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


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Conversations with people in Japan (and the walls)

Many occur, few are documented.

-At the gym one of the older gym rats informs me about a salt-related penalty in NYC (he knows I'm from NY, hence I am obviously responsible in part for this horrendous act). Something along the lines of "without salt, what the hell can you even cook?" I agreed it was crazy and told him I would research it myself. When I did, and discovered that Assemblyman Felix Ortiz had actually proposed the idea of fining restaurants for using salt in the state of NY, I agreed that next time I saw gym rat that it was indeed absurd and a travesty that Mr. Ortiz suggested such a silly notion, but hey, he was the guy who advised banning cell phone usage while driving too, so what can you expect (in my much less verbose or articulate Japanese of course). The conversation ended with:

"This Ortiz guy, is he your Dad or something?"


-When people stare at me on the train, in the street, etc. (as happens daily), I often respond with a smile. Or a funny face. Or a wtf-eyebrow raise. Or just a return stare. But sometimes I want to grab them, shake them and scream "I'm the same as you underneath, my skin is just a different color and my build is slightly larger and I much more vaguely resemble Bruce Willis, that's all!!!!"

-This isn't so much a conversation as a list of questions and comments I've received countless times. My reaction varies between cute and annoying, in that special love/hate manner that only Japan can bring out in me:

"Those are HUUUUUUUUGE" (in response to my shoe size, 13 or 14 in America, 30 centimeters in Japan). I often respond by telling them I have trouble finding shoes back in the States too.

"How about Japanese food?" Often entangled with or followed up by: "Do you like Natto?" (Natto is a disgusting slop of fermented soybeans that smells like dirty socks and tastes like cat food gone bad, so of course I should be into it but just can't bring myself to like it)

"Why are you skinhead?" (In Japan, people think shaved head is skinhead in English due to their bastardized Japanese English. I've explained the difference countless times but I'm starting to give up on this's because I'm prematurely bald, by the way)

-This one is slightly more serious. I met an older fellow at the gym, past 60, who is always quite nice to me. He smiles and bows and doesn't look afraid of me like I'm going to pillage his family and leave them for dead, so that's always a brownie-point earner in my book. I almost always keep to myself there (same as back in the States) but have a few people I say "hi" to, the aforementioned Ejiro-san being one of them. (Another retired fellow I call Mr. Baseball is among the lot, we've never had a conversation over 2 sentences or that didn't involve baseball or his drinking too much the night before) He would for whatever reason give me candy at random times in the locker room... wow does that sentence sounds terrible, but really it was a gesture of good will. So I allowed him to treat me to lunch one day (the who-pays wasn't my choice; in Japan there is no getting out of a treated meal, and that's a fact). The old guy doesn't speak a lick of English and I like that - Old men are hard to understand and it's something I need more practice with in general. Plus, he seemed like a nice guy who probably had a lot of time on his hands since retiring, so I figured he'd be tickled pink at the opportunity. Turns out he was a gym teacher who also taught the mentally disabled. He coached marathon running for some time, and even worked at camps in Mexico and L.A. training potential Olympics contestants. Apparently the locations were chosen for their air quality, dry air somehow being better for training. At any rate, sadly none of them made the final cut, but I still considered that to be an excellent achievement, having trained athletes in a foreign country. He couldn't understand my passion for music, and I likewise couldn't appreciate his passion for running, but we understood each other well enough.... I'll be honest, at times I couldn't catch a whit of what he was talking about. But for the most part it was good, and I didn't once whip out my phone dictionary for fear of losing face (and looking extremely rude). The dumplings and fried rice were also excellent.

There are more. There must be more. But I'm exhausted, so you'll get no more. This is what happens when real life is really busy. Vacation plans, overtime work, figuring out the new fiscal year, I could list enough excuses to color every stone in the sea with virtual ink, but I'll spare you all and myself of the unnecessary. The blog must suffer a bit. Good night readers.

"I want to take you far from the tethers of this scene, we'll cut our bodies free, start a brand new colony, where everything will change, we'll give ourselves new names" - Postal Service

"It's a battle on my own/machinery you can't control/people always complain about their worst/troubles you wish were your own/as the seasons roll on by you realize you're getting older/it's a battle on my own what have I learned?" - Ignite

Thursday, March 18, 2010

It will be mine

I know I've thought countless times in the last week "hey I could blog about this." Sadly my flux of ideas doesn't correlate to the time I leisurely sit in front of my computer typing up entries, so I'm sure much has been lost. I am only human after all.

