears some explaining: In Japan, almost any city/town will have several Kurinikku, where you can see a licensed General Practitioner who will take care of your needs on a more personal level than a hospital. The best part is that with my health insurance, I've been getting some crazy, acupuncture-point-style massages on my aching arm for real cheap, significantly better than the co-pay back home. I've even taken to chatting my doc in Japanese, since he mostly just knows medical terms and can speak only broken English. The best part was when I mentioned moving to Japan, the first thing he says something about toilets, using an onomatopoeia to the effect of zaaaa, with an exaggerated hand motion, exhibiting some kind of function that the high-tech toilets here have, which I have yet to uncover - lazer beams perhaps?
As far as Japanese toilets, they come in two styles here: medieval holes in the floor (see: the one right outside my room) and high tech models with buttons for everything from varied degrees of flushing to personal, shall I say, genitalia-washing sprays. Haven't tried that one yet myself. Or rather, I haven't been forced into a situation where I have to.........yet.

Speaking of sound-based words like my doc's "zaaaa," they love, utterly love using onomatopoeia in speech here, I'll do a full article on it some time. It's mind-blowing.

In band news, there's no real news. Sadly our new prospective drummer Ian had to back down due to an already over-slammed schedule. So we're drummerless once again, and I'm kind of bummed, but waiting patiently. We've got some ads up but no catches yet - if anyone knows a good, grind-style drummer in the Tokyo area, contact me, ok?

I know there are cool stories or things that have happened that I'm not recalling right now, and that's a shame. I should write more regularly, but I spend more of my free time now study-study-studying. I've got kind of a "maximum-output fever" going on, and want to keep it up for as long as possible. I spend my time drilling flashcards, practicing grammar and reading Japanese comics I understand 40-60% of, with varying success. Right now reading a lot of Gantz, Dragon Ball, Bobobo, One Piece.... I also have been reading yet more Lovecraft, he's got an addicting style with his vivid, spooky imagery. And watching the hilarious music-student based drama Nodame Cantalibre, hilarious!!! (Ashleigh, you would like this one)

No point in forcing it I suppose - more of my quasi-exciting life coming soon!

"Given to the rising." - Neurosis

"I'm walkin' and I'm talkin' and I'm tryin' and I'm lyin' but I just can't get through to you! Maybe I'd be better off talkin' to a wall, cuz you aren't makin' any sense at all!" - Cro-mags

"And it's strange, but they're all basically the same, so I don't ask names anymore." - Death Cab

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Another day in paradise - Culture shock, cockroaches, sweaty crowds and beds of roses

Everything shifts, all the time. Language is amorphous and ever-changing, so are the economics and so is the culture. It should come as no surprise that the residual effect is a dynamic yet unstably predictable slew of moods I find myself in each day. I don't know if I believe in bad days anymore, there are too many things can happen in a mere 24 hours. I do believe in the value of time, and a certain friend of mine said the other day he had an "out-date," a.k.a. a set time in mind when he was going to leave Japan. I was a little saddened to hear this as he's one of the few really cool people I've met here, but was of course supportive of his plans to move on, get a real career, etc.. More importantly, this bit of news he followed up with: "Having a set date in mind makes the time more enjoyable, if that makes any sense."

To me, it makes a world of sense. A galaxy, nay, a cosmos of freakin' sense. Goals are important, although mine aren't necessarily temporal (it's old news but as a refresher: learn Japanese as best as I can, help F.I.D. take over the world with grindcore, have fun, etc). In any regard I have never been content staying in one place or doing one set thing for too long, with possibly only 2 exceptions: reading and playing music. And even with these, I burnt out at times, went into slumps, got fed up with them - too much of anything is never a good thing, as the old proverb goes. Have I yet taken in too much Japan?

The answer is a bit counter-intuitive. I would describe my experience in Japan so far in the following chronological way: Seeing everything as surreal, followed by a splash of cold water in the face, followed by adjustment, followed by acceptance. My 4-step program, if you will.

Now there's this thing they call culture shock, but I don't think it's defined correctly. Note:

"culture shock: the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes."

What's wrong here is the word "suddenly." True, culture shock hits you when you first come to a new place, but it's residual effects are comparable to those who try and quit smoking. At first one has undeterred confidence in their ability to overcome, followed by waves of desire for going back to old habits. That's a lot like my experience of culture shock. Some days are lollipops and neon lights (perhaps better described as yogurt-flavored candy and squid strips), while others i feel the city grinding me down as a whole, just scraping slowly away at my humanity, to risk sounding a trifle over-dramatic. My buddy over at the The Ghost Letters has blogged about this latter phenomenon quite a bit, and it's something anyone in any big city must go through: feeling isolated, getting fed up with the crowds and whatnot. The main difference is that everything here feels like it hits an extremity...

