Tuesday, July 1, 2008

365 days in Japan

Today is the one-year anniversary of my move to Japan. It snuck up fast. Here, Father Time wears a black hood and pads around silently in split-toed tabi, only to suddenly shoulder-roll into view and embed a shuriken into your forehead.

I felt nostalgic after realizing it was my 365th day here and read through some old journal entries from last year. At the time I was 2.5 kids and an outdoor grill away from being a fat suburban loser. Every morning I got into my Honda Civic and commuted 25 minutes through highway traffic, listening to the soul-eating banality of drivetime corporate radio. Thank god I worked with interesting people at the time, because after work I would settle back into the Civic and do the commute back to the 'burbs, only this time--and I hesitate to even admit this--I'd listen to Tom Leykis's crappy talk show filled with "amazing" dating tips like "pump 'em and dump 'em" and "your goal should be to get more ass than a toilet seat."

Arriving home to my featureless white apartment, take-out burrito in hand, I would sit in front of my computer and read the news. Most nights would be accompanied by a half bottle or so of 3-buck Chuck and a fistful of candy. I was an authoritative 224 around the time I left. After dinner I would usually go to the apartment complex weight room and put in a half hour on the elliptical, while watching Mexican telenovellas without sound on the wall-mounted TV. I was reduced to a piece of workout equipment designed for pregnant women and asthmatic hemophiliacs.

It started to dawn on me that we are nothing more than an aggregate lump of the choices we've made. At a certain point, you can't claim to be a good guy who lies sometimes--after a certain number of lies, you're a liar. You're not a struggling novelist with a day job if you never produce--you're a barista with delusions. By the same token, I saw myself as a risk-taker, an adventurer, philosophically different from the people shuffling in and out of Blockbuster with the latest Tom Cruise movie "the Man" has told them to watch. Made of sterner stuff.

But there I was, drinking the same Starbucks, watching the same summer blockbusters, driving in the same bland Japanese econo-box. So when the chance came to go to Japan, I took it. It meant leaving all my family, my friends, and my girlfriend of four years to take a job I had no experience in in a completely foreign country. A different alphabet, a different culture, different everything. When I first got to Japan I didn't know how to ask for a glass of water. It was an epic cultural kick to the scrote for a good couple months.

The switch was comprehensive. I spent the last year with no cell phone and no car. All my bills are on auto-pay and my paycheck is on auto-deposit. I only physically have to pay my phone bill, and I can do that at 7-11. I buy almost nothing except for food. I read a lot. I don't watch TV. I walk about an hour a day, lift weights in what looks like a prison yard, and jog past rice paddies. I spend a lot of time alone, at first by default and now by choice. This year has been a complete 180 from the one before it.

Not everyone has to have a major freak-out and leave the country to feel fulfilled. There's plenty of anarchists and avant-garde art freaks who do just fine in the same suburbs I felt closing in on me. At the end of the day you just have to decide what kind of person you want to be and do things that correspond with that image. So after a year out and some pretty significant emotional wreckage as a result of my decisions, a lot of highs and lows, and uninterrupted change of all kinds, I'm ultimately satisfied that I had the balls (and that's all that matters--just ask Tony Montana) to do this, and will hopefully continue the momentum. I would have changed a lot about how I executed this particular little adventure, but hindsight is hindsight, isn't it?

Alright, I swore I wouldn't let this blog get too self-indulgent, so thanks for reading if you did, a pox on ye if you didn't, and now I'm gonna get back to kancho jokes and half-nude fantasy bird paintings.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Falcon Vs. Bald Eagle, WHO YA GOT?

Bear vs. Hippo, Lion vs. Tiger, Gorilla vs. Elephant. In the realm of the hypothetical interspecies warfare that interests 19-year-old virgins, drunk frat brothers, and autistic Star Wars fans, my dad can authoritatively settle at least one match-up.

This could be the most badass thing to hit Cannon Beach since the '64 tsunami--I guarantee some Octogenarians' pacemakers skipped a beat during this monolithic showdown last week:

Click to read the article!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Advice to My Replacement Part 2: Games

I tried to treat teaching like counter-insurgency. These little kids are hanging out and having fun, and all of a sudden their mom turns off the TV, throws them in the back of the van, and ships them off to extra school. I am the despotic lord of their new world, and they are the directionless peasants under my thumb.

As with any all-powerful despot, you have 2 main options for controlling an unruly populace- the carrot or the stick. In general, I was pretty "carroty." My guess was that if the kids were busy being afraid during class they wouldn't be learning much. Plus, who wants to go to a school were the teacher is some arrogant ass who's into scaring little kids into obedience? I've had teachers like that, and it's no fun.

So as the year wore on, these were my operating principles:

1. Kids hate forced learning.
2. They love games.
3. Their attention span is really really short.
4. They love violence.
5. Class works better if they're always a little tired and a little off-balance.

Eventually, I was able to work all of this into a method for making lesson plans. I solved number 5 by asking for a bunch of big rubber balls to be stocked in our classroom. Have you thrown around a bouncy rubber ball lately? It's fun as hell, and it's like kryptonite to children. They can't resist. You know those cows that, given an unlimited food supply, will eat until their stomachs explode? It's like that.

If there were a few balls in the class room, the kids would instantly come in before class and play dodgeball/soccer/volleyball/ until they were sweating profusely and exhausted. This made them way more mellow and easy to control during the succeeding hour of class. They just didn't have the energy for their usual bastardry anymore.

As for the actual classes, I just tried to make those into one spastic game session. I worked off the assumption that kids can pay attention to something for like 5 minutes, max. I tried to always keep them moving, standing up, sitting down, talking loud, talking quiet, just keeping things moving as much as possible. Everything that could be turned into some kind of competition, was. If I say "He has crackers" and I want them to repeat it, I would make it a competition between 2 students to see who could do it first...that kind of thing. They go from not caring at all about English in a regular setting to it being of life-or-death importance when it's framed as a game.

All of the games would last for about 3 minutes or so, and after about a year we could cram in like 10-15 games in one 50-minute session. In the very beginning, we were doing a paltry 2 or 3 games per session.

The last thing, and one I didn't do enough of, is to keep the kids slightly off-balance. Every once in a while, I would just randomly stop class and call on a student to answer a question. Usually someone who wasn't paying much attention. This can interrupt the flow of class, but it's pretty good for keeping students on their toes. I never found a good way to do that while preserving the rhythm of class.

Anyway, once I got all this stuff institutionalized into the lesson plans, we were able to shred through the material like Godzilla through downtown Tokyo. It's amazing how fast these little bastards can learn when they're halfway engaged. By the end of the year they could have absorbed 3 times the material we had scheduled for one class.

So to sum it all up: make it fun first, and the learning will follow inevitably.