As for how I think and do things, I've been schooled on my own high-rises and gutter-balls, and it boils down to a simple idea: I'm creative and great at coming up with ideas, but I'm not so great at organizing and executing them. This isn't to say I'm incapable of the latter, but it doesn't flow as freely as the former does by any stretch of the imagination. It comes out in almost everything I do: my erratic yet dutiful studies; my haphazard but relatively effective speaking style in Japanese; my teaching method of the same cloth; my admittedly random, somewhat sloppy but unique(?) take on playing guitar, and so on. Even here, where I post on an unpredictable timetable and a kind of "when the spirit moves me" mentality. And my posts are equally as disorganized as every fiber of my being, as they reflect my thoughts. It's the kind of thing that you don't realize about yourself until somewhat steps up and calls you out on your eccentricities, because you are always too close to yourself to have any perspective or know better. It takes others for me to step back a minute and realize what I'm doing, and I'm glad they do - I'm still trying to figure me out.

At any rate, I blame too much creative learning and my lackluster abilities in Math- and Science-related curriculum. Curse you post-hippy, free-thinking education system!!!

I bought a new guitar today! But why the sudden urge? Another backwards explanation is in order: the weather was so beautiful yesterday (Sunday) that even a nasty hangover couldn't keep me down. In fact in a somewhat sloth-like state, the whole outside world teeming with new life, I swam in sunbeams that semed a surreal paradise which time had forgotten. I looked at the stone bench on the gorgeous verdure-covered walking path near my apartment and thought how I'd love to sit in the shade and play an acoustic guitar in this perfect weather. (before summer comes and turns this whole damned city into a sticky and miserable jungle) I have an acoustic guitar back in the states, but due to obvious spacial constraints refrained from bringing it with me on any journey nigh on 7000 miles. It's a decent guitar, but it's slightly warped from slight misuse and always sounds slightly out of tune anywhere above the 7th fret. So I left the old girl behind, and the mild longing for a new one has been itching at my gut for quite some time. Itch relieved. I'll post a picture? Naa, I'll never get around to it, who am I kidding. It's a 30-year old Humming Bird in amazing condition with only a few scratches that I got in Ochanomizu from a used guitar store for under 20,000 yen (around $200). What a steal!!!! I'd heard that there were amazing finds to be made there, but holy crapoly. One look at that baby and it was like the scene with the Stratocaster in Wayne's World, minus any Stairway to Heaven. I tried only one guitar, and bought it 5 minutes later. No regrets here, my apartment is a much happier place now.


I wrote all of the above about 3 days ago (not going to to try and blend it seamlessly together, no point) but knew I didn't have a complete entry. Here goes le finish:

March is crawling to an end, the cherry blossoms are just starting to peak out in places, and there couldn't be a more appropriate time of year to be reading "Hokkaido Hitchhiking Blues." It's a solid travel book, and enlightening on Japan. I recommend it.

Lately I've been thinking of humanity's frightfully minor status in the universe at large, or to quote H.P. Lovecraft: "terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein." I think it's a combination of being heavy into this Moby Dick audiobook - a lot of philosophizing, sea-is-great-we-are-small kind of stuff, not to mention biblical sh*t goes down in it - and it being spring time. The world spins on and her seasons roll by and we are merely lucky to experience them by circumstance; it isn't like we help cause them, and if anything we pollute them with our humanity. Silly humans. But being one I can't really knock them- er, us so hard.

I've got a lot of real world stuff to do: Taxes, fleshing out Golden Week plans with my Mom coming to Japan, studying super hard for level N1 JLPT in December (and level n2 for kicks in July). As for the n1 test, I'm banking on surpassing a 50% score. The minimum pass is 70%, and maybe if I didn't have to work I could study enough to get that in a year, but it's doubtful. It's a huge leap in difficulty, and a pass = fluency (on paper), so it's no small task. No, my real goal is to pass this almighty personal benchmark by 2011, which would mean I've "mastered" the Japanese language in about 5 years. Then I'd be able to shift my attention to the true pandora's box (and possible money-maker), Chinese!!!

How I wish I had a better grasp of where I was going with my life sometimes. Things are good now, but they can't stay this way forever. Changes have to be made eventually, but it's a "maybe next year" scenario. Every year?? Hrrmmmmm who's got a time machine I can borrow? Some Back-to-the-Future 2 style action is in order... minus the Biff.

Concerning Golden Week, after much hotel-hunting I've managed to string it together: Two days in Hiroshima, one on the mainland and one on the gorgeous, deer-infested island of Miyajima. Followed by a day in the famous port-town of Kobe, then a visit to my metal brethren Hiro's family's home in the beautiful Aichi countryside (a.k.a. middle-of-nowhere Japan), and two days to split between Nara and Kyoto, both former capital's of Japan. back in the dizzay. Before and after that me and my Mom will be doing stuff around Tokyo too, although it's really hard to decide what to the put time into exactly. Got to hit the major stuff anyway, although I secretly long to emulate Mr. Ferguson's aforementioned travel book, purposefully skipping all big cities and seeing more of the real, quaint, reflections-of-the-old-world Japan.