Life in Japan is everything to the max. The colors are brighter, the gadgets shinier, the lights blink faster and the silly humans all squeeze in to make their way, everything going 100 miles a minute. I'm not used to it, I'm getting used to it; some days it feels normal and some day it feels like the veritable equivalent of walking around mars with my helmet off, Total Recall style. For instance, I saw a dude bitching out the station attendant for a late train the other day. He was a young salary man, obviously in a hurry and upset by the late trains. He kept saying things along the lines of (and I'm translating faithfully here): "I'm not fucking around! Do you think I'm kidding here? This train cannot be late, do something, seriously!" While the station attendant apologized repeatedly and profusely, bowing all the while. Thie is a prime example of what one would never see in the New York area: a slave to public transportation venting his anger out on a station attendant who can't do anything, the guy obviously catching flak for a problem he didn't cause, and still maintaining a "the customer is always right" mentality (also known as okyakusama ga kamisama, translation "the customer is god"). I think if you pulled that at Amtrak in Rensselaer, NY, the staff would just laugh at you.

But enough with all that stuff. Moving on. I had a somewhat rocky week, with construction beginning at 8am on Thursday morning keeping me a awake and forcing me to run on low batteries all day. Then I made the terrible mistake of going out Thursday night, getting woken up by the clings and clangs and hollers of construction workers after staying up until 2am, and subsequently feeling a little burnt out for my kids class that day. The real kicker of all this is there was a sign put up just this week, bi-lingual, saying in English: "we will be painting from March 6, sorry for the inconvenience." This was rather deceiving, as it not only began on March 5, but when I later looked at Japanese closer, the characters for "construction" were explicitly stated.

I was better prepared today but still missed sleeping in until 9 or 10 like normal. I tried asking one of the constructoin workers if they would be working on Sunday as well, and he gave me a run-around answer along the lines of "we're working until it's finished," if I understood him correctly. Maybe I didn't. Irregardless, the dude had half inch forests of nose-hairs coming out of his shnoz, and I can live without ever seeing that again, ever.

Work was a breeze, only a couple classes at my favorite school, all the students were animated and a pleasure to teach. Note: this was the exact opposite of an incredibly awkward and painful day I had earlier this week in Shinjuku. I taught a dude today who was on a plane to Vegas when the Twin Towers fell; he said they re-routed him to Vancouver and that when he finally made it to Vegas, everything was just shut down. No lights, no casinos, just desert and dead bulbs. Wild. Another student said he tried to watch Star Wars without Japanese subtitles, and he did fine except that he couldn't understand Yoda! I had to of course explain that Yoda says everything completely backwards, and hence has terrible grammar!

I was thanked several time for being generally helpful today, which always makes me feel good. I've never felt so appreciated in any line of work in the past as I often am at this job. I feel that of all the teachers that come through, a small amount really want to give it their all every time, and not to brag, but when I do something I do it right. I don't like half-assing anything. So, that made me feel good. The staff at that school are also becoming good friends of mine, and I'm crossing my fingers and toes that I'll have a set day there as of April on my next contract, as I'm only there once or twice a month as of now.

Today I came home and what's the first thing I see? A cockroach scurrying up my wall. I try and calm myself down but the overwhelming revulsion I feel for the thing is almost nauseating; I never had to deal with these guys back home, although house centipedes were another matter altogether. Fact of the matter is they both creep me out as much as anything possibly can.

I mustered up the stomach and slammed an old hard-cover copy of One Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (sorry Vernes) into the little bastard. It fell in the corner of my room, next to my bed in a corner of shoes and belts. I decided I had to move my bed and do some hardcore cleaning to get whatever putrid rice crumbs I had let find there way there for little dudes like this to much on (not to mention go buy some bug spray the next day). I proceeded to move my bed, poked at the shoey-belty-corner with an umbrella, and sure enough the little fucker comes sidling out on the wall apparently undamaged. I throw the book at him, my heart leaping out of my chest, and still see him scurry away after being apparently flattened, and into my shoe to boot!

That was it.

I flipped my shoe with the umbrella and he scurried behind the book. I kicked that book so furiously that the neighbors must have thought I was having a domestic dispute with myself, and finally it was over. I spent the next 3 hours cleaning up and working around all the crap I'd been putting off for so long. I watched Blazing Saddles for the umpteenth time while I cleaned, ate some pizza toast and felt inspired to pour out all of this you're reading. So in the end, it really was a good day, on the whole.

As I said at the beginning, things change constantly. Nothing is ever set, it just appears that way.