Any of the other teachers reading this: you have more experience than me, so feel free to throw in your own 2 yen.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Advice to My Replacement Part 1, the Nature of the Beast

My replacement arrives in less than a month. I've decided to write him some short bits of advice to smooth the transition, and just for the hell of it, I'm going to post them all here, first. I always wished I had more guidance in the first months I was teaching, so now I'm giving back what I can to the cause. None of you bastards ever comment (with a few much-appreciated exceptions), but now would be the time if you have anything relevant to say.

Part 1: The Nature of the Beast

Children are little bastards, and if you understand that early, everything else will be easier. Don't hold them to the standards you hold adults--their worldview and priorities are fantastically different. Would you let it slide if your co-worker came into work one day, jammed his fingers up your ass as a joke, drew a naked woman on the wall in marker, then demanded that you two go outside and play dodgeball instead of work (edit: Christ, that sounds like a pretty awesome work place actually)? Hell no, you'd have him fired before the end of the day. For a child, particularly a male one, these all seem like reasonable options.

They don't understand or care about social convention. They don't have the ability to manipulate you or hide their emotions. They are basically a raw mind on display. If they want something, they take it. If they think something, they say it.

Structure your class with this stuff in mind. Sure, they'll thank you for teaching them English when they score that sweet job with Honda's North American headquarters when they're 35, but in the meantime you're just some jerk-off who steals an hour from them every week when they'd rather be outside destroying something or watching crappy anime or doing whatever it is Japanese kids do for fun.

In short, you cannot treat these kids like they're just small adults. They have no idea why they're studying English after school when they'd rather be playing baseball. If you told them it's because it will really pay off in a decade when they're in high school, they'd tell you to get bent, they can't even think 2 weeks into the future.

So what's your response? Mine involved a metric assload of games, and I'll get to that in the next installment. In the meantime, anyone with any relevant input on children's nature, feel free to write a comment.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Yale Captain Shows Us How Lame Rowing Is

The latest news around here was the earthquake that killed 11 people and injured about 150, and I'll get to that in due time. I was going to write about it now, but I came across a mock-worthy rowing article, and when it's natural disaster vs. making fun of rowing, I have to make the hard choice and go with rowing...

The Harvard-Yale race happened sometime in the last couple weeks. For those of you who don't know, this is the oldest American intercollegiate sporting event. A hundred and fifty years ago, most young physically fit men were doing things useful to society and needed to generate money for their families--farming, delivering newspapers, laying bricks, shoeing horses, stuff like that. Of course, when your family estate is maintained by a collection of slaves and underfed orphans, you have more free time to devote to activities that are super expensive and benefit no one, like racing row boats. So that's exactly what our well-heeled lads from Harvard and Yale did, and the rest is history.

So the race just happened--Harvard won--and I found this description by the Yale captain pretty funny:

"It was like a boxing match," said Yale captain Jack Vogelsang, who was in the six seat. "You throw a couple punches, then wait and see how they respond. They throw a couple at you, you put up your defenses and try to go in. So much of it is just being very patient and knowing when to go in. They played it well."

Definitive proof of how lame rowing is. The reality is that the race was nothing like a boxing match. Boxing is exciting and dramatic. There's a lot of fancy footwork, physical danger, and an incredibly fast pace. A sport where you can find a psychologically broken and physically exceptional specimen like Mike Tyson--a poor black kid with fire in his belly beating the shit out of everyone in his path. A sport with a pretty compelling narrative, warts and all.

The Harvard-Yale race is a bunch of rich white kids racing carbon fiber boats at relatively slow speeds. There is almost no guile or strategy. Each stroke is exactly the same. Basically, from the word "go" you try as hard as you can and hope you win. Occasionally your coxswain will tell you to "make a move," which means you try harder for like 20 strokes, but you're already trying as hard as you can, so usually not much happens.

This guy from Yale is trying to associate rowing with boxing to leech off some of the danger and excitement into his own relatively dull sport. I don't blame him...he's searching for a way to convey his excitement about the race and make it relevant to the rest of the world.

But the bottom line for me is that interesting sports don't have to metaphorically compare themselves to other sports to seem interesting. Correct me if I'm wrong, but do football players ever say "This game was like a boxing match?" No way man. They don't have to. They say "This game was like a badass game of football, where grown men are running into each other at full speed and breaking their bones."

My dream is to hear a hardened ex gang-member welterweight emerge bloodied from the championship fight and tell reporters that it was a lot like the Harvard-Yale race.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Spoken Japanese vs. Written Japanese, or, Checkers vs. Chess

Spoken Japanese is considered to be one of the easier languages, in the grand scheme of things. The sounds are pretty easy, there are no tones like in Vietnamese or Chinese, verb conjugation is straightforward, and the Japanese habit of omitting everything possible from a sentence makes it a little easier for a beginner to understand.

Instead of asking, "Are you well," a Japanese person would just ask "Well?" with the implicit understanding that they're talking about you. It's way easier to understand a sentence that's half as long.

Lastly, Japanese people speak pretty clearly for the most part. There's no mumbling through a mouthful of superglue like Hawaiian...it's more like a moderate-speed machine gun shooting out crisp words at you.

(If you ever get into the honorifics and knowing which special level of politeness to use for a certain person, spoken Japanese can become diabolically hard--my rambling is just in reference to basic Hiroki Average's speaking.)

But written Japanese is a whole other ball of natto. I've heard it said that written Japanese is the single most difficult written language in the world. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Japanese has three alphabets:

Hiragana, which looks like this: あいうえお

Katakana, which looks like this: アイウエオ

And kanji, which looks like this: 頭肩膝足の指

Hiragana is kind of the basic alphabet, the first thing they teach little kids here. Katakana is used primarily for foreign words, so Japanese people can identify them and discard them as loan words from inferior barbarian cultures. Kanji is used to express ideas...I'm not really sure how to say that correctly.

Basically, if Japanese is a cake, Kanji is the thick bread part, hiragana is the frosting, and there's sprinkles of katakana on the top.

So anyway, three alphabets would be fine, but there are literally over 10,000 kanji in existence. Just to get around daily life and not be illiterate you have to know 2,000 of these little bastards.

Now here comes the fun part. For a given kanji, there is a Japanese reading and a Chinese reading, and multiple readings within those sub-categories. God forbid you put 2 kanji together, because this creates a compound kanji, which completely changes the meaning. So sometimes you're looking at like 10 different pronunciations for a given character.

And of course, they are always printed really small and look very similar.
Let's take this little guy, for example: 読む --This means "yomu," or "to read." Please don't confuse it with 語 which means "language," or 話す, which means "to speak."

The colors are pretty fun too. This means red: 赤 and this means blue: 青 All this stuff is about what a 6-year-old in Japan is learning while us slackers were outside enjoying the fresh air, our ABCs firmly committed to memory. Japanese children are incapable of reading the newspaper until they're about 15--then they can read most of it, but not all.

My all-time favorite is probably the kanji for "dot," though. Like, a little circle. A dot. Easy, right. This is the kanji, right? " . " NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, that would be too simple, THIS is the kanji: 点 That means "dot."

So yeah, Japanese is a real flying scrote-kick in terms of learning to read and write, and probably helps explain the work ethic around here. They've all been busting their asses since age 6 just to read the color of their crayons.

For those of you who read this and studied Japanese back in the day, how far did you get with the reading and writing?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Thoughts on Japanese Longevity

It's common knowledge that Japanese people never die. Take a stroll down any street in Japan and you'll see old hunched women who look like they tottered right out of the Edo period. Or chain-smoking 200 year-old grandfathers out for a 4-hour hike in the mountains--look in front of you, because they're probably kicking your ass and are about a mile ahead on the trail.

How do these people cheat the reaper, you may ask. It's certainly not due to a lack of bad habits. Washing away your stressful 16-hour workday with a handle of sake and a few packs of cigarettes seems like a recipe for a chest-clutching death by major organ failure at age 55, but most of these guys do exactly that. Fried foods? Hell yes they eat fried foods here. Deep-fried pork is like its own food group in Japan.

And yet they keep on chugging. Here's my theory why:

1. The diet. Yeah, they eat a lot of different fried foods, but always in relatively small quantities....like, maybe 100 grams of meat. The non-fried stuff includes a lot of different vegetables in pretty big quantities, and of course a stronger emphasis on fish instead of red meat. This low-meat, low quantity, high variety, high vegetable, high fish diet leads directly to number 2.

2. No fatties.

Of course there are plenty of fat Japanese people--maybe more and more as their diet continues to get westernized. But according to whichever group ranks world obesity, only like 3% of Japanese people are considered obese, compared with 33% of Americans!
Most people are pretty damn lean around here, and they walk a lot, cycle a lot, and generally do things to help out their heart. Even the old grandmas are out shopping on their bicycle.

3. Onsen

Japanese people love to take group baths. Strange? Perhaps, but a weekly dose of super-hot mineral water surely dilates your veins and helps with blood circulation, right?

4. Tea

They drink a lot. All the time, all day. Green, black, oolong, you name it.

5. Social pressure

To live in Japanese society is to navigate an ever-changing web of interlocking social pressures and obligations. You have to buy gifts for people for a thousand different occasions, you have to use different verb conjugations and vocabulary based on the status of the person you're talking to..Take the word "I." In Japanese, you can say "watashi," which is usually for formal situations or for women. Or you can say "boku," which is more boyish and casual, but not super casual. Only to be used by men. Then there's "ore" which is much more casual and usually just said to friends, but only by men. There's also "oi," which is casual but also specific to the Tohoku region, so you can say that if you're trying to curry favor with someone you know is from there.

I think you get the picture. The Japanese mind is constantly calculating, assessing, trying not to offend, moving moving moving. I would love to see the dementia rates in older Japanese people compared to the western world...I bet it's lower for a given age group. The best way to keep your brain from aging is to keep using it a lot, and they do. In fact, there's just no avoiding it.

Anybody else have any thoughts on the matter?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Did I Just Get Racismed?

Today I was at Mr. Donuts with my friend. We were discussing something mundane over a cup of coffee and a cruller (well, 4 crullers, but they're Japan-sized).

This being Saturday morning, the shop was a madhouse. The line of customers nearly snaked out the door, there was an angry baby screaming bloody murder somewhere near the breakfast pastries, and you could hear the constant clink of money, clatter of dishware, and general conversation. The company seems to switch out the bored college students we see at 10PM for the varsity staff members in the morning. The 3 women working were spitting out machine-gun Japanese, packing donuts, brewing coffee, taking money, and generally working like an 8-armed meth addict and making it look natural.

I think you get the picture. It's busy and loud. So one of the staff members comes to our table to refill our coffe. She fills our cups, then pauses, and says that the table next to us complained that we were talking too loud, and could we please be more quiet.

Keep in mind, the place is so frenetic and loud that I can't even hear myself think, and yet WE'RE the loud ones? It's not the screaming little kid, not the general pandemonium, but us talking in our normal conversational voices?

We of course continued talking at the same volume and no one said anything else. I got to thinking though...why us?

The one white guy in the store and we're the ones being loud? Makes you think, doesn't it?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Meat Sweater

If you told me 10 years ago that when I was 24, I'd be standing in the middle of a lake in rural Japan at 4 in the morning with a metalhead from New York, I might not have believed you.

This weekend there was a party out in the boonies. There was a beautiful lake in front of the house we were staying at. Many of you know that I'm always on the lookout for new cold-water swimming opportunities. Out of the maybe 15 people still awake, I managed to convince 1 of my friends to hit the lake with me. It was almost pitch black outside, and the lake was ice cold. We were in the mountains, and there was still snow along the side of the road.

We got in the water. As expected, it was ice cold. There were some trees growing out of the water, so we each took a victory lap around them. Afterwards, I said "well, that was awesome, let's go back inside."

My friend said "nah, I think I'm gonna finish my beer first." So we stood in the chest-high water and chatted while he finished his can of Keirin.

After, I said "sweet, let's go in now."

My friend replied "Nah, how bout we go swim over to those metal platforms instead?" I looked a hundred meters out, and sure enough there were a couple metal platforms raised out of the water. So we swam over and climbed onto them. My friend jumped off. He said the water was not deep enough to jump off, and that I probably shouldn't follow suit.

At this point I'm shivering uncontrollably. I'm usually the last person to get cold, but I've met my match with this guy. He keeps saying how he is starting to warm up and feel comfortable in the water. I manage to convince him that we should go in, since we've been swimming in near-freezing water for about a half hour. He agrees, rather nonchalantly, and we walk back to the house, where I change into something warm and shiver myself to sleep under some blankets I brought. My friend is standing outside smoking a cigarette and talking to somebody. He is still wearing his sopping wet clothes, but doesn't seem to mind.

Later, I asked him why he wasn't cold. He patted his respectable gut and said "Because dude, I'm rockin' the meat sweater."

The End is Nigh

I haven't posted for about 2 weeks. I've been quite busy ruminating on the future. After a lot of consideration, I decided not to renew my contract and will be heading back to the US somewhere between the end of July and the middle of August.

There will be another 2 months or so of blog-related hijinks, and then who knows? At this point, my options are wide open. When the end of July hits, I will have money, time, youth, and a complete absence of obligations. It's a strange concept, and this kind of opportunity probably has only existed for a tiny percentage of people in the course of human history. I can go anywhere and do anything. Within 2 months, I could be riding a motorcycle across the Sahara, eating a kangaroo steak in Melbourne, or playing Mah Jong in Shanghai. Insane, isn't it? I realize that at some point I'll have to make some longer-term decisions, but I think I'll roam for a little longer. Most likely I'll take a month or so to do some more traveling and then get cracking on the next phase.

What will the future bring?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Golden Week: Let the Games Begin

This week is Golden Week in Japan. What is Golden Week? Damned if I know, but whatever it is slides me a couple extra days off so it's all right in my book.

Me and my friend started our evening at my apartment. We drank some cocktails made from manly unsweetened lemon soda and watched the technicolor brain molestation that is Japanese television. My friend has the restless need to be productive encoded in every Japanese person's DNA, so he found some scissors and some paper and made paper Godzilla characters. Turns out he's pretty damn good--as many Japanese people seem to be--at any task that requires precision and manual dexterity.

Here's a couple of the paper monstrosities:

This one is Ghidora, Godzilla's 3-headed nemesis.

This is the big man himself. I asked my friend why Godzilla was looking backwards. He said "This is Godzilla's style."

This is a shark. Note the millions of little teeth. Constructed with a few drinks under his belt using dull kitchen scissors, mind you.

We moved from my apartment to a bar downtown. They had a big snake in a case, so my friend demanded that they allow us to play with it. The staff said yes, because Japanese employees always say yes to any request, no matter how ludicrous. My friend stuck his hand out towards the snake, which immediately coiled around his arm and tried to kill him. Luckily, the snake was too small to do much killing so we just laughed at it.

My friend pointed the snake at me and told me to take it. The snake instantly reared up and sort of leaned back, while staring at my eyeball, which probably looked like some fat, delicious bird egg or something to it.

I was assured that the snake was the "kind that doesn't bite" but remained suspicious. I took it anyway and it promptly tried to constrict me to death. All of the attempted killing made the snake tired so we put it back in the cage and played billiards with some Japanese girls.

One of the girls was a hostess at a neighboring bar, which, near as I can figure out just means that lonely salarymen pay to talk to her. She and her friend marveled at my shoes and insisted that I let the hostess try one on. I obliged. This is what a 100-pound Japanese girl looks like in a size 13 skate shoe. Is there an internet fetish site for this yet? Sorry the picture is sideways, I can't be bothered to deal with blogger's sucky uploading system at the moment.

After billiards we decided to call it a night. Hilariously, my friend and I had almost no money, so I walked to an ATM down the street. Guess what? ATMs are apparently closed for Golden Week! The situation has just gotten trickier. I walked back to the bar and we pooled every last bill and coin into a small pile and hoped for the best. We just barely paid off the bar, and when we got outside, both checked our pockets to see if we had anything left over.

My friend had 2 yen and I had 1 yen. Cutting it a little close huh?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Never Try to Out-Hobby a Japanese Person

Today, rowing practice lasted for 2 hours and 37 minutes. Mind you, that's not counting the time we spent on land fiddling around with the adjustments on that boat. That's honest to God, out on the water rowing time.

I lost interest after about 30 minutes. I started to think about the longest amount of time I could be interested in a sport. I thought maybe I could play basketball for a couple hours easily, soccer too. Swimming gets boring roughly as fast as rowing, because it's also repetitive and hard. I thought I could probably spend a good half-day or more shooting clay pigeons before I got bored, and could cycle pretty much infinitely if the terrain was interesting. I love weight-lifting, and I'm still interested in that long after I've become to wrecked to do it anymore. Even the world's second-lamest sport (after rowing), bowling, grabs me for about 3/4 of an hour usually.

At about 45 minutes in I reflected that I've never once, not one single time, gone out for a rowing practice and not immediately started thinking about how awesome it would be to dock and go home. I should probably make some lifestyle changes based on this revelation.

At 1 hour in I started to just count strokes. I stopped at around 230 because I saw a fish jumping in the water. I wondered what kind of fish it was, and thought the guy in front of me probably knew because he was in the fish business.

At 1.5 hours in, we docked briefly so the high schooler could leave and go to some appointment. I glared at him jealously as he sumimasened his way out of there. I cursed myself for not signing up for 7:30 flute lessons or something.

After 2 hours I entered what I call "limboat." This is a sensation that transcends boredom into something more metaphysical. You don't feel like you particularly exist or don't exist. Maybe you're rowing, you don't notice any more. You vaguely hear the coxswain's commands and react to them more out of muscle memory than conscious decision. Your jaw is slack. Your eyes are glazed over. I remember quite well the last time I entered this stage of half-existence.

We were in college, doing like 5 minute races by sixes in the eight at low stroke rates. If you don't row, that just means that the boat was guaranteed to feel heavy and horrible and your back would be really sore after practice. One of my best friends had just quit, and I was depressed and angry at the situation around that team. For whatever reason, this one guy's boat ALWAYS won at this particular workout, to the point of absurdity. I happened to be in it that day. I remember just kind of zoning out and deciding for the first and only time in my entire rowing career to not try hard. As I sand-bagged myself into a near-hypnotized state, we were still winning every race by about the same margin, which really reinforced the sad futility of the situation and sent me further off into my own mind.

At 2 and a half hours in I drifted back into consciousness because I was hungry and getting angry as a result. But then we started to go back towards the dock and I was pacified. The rowing at that point was hilariously bad. People were just kind of half-heartedly flopping their oars around the water because, after all, they are 50-year-olds who just went out and rowed as hard as they could for 2 and a half hours.

This is the Japanese method of doing a hobby. Because hobbies aren't fun until you do them until they're not fun.

Write that down, that's good advice.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Gun Kendo

One of my Japanese friends used to fix helicopters near Sapporo. He had joined the JDF out of high school and they promptly shipped him off to the snowy boredom that is Hokkaido. He apparently got pretty soured on the whole army experience, and has been steadily getting rid of anything army-related that's still around his house.

The other day he said, "hey, do you like kendo?" I said sure, why not. Who doesn't like sword-fighting? So he gave me one of his leftover pieces of army equipment.

This is basically a huge wooden rifle. The Japanese army uses it to train their soldiers in bayonet fighting, or "Jukendo." In other words, it's gun kendo. The downward cuts of traditional kendo are absent. The sport mostly consists of stabbing attacks towards the throat and the chest.

My friend inscribed the name of one of Japan's old kendo masters on the handle, possibly sarcastically...the translation wasn't made clear to me. This might be the name of the guy who was famous for using extra long swords...or the guy who fought with two swords, I'm not sure.

So last night I brought this thing back home from work. Keep in mind it's about 170cm long, whereas I'm about 185cm tall. My boss sees me carrying this thing. He says "Hey, do you have a business card?" I say "Why, in case the cops see a scary gaijin on a bike with no lights riding around at 10PM with a huge Jukendo staff?" Nervous chuckle.

So I had to assure him that I had a business card on me and he double-checked that I knew how to say "This is my boss, please call him." in Japanese.

Luckily, me and the staff made it home without incident.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

April 20 in Japan: REEFER MADNESS BABY

My friend said "Hey, let's go to the manga museum," which is this big comic book museum shaped like a spaceship on a small peninsula in our river. I said "Sure, why?" He told me there was gonna be some big reggae party. Whatever, I got nothing else to do, I thinks to myself, and so I went.

It occurred to me on the ride over that today was 4/20, the weed smokingest day in the calendar, at least in America. Go to any hippie liberal university, 7-11 back door, or high school parking lot on this day, and you will be greeted with red eyes and deep thinking aplenty.

It all clicked! This was why they were having the reggae party in the park. The Ishinomaki city council had set aside this day to let people live life like they were from one of the thousands of other, unproductive islands in the world. Places where people wear multi-colored sarongs and play bongos and drink coconut milk. Islands that move to the rhythm of of the steel drum instead of the CNC machine. Salarymen would be wearing tie-died suits and taking bong rips in the back of their silver mini-cars! It would be, for one short day, pure anarchy in Japan.

So that's what I thought. Here are some pictures of what actually went down.

There was a dude walking a rabbit. I guess he might have been high, but sometimes it's hard to tell with Japanese people.

This was the actual reggae party. Like 10 people, none of whom seemed to be particularly stoned. My friend pointed out that it wasn't much of a reggae party since "there's not even any black people! And no rasta colors!" (sorry if that seems like unfair stereotyping, but remember, this is a country that's crazy about Little Black Sambo in 2008)

This one guy was dancing like a turd, but almost certainly as sober as a Lutheran on Sunday.

Marijuana occupies a strange place in Japan. They're obsessed with pot culture, and yet, as far as I can tell almost no one here has ever even seen marijuana before, and certainly not smoked it. It's treated the same as much more serious drugs in the eyes of the law, and there's quite a social stigma against smoking it. A local politician detonated his entire career after getting caught smoking a joint. And yet, in every decent-sized city, there will be at least one store which sells only stoner t-shirts and rasta gear. Makes about as much sense as the freshly laundered punk rockers I suppose.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Mayhem Recap

If my school was a human body, and the outside world was fun and freedom, then Fridays would be the hockey puck of impacted fecal matter painfully preventing my escape. Sure, I finally get to leave school and go have fun, but not without a significant amount of pain, screaming, and blood.

My first class is six students, half girls and half boys, all about 6 years old. In a shocking about-face relative to all my other classes, the boys are stellar students, and the girls act like criminals who huff a lot of gas on the side. They generally just wander around staring at the ceiling, like zombies in Hello Kitty sweatshirts. Sometimes I yell at them, but I don't think my presence in the room ever completely penetrates the foggy haze of their perception, so most of the time I just let them do their thing.

My second class is all girls. Their problem is that they're too goddamn smart. They all prepare very thoroughly before class, and essentially know the material before they set foot in the classroom. So it's like if someone would make you go to a classroom and really slowly learn how to count to 10. Would you pay attention, or would you be a band of shrieking harpies for 50 minutes? I think you know the answer. I honestly can't really blame them for being bad. It takes a lot of the pressure off me--they just teach themselves, and if I fail in some aspect of the presentation, it really doesn't matter. Any way you slice it, I have to teach the material and they have to sit in the classroom for an hour, but it's pretty much a symbolic ritual with these maniacal super-geniuses.

My third class is pretty unholy in a bunch of different ways. The class is huge, the kids are insane, and we always have a huge amount of material to cover. Today, I tried to start teaching when I noticed one kid was wandering around covered in blood. He took an accidental elbow to the nose and was gushing all over the place. So we take him out and shove gauze into his nostrils. Meanwhile, another little girl has decided that her head hurts, as it does EVERY week, so she has to go get a drink of water. While I'm distracted by her, another kid lurks behind me and jams his fingers in my ass. I've literally started to unconsciously position myself with my ass against the wall in regular social situations because of this kid. My body just goes into auto-ass-protection mode now.

Against all odds, we always make it through the material in all the classes, the kids learn, and even have fun. The problem is not successfully executing, the problem is the amount of energy this level of intensity steals from my very soul. I come home from work on Fridays a shattered man.

Teaching children makes you old before your time. They are legion, and they are relentless, and they want to run around like little maniacs. So you dispatch of one group, they leave, and along comes the next group, fresh from their nap and ready to be bastards for an hour of time in which you are expected to cram information into their unwilling little heads.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jesuits: Not Stupid

The Jesuit's famous motto for education is this: "Give me a child for his first seven years, and I'll give you the man."

Whenever I have a boring school-related function, I sit in my chair and ruminate on the profound truth in this statement.

Today, for instance, I attended an entrance ceremony at my Buddhist pre-school. There was a whole lot of speeches, chanting, gong-ringing, bowing, praying, more bowing, and incense. The priests' heads were shiny and freshly shaved (and waxed?). They wore brilliant persimmon robes.

Halfway through the ceremony, I glanced around the room. Nary a smile in sight. Not on the children, not on the well-dressed young mothers, not on the tight phalanx of be-suited video-camera wielding fathers, and not even on the priests! Nobody really looked like they wanted to be there, and yet all felt compelled to go through the motions.

Why do we torment ourselves like this? Why not take five minutes to say a prayer to Buddha, then bring out a clown to do a 20-minute act, pass out refreshments, and call it a day? EVERYONE would enjoy that about 1000 times more than a staid traditional ceremony, I bet.

My theory is that all our our weird traditions and social compulsions have been taught so early that they're completely hard-wired in our brain. Education and tradition trump practicality.

I'm not some sort of church-burning anarcho-nihilist, mind you, I just feel like we can acknowledge that our traditions are largely symbolic, and it would be much more satisfying for all involved if we minimized them a bit and emphasized ceremonies people actually want to attend. Who's with me on this?

I know this post is barely scratching the surface of a topic too vast for 100 books, but it's always on my mind after school ceremonies. What you've been taught in your childhood is who you are. But to what extent, and can we recognize and overcome that programming?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Coolest Thing I Did This Week

Today I was riding my aging mountain bike to the grocery store after my workout. I whipped around a corner too fast for the tires (anything above 5MPH, really), and felt the back end start to slide out.

I started to topple, so I made the executive decision to bail. With my bike kind of sliding sideways, and the handlebars and front wheel pointing opposite of the way I was sliding, I somehow managed to jump off and kind of jog out of the impending mayhem. So I jumped off and my bike angrily bounced and skittered away behind me until it slammed into a curb. It was a truly improbable escape from a bad situation.

An old Japanese man was stopped at a traffic light right next to the sidewalk where this all happened. He was just staring at me, so I gave him a thumbs up. I could almost see the thought bubble above his head saying "You are a complete moron, but still, that was kind of cool."

Friday, April 4, 2008

Neck beards and Whale Meat

A lot of funny stuff happened this past couple weeks. My parents and 2 friends came to visit, and witness the inexplicable weirdness that is my life in Japan.

Matt arrived sporting a luxurious neck beard, the likes of which this fastidious island nation had never seen. Like a cheese-steak eating Samson, this neard gave a small town boy from New Jersey the intestinal fortitude required for his new Japanese diet of shrimp brains and raw whale meat.

Actually, both friends were total champs with the food. Only after 3 days did Matt cry "no mas" and demand that we go to the McDonald's in Sendai, and I don't think Meghan ever broke in the face of exotic Japanese cuisine, even when we were eating these giant green shells where you have to jam a metal spike inside to pry out the rubbery brown thing inside.

After my friends left, I bullet trained down to Kyoto for cherry blossoms and then to Hiroshima to feel guilty about something my great-grandparents' generation did.

It was a grueling 2 weeks, but I got to spend time with friends and family, and knocked out a bunch of "to do before I leave Japan" stuff. All in all, a success, and I'll be back on my semi-regular schedule of posting on this whimsical little chronicle of my adventures.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I got served hard today. I had just finished my workout, and walked out of the boathouse. There was a gaggle of high-school students. As I walked to my bike, one of them rushed up to me and said "arm wrestle!" "arm wrestle!"

This is odd, thinks I. But whatever, sure. I said okay, and me and this kid went and lined up opposite each other across the weight bench.

Of course, about 20 people suddenly showed up in the room from out of nowhere. I felt a very ominous vibe, similar to the time I did a 2k and blew up halfway through with a million people watching...

This kid meanwhile, is mayyyyyybe 130 pounds.

His friend placed his palm on our locked fists, raised it, and shouted "Go!"

And then this kid promptly cracked my wrist and slammed my arm down...his mechanical advantage ended when he got about 90% of the way there, so he had to throw his whole body onto his arm to finish the job, but I'll be damned if he didn't mop the floor with me.

So just to re-cap: A 14 year old 130 pound Japanese boy owned me like I was a 14 year old 130 pound Japanese boy in arm wrestling.

I even vaguely understand arm-wrestling technique, this kid was just way way better than me. To be honest, I assumed the whole wrist cranking technique only works when the two opponents are somewhat evenly matched, and that me being almost twice as big would take me "over the top."

In any event, I sure as hell did my part in helping this kid get a girlfriend on the rowing team, I'll tell you that much....!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Part 3: The Rocky IV Moment

I walked upstairs. This place was structured like an East German sports compound or something. There were places to sleep, a full kitchen, boats, ergs, and an entire support staff to cook and clean for the rowers. It was self-sustaining. Their coach told me that all the rowers "technically have places to sleep in the city, but they pretty much live here..." Frightening.

Anyway, on the third floor a monster awaited me. The eccentric inventor was there, it turns out, to get his new erg-based biometric measuring device up and running. He had connected a serpentine nest of wires and pulleys and gears to an erg, which was suspended on a platform. All of this in turn could measure interesting things like your handle velocity, seat speed to handle force ratio, and other indescribably lame rowing measurements.

I immediately started taking pictures of this contraption. The inventor said "Haha, you are a spy." I laughed along with him, but didn't stop taking pictures.

He began to grow visibly tense, and repeated that I must be a spy several more times, each one less friendly. I felt totally justified. If I'm going to be your guinea pig on this torture rack, I'll take as many pictures as I damn well please, I thought to myself. Besides, what's going to happen...am I going to leak the pictures, USRowing will copy the design, and at long last the mighty juggernaut of Japanese rowing will be stopped? All the machines in the world can't make you 6'5''...

Anyway, here this thing is:

So as I expected, they told me to get on and take some hard strokes so they could measure me on their machine. I felt like a pudgy Ivan Drago, training in my high-tech cement sports compound, surrounded by scientists and testing computers.

Still, I dutifully cranked out a few hard strokes, they got their data, and everyone was happy. Time to get back home right?


Time to go downstairs, and listen to a 90-minute speech from the inventor, explaining in intricate detail each of the 10 tests he could perform with his machine.

Time to go home now, right?


"Well, now we would like you to come row with us!"

At this point I've gone about 35 hours without sleep, and I've jumped through just about enough hoops.

"Sorry, I didn't know we were rowing. I didn't bring rowing clothes!"

This was true.

"No, problem, you can just borrow some!"

Now, politely acquiescing is one thing, but trading ball sweat with a random Japanese guy in order to go row in your 2nd practice on no sleep after a long week of work is simply not an appetizing way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

I dodged that bullet and begged off the rowing session...for now. The best part is that nobody ever asked me if I wanted to row, and they sure as hell didn't have a pair of shoes in any of the boats that would have even sort of fit me. It was always just about their deviant fantasies of rowing with a big American....

This incredibly hospitality mixed with a hidden agenda is a potent brew indeed, and I haven't quaffed my final pint just yet...

I finally got home and slept like the dead. This was one of the weirder adventures I've had here, and I have a thick ream of biometric rowing data to prove it.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Part 2: Gaijin Adventure

If you're a foreigner in Japan, you will have these things I like to call "Gaijin adventures." This is a trip predicated on your exotic whiteness. You are somewhat of a strange beast to the Japanese; more akin to a griffin or a unicorn than a human being. They might wonder what special powers you have. They will want to show you off to their friends. You will be lead around from activity to activity, never really knowing what you're doing or what's in store down the road. My last Gaijin adventure took me on a domestic flight to the Sapporo Snow Festival, where I was fed shrimp brains, cod sperm, and lamb fried in lard. That's a whole other story though. For now, let's continue the sad tale I started with the last post.

When we left off, I was sitting in front of my computer at 5am waiting for the sun to come up so I could go to rowing practice. I hadn't gone to sleep.

I dutifully changed into spandex and practiced with the team at 7. We docked, and I had just enough time to jump on my bike, sprint home, shower, get some yen from the ATM, and catch my train into Sendai. I had 3 minutes to spare.

I met the Japanese rowing coach/stomach surgeon under the huge clock in the station. Soon, an eccentric inventor of auto parts joined us, and we drove a half hour into the countryside. The boathouse sat next to the Teizan canal, an Edo period marvel of engineering designed to ferry millions of kilos of rice from the fields to the cities.

We walked into the boathouse, up two flights of stairs, and into a big room filled with about 70 people. Everyone stopped eating and looked at me when I came into the room. I felt like the out-of-towner who just walked into the old West saloon. The honky-tonk player had stopped, poker players were staring at me from over their cards, and the swinging doors were creaking back and forth from my entry.

The coach broke the silence. "Please give a speech!"

I stared at him.

"Yes, please give a talk. These are all of our rowers. They have been looking forward to meeting you, so please give them a short speech."

So there I stood, unshaven, red-eyed and bleary, still holding my bag, and gave a completely forgettable speech to a huge group of people WHO DIDN'T SPEAK ENGLISH.

"Uh, hi. My name's Nate. And I'm....from....Oregon. That's in the US." I followed with several other hard-hitting quips from my well-oiled rhetorical six-shooter. "Thanks for letting me visit your boathouse. It seems totally...cool. Uhhhh...."

I wasn't making much sense, but I didn't really care. After a few more inane sputterings, I stopped, and sat down, making the executive decision that my "speech" was over.

Everyone seemed happy enough.

My host walked over to me. "Are you hungry?" I knew this was not actually a question, but a decision had been made that I would eat, and it was my job to ferret this out and make it seem like my idea. Unfortunately for them, I was not in any sort of mental state to play along with the cat-and-mouse of Japanese conversation.

"Nah, not really."

"Ah so...ah...you ate before you came?"

"Yeah, I ate lunch."

"Ah...well, wouldn't you like something to eat?"

"No, I'm actually pretty full. Thanks though!"

My host eventually decided he wasn't breaking through to my foreign brain and dropped the subtlety.

"Can you just eat the food we made you?"

Now, ironically, this was not some special meal made just for me--it was lunch from the same huge bucket of rice and veggies that the rowers ate from, so I wasn't totally clear on why I was absolutely required to eat lunch again. But I did.

Soon after lunch, the eccentric inventor rejoined us, and I was summoned to the third floor, and things began to get weirder.

More to come...

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Diabolical Nature of the Japanese Social Relationship

As I am starting to write this entry, it is 4:37 a.m. Japanese time. I am writing to stay awake because going to sleep would only make my situation worse. This is the burden of Japanese social organization.

Let me explain.

Tonight was Saturday night, and as a typical mid-20s guy, I had a typical mid-20s night out. I went out to dinner with a bunch of friends, then we went to a bar for a few beers. Tonight, we chose the ironically named "cannabis" (Japan is obsessed with pot culture even though the drug is largely unknown to your average Japanese person). We made some new friends, and were having fun, so we took advantage of the fact that Japanese bars in this area don't seem to close until you're good and ready for them to close. We finished around 4 a.m. I headed home.

Now, the monkey wrench in my agenda is that I have rowing practice at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. So what, right? Just skip it. Well, there's the rub. See, I can't skip it for a lot of reasons. We only have practice on Sundays because our stroke needs to get dialysis on Saturday and Monday, but he still shows up every Sunday. Oh, and my teammates are generous to the point of outrageousness to me. They flew me to Sapporo, ferried me around the Snow Festival, take me to parties and dinners constantly, and never let me pay amongst all these hijinks. The one tiny thing they want from me is a couple hours of wattage on the river each Sunday morning. How can I say no to that? I just can't. Can't do it. I've missed a few practices and feel guilty as hell every time.

Monkey wrench number 2 is my trip to Sendai. Immediately after rowing practice, I have to go to Sendai to visit the Tohoku University rowing team and check out their facilities. Their coach is a Japanese doctor who trained at Harvard for a bit, visited Brown and Rhode Island, and loves rowing. He took quite an interest in me when I was throwing down the old 2k at the winter erg race. He has been asking for me to come visit for 3 months. He's always been totally respectful of my schedule and undemanding, but persistent in a way that puts him out on a limb, and the burden of refusal is perplexingly shifted to me. Like, the more I beg off this visit, the more he loses face. It's really an astounding social skill the Japanese have developed, and I can't do it justice in writing.

So here I am, at 5 o'clock in the morning, drinking strong coffee and eating an omelet and waiting for the sun to come up. I would love to go to sleep and rest up after a long week at work, but I can't. I have obligations to fulfill.

I believe that 75% of the famed Japanese productivity is borne out of this complicated and completely unavoidable web of social debts.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Free Market Prevails! ... dammit

A thousand apologies for the recent lack of posts. The Japanese school system lets out in March, so the corresponding flurry of exams and tests that signals that thundering crescendo is steadily mounting right now--in fact, it feels like it's steadily mounting me sometimes.

The grand payoff is something pretty laughable-- like 2 or 3 weeks of vacation for the students. Not to get off topic, but that is one hell of a raw deal. Thinking back to my own youth, summers meant 3 months of sleeping in till noon, having water balloon fights with the weird neighbor, watching movies, and capping it all off with 5 hour Doom II session, because hey, why not? Of course, when my body grew strong enough to do unfun things, summers meant hauling gravel for grandma and racing other middle-class white boys in fancy carbon boats on various lakes/rivers around the country, but I still didn't have to go to school dammit!

Anyway, the point is not to complain that Japanese students don't get much vacation--who cares, they are not me. The point is to complain that they're dragging me down with them.

See, I work for a private school. Since it's a private enterprise operating on the principles of profit and supply and demand and has all kinds of invisible hands running their fingers up and down its taut, efficient body, I have to work extra. There's not much fat on our organization, so the more work that exists, the more work exists for me personally. The end of the school year means that students are getting tested on everything possible--English included. So they need practice tests for the real tests, and preparation tests for the practice tests they'll encounter in high school.

This all boils down to me having to work twice as hard making/giving/grading these tests. Meanwhile, most of my friends here are in the JET program, which is a program sponsored by the Japanese government. As their school year grows busier, the Japanese teachers of English no longer have time to think up things for the JET teachers to do, because they have to prepare their students for the standardized tests they'll face. This, in turn, results in the Japanese government paying people to hang out and trade witty jabs via Gmail while the Japanese teachers of English are on their 7th cup of coffee and 70th cigarette. A market inefficiency? Sure. Will it be corrected? Hell, no, it's the government.

And so here I sit, looking at all that green grass on the other side, angry at a system that demands an honest day's work for my day's pay. I'm going going to find some bizarre government grant to study the fecal patterns of African elephants or something to even things out when I get back home.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Shafted in Sendai

Last night we went to the aptly named "Shaft," a ridiculous bar in Sendai. It cost 2000 yen to walk in the door, and then you got to pay 5 bucks for a plastic cup of beer once inside. The music was loud, the walls were painted black, and they had a gold disco ball.

The clientele seemed to be mostly Japanese guys with baggy pants and sunglasses, perfectly emulating US "street" culture. There was a lot of posturing, and I'm sure these guys spent a lot of time poring over urban fashion magazines to get the look right.

I managed to shoulder my way through the crowds and grab a seat. The guy next to me was Irish. I told him that Americans think Irish people are drunk 24/7. He said that was true. "How many pints have you had today," I asked him.

"I don't remember," he replied in something that only vaguely sounded like English.

Another guy looked at his drink. "If you're Irish, then why are you drinking Zima?"

"I don't remember," he replied again. His hair was sort of pasted to his forehead like the way Hitler styled his.

"Do you like Japan," I asked my new Irish friend.

"No, I hate it. I hate Japanese people."

"Do you have a girlfriend?"


"Is she Japanese?"


"Do you hate her?"


"Why do you hate Japanese people?"

"Because they never understand my Japanese!" ---only, it came out more like "BECZ TH NVR UNNRSTEND MAH JAPNYYS spoken really fast.

We went back to playing cards. The girl next to me got up and was replaced by a guy from Portland who I'd met 2 hours and apparently like 10 beers earlier.

He slumped into the seat next to me and sipped water. I said something inane about Oregon. He stared glassily ahead, not really blinking.

The guy across from me had fashioned an eye patch from tissue paper, and was wearing it underneath his glasses. He said the cigarette smoke was irritating his eyes. The girl next to him ate birthday cake (it was nobody at our table's birthday) and drank covert sips of a red wine she smuggled in.

Eventually the guy from Portland stood up and staggered off to be awesome. A hardcore looking shaved-head baggy pants-wearing Japanese badass strutted up, then broke character and politely bowed and asked if the seat next to me was free. I said it was. He sat down, and resumed looking hard.

Soon he left. A guy from Michigan replaced him. He looked goofy and I told him that nobody likes cars from his state anymore. He agreed, and said he drove a Honda. We chatted for a while and he tried to drink the 5-dollar Asahi I had been nursing for the last hour.

He giggled goofily and apologized. He looked like a big 12-year-old. Soon, he left. My beer was missing. My next 5 cars will be Japanese.

Mercifully, the poker game ended when the Irish guy went all in and no one else cared, so he gleefully raked in all his fake money.

We finally left. The last night train was long gone, but luckily we were only about 45 minutes away from the first morning train. The vortex of suck in the bar had stolen like 2 hours from us, so we just went to the station and took the 5:04 a.m. train back to Ishinomaki. I was tired.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

An Unlikely Poem

A young Japanese guy from the rowing team just sent me an e-mail. He is studying hard and rapidly improving his English, but his phrasing is clumsy. In the last few lines of his e-mail, that awkwardness with the language improbably came together to form a beautiful haiku-like expression of pure truth, and something which would be a fitting epitaph carved into the tombstones of a thousand losers on rowing teams. This captures the zeitgeist of that scene better than anything I've encountered.

"I rowed 12km on a weekday and rowed 20km on a holiday.
When I was able to win in a race, I am glad.
When I row a boat, there is not time to date with a girl friend. It is sad. But I do not have a girl friend now."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Strange Repast

I got a mysterious invitation to dinner after practice this morning. Someone was getting married or something--I'm never too clear on the details...the unspoken agreement seems to be that I show up to these spur-of-the-moment events, get paraded around a little bit like an exotic pet with a good erg score, and in return I get delicious Japanese food shoveled down my throat. Who loses?

I show up at the restaurant, enter the tatami sitting room, and sure enough there's a post-wedding party in full swing. We're greeted at the door by a Japanese woman. The guy I arrived with loudly tells me she's a "Japanese doll," then nudges me. Everyone feels awkward except my friend, who laughs.

We get into the room and sit down, and the hostess comes by and gives us drinks. She can speak some English, and tells me that her daughter spent time in America. My friend says that her daughter is very cute, and nudges me. Everyone feels awkward--he laughs. Suddenly I feel someone's hand on my thigh--it's a different friend and teammate. He's drunk, and covetously gauging the diameter of my thigh, and then shoots a disgusted look at his own skinny leg and says he has no power because his legs are too small.

Meanwhile, another guy I haven't met comes up behind me. He's the hostess's husband. He is very drunk. He shows me his index finger, which is 20% shorter than it should be. He says he slammed it in a door and cut the tip off. Hopefully I'm not accidentally hanging out with Yakuza guys! Then he leans in a bit closer and tells me that his mind is divided into 4 equal parts. 25% golf, 25% drinking, 25% wife, 25% mistress. His friends tell him to shut up because his wife is all of 5 feet away and speaks more English than he does. Everyone laughs.

I feel another hand, this time on my arm. It's my other friend again, encircling my arm with two hands and comparing that the diameter to his leg, and not liking the results. I tell him that I am very fat, and that he shouldn't worry. He looks unhappy nevertheless.

A new guy comes up to meet me soon after. He is rowing the double for Japan at the Olympics this year. We talk about rowing for a bit, and he asks me why I didn't try out for any national teams past high school. I can't just say "because rowing sucks," because he seems to love the sport very earnestly. I say that it's because I was tired of rowing after doing the sport all year at university. He seems surprised. "But, there's a rule where you can't row in America...so you can study, right?" This is the 7 week rule, where all Ivy League sports are supposed to give their athletes 7 weeks away from training to catch up on homework. I tell him that the rule exists, but all the rowing programs just ignore it. He looks confused. "But...it's...a rule." I try to explain that Americans don't care about such formalities, but there's a cultural barrier.

Almost all at once, everyone gets up and leaves. This happens very quickly. There must have been some hidden signal. I receive a package of eel and some squid mixed with squid viscera for my breakfast tomorrow.

All in all, a successful evening in Japan.

Friday, February 15, 2008

An Ass Kicked and a Lesson Learned

There's a kid in my last class on Friday who's a few years and a few moral lapses away from growing up to become yellow trash. I've alluded to him before. He's tall and fat, sports a square flat-top haircut and usually jean shorts. Sometimes he wears a Sepultra t-shirt paired with a blue velour Scooby-Doo jacket. His voice is about twice the volume of an average American, which equates to roughly 9 times louder than the average Japanese adult. Sometimes when we're repeating phrases in English, he'll repeat them at an incredibly loud volume, thus drowning out every other student's voice. He usually sits across from his sister and interrupts class to tell me in broken English that she's a "big devil." Whenever confronted about being obnoxious and disruptive, he emits a loud stream of profanity and self-righteous indignation at the implication that he's not a perfect student. I usually have to stop class to yell at him about 15 times per session, I'd say.

So last week this particular kid was being amazingly bad, even for him. He was louder, crasser, and less cooperative than he'd ever been. Sometimes he would just ignore everyone, cover his face with his hood, and say random stuff to himself at max volume.

I was near my boiling point, but unfortunately I can't really do anything except for yell at him in a language he doesn't understand. Fortune, however, decided to smile on me tonight.

He started making fun of another kid in class. This other kid is much smaller, but is a solid block