At times I feel like living in Tokyo is psuedo- neo-Japan (which it is). I'm not saying I want tabi (split-toe) sandals and samurai's impaling themselves in the name of honor, just more ricefields and less people who aspire to conquer the world via computer chips, or who want to speak English because it's a business language. Gah. English is such a beautiful, artistic, arbitrary language that to learn it simply for business purposes (without scraping the surface, feeling it or looking into the how and whys, laughing at the gross inconsistencies or punny possibilities) is sadly missing the point in my opinion. Although I would have to say the same for Japanese.... and probably most languages now that I think about it, if I had any right to say that or anything at all about them.

Ramblings. If you want funny pictures of stuff with more wit and less personal drivel, check out my buddy Steve's semi-famous Tokyo Damage blog on the right side of your screen. Good stuff, and he's a solid dude as well with good taste in music.

F.I.D. shows coming THIS SUMMER IN TOKYO! The new jams are off the hook yo. We have a song about "Babies in China, Metaphysics and Men on the Moon." And one called "Mixed Fries."

Until I ramble again, cyberspacians.

"Remember when you said that things would never change / You liar / Because these days things in my life, they don't stay the same / You changer" - Small Brown Bike

Monday, March 8, 2010

March Madness

Before the fiscal year begins in April, chaos reigns over Japan. Deadlines loom something odious, entrance exams are finished, graded and returned to the delight or dismay of parents, and everything is a crush, a rush, a push to get through and make it out alive to see the cherry blossoms bloom. It's not so bad for me as, say, the typical salaryman or office worker, but I still feel the intensity building like a tsunami wave ready to crash the stubborn shores (the whole recession thing doesn't help). I'm doing heaps of extra job training this week for some Kindergarten gigs that should start up in April, so that'll keep me not only busy but also a little less in the poor house. Because the cost of living, having some fun and taking Japanese lessons 3 times a week on my standard salary leaves me without a satisfactory amount of coins to drop in my piggy bank. (You'd think you could just bash your head against some brick-blocks with question marks on them an voila! coins! But it is not so) So I myself am going through the metamorphosis, from teaching kids maybe 6 hours a week to an unknown increase, but I look upon this change with anticipation. The only thing is now it's Monday night and I'm dreading the long couple of days ahead of me. 我慢しかないね (nothing to do but grin and bear it) I just started reading a book called "Hokkaido Hitchhiking Blues," about a Canadian man who does just that from the southern tip of Kyushu to Hokkaido. Looks to be a light and fun read for a change of pace. (I'm getting near the end of Moby Dick on audiobook, and it's great, but it is one heavy mother)

Early night here folks. Between properly responding to backed up e-mails, inputting new Japanese flashcards in my study program and hauling a giant box of oatmeal home from Costco among several other heaps of "rare" goods after my Japanese class this morning, I'm pooped. My days off don't feel enough like days off right now, I need to take one next weekend that involves nothing but being a human sloth. I can't lie though, things have been great the past few weeks, I'm merely feeling the down that had to come eventually. Can't ride a cloud forever... unless by ride a cloud you mean be high as shit on Opium, in which case you can ride a cloud for quite a long time, but will end up a sickly waste of flesh as a result. I think I'll just keep my ups and my downs, thanks.

"We're on a road to nowhere
come on inside
We're takin that road to nowhere
we'll take that ride" - The Talking Heads

"Jokingly said you’d burn all that was mine in your place
With serious written all over your face
So I sleep in my clothes just in case
I feel the flames touch my face I can make my escape with grace" - Blacklisted

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Not gonna do it

I'll try really hard to get through this whole post without mentioning study or work. Here goes:

So I'm reading High Fidelity now. Almost finished. I saw the movie years ago and the main character (a vinyl obsessed, relationship obsessed owner of a failing record store recovering from a lifelong series of rejections) is pretty much the same in the book. More internal monologue and motivation and depth, but almost the same. I see a bit of my Father in him, but the High Fidelity guy is of course much more emo. What's interesting to me is that the book raises some thought-provoking questions, like this for example: "Do I listen to pop songs because I'm unhappy, or do pop songs make me unhappy?"

While I hardly listen to anything pop made after 1990, I was raised on 60s, 70s and 80s music nonetheless (again, hat tip to my Father, the only man I know to keep his own top 40 list 30+ years. I'm not being facetious either, I think it's cool!). I can relate a bit to the main character's escapist mentality: he gets in a bad situation, and runs away to listen to some music he can relate to. I've done that many times in my life, although I've been making earnest efforts to be more pro-active and not wallowing around waiting for problems to solve themselves.... even though there are cases where nothing else can be done. What's comforting about this kind of self-therapy - hearing someone else with similar woes or emotions to your own - is of course knowing that you're not alone; Feeling the connection with this person you probably never met, who has swirling thoughts in his head the same as yours. I recall someone as saying Cannibal Corpse was the first music he ever heard that "described what was going on in his mind." I say good for him! (I just can't like that band though, personally)

It's a process more exciting than it has any right to be, cherry-picking songs that fit my current mode. Listening to something depressing while I'm already depressed doesn't do much harm, it just emphasizes my mood but also soothes it in a strange, paradoxical manner... I don't think the ability to relate to others feelings, positive or negative is at all a bad thing. That being said, if I flip on, say, Neglect ("I wish I coulda been a coathanger kid/would've been the best f**king thing you ever did") or Joy Division ("Living in the ice age") I find myself smiling more at the absurdity of the lyrics than actually feeling down about life. It's empowering somehow, to know other people see the futility and desperation and insanity that surrounds our world every day... that has always made me smile. If you ask why, then you're missing the point.

I saw Cocobat the other night. I was blown away by how great they were, they must all be age 37-43 judging by the age of the band itself (almost 20 years), and still put on a powerful, energetic performance. If you can imagine a kind of post-bad brains, pre-metalcore approach to heavy music, with original melodies and unpredictable rhythmic shifts, and tons of slap bass, that is Cocobat in a nutshell. See for yourself:

cocobat live at shelter 2010-2-12 pt3

COCOBAT | MySpace Music Videos

It was kind of a strange night. I had worked until 4:30 at this new school my company opened up, and after changing my clothes I dragged me and my duffle bag down to Shibuya. After some rummaging I found an empty coin locker (hard to come by at that time in the evening, only one was left out of 200) to dump my stuff in. Finally free of that burden (bringing lunch, textbooks, and a change of clothes including sneakers to work then lugging it all on semi- to fully-packed trains can take the wind out of ya) I meandered to the venue, in no particular hurry. As usual the map from the "live house" (japanese-english for concert hall or venue) website was terrible. I later figured out it had the street names wrong - something about the Japanese and street names, eh? - but I found it sure enough. I got a burger from Freshness Burger, the best hamburger chain in Tokyo bar none (I invite anyone to suggest otherwise). I realized I hadn't eaten that kind of greasy goodness since I'd been in the states two months back. I've been eating healthy lately, lots of greens and soba noodles and less meat and all that. This made the experience that much more enjoyable. In short, it was an excellent cheeseburger.

As for the show itself, when I arrived there was a jpop/jrock act opening the gig, which to me seemed downright bizarre. I'm all for mixed bills, but I don't make spaghetti and ice cream sandwiches. I mean honestly, Cocobat is (to use great liberties in appellation) at least an "alternative rock band," whereas Edge of Spirit who played second is complete metalcore, and not the radio-friendly stuff either. Closer to NYC's Irate or Through the Discipline or some such thrash. I though they were great, and had to mosh a bit, even though it wasn't that type of crowd.

Speaking of moshing, and moshpits in general (which I used to be really into and still dabble in occasionally when I'm in the right mood), it's a subcultural phenomenon I could blog about for a while. Let's simplify and leave it at creative expressionist dancing to heavy music, and say it evolved dramatically in the last 30 years, from Slayer-esque pushpits and "slam-dancing" to karate-kicking and dance moves and all that (there is also gang-mentality B.S. that taints it, but lets ignore that for now) I like all styles really - the idea of the pit is to do what you want to the music without any rules or restrictions, so doesn't that make classification somewhat pointless?

Still, for a quick lesson on "mosh," I advise this educational video:

I'm still quite partial to the pizzamaker myself.

This is all of course a late 80s "NY"-slant on things, and there are many different scenes and styles and yadda yadda yadda. But back to the main point: what struck me at the Cocobat show was the pit was comprised 5 or 6 dudes probably as old as the band, all wearing Cocobat shirts and running a no-rules circle pit. They looked they were having a great time, and I had to join them a bit myself. It was that kind of feeling, when the music is so good you can't sit still, that reminds me why I still see bands and go to shows. It's worth it for that experience. This pit was like stepping into a time machine to me, as the style and atmosphere were so far removed from everything I grew up around, more like things I'd seen in old tapes of shows from when I was still a wee one. It was very cool.

And Cocobat is probably one of the best bands in Tokyo still playing. I rank them up there with Slight Slappers. I now have two really awesome bands here I hope to see again. Here's to finding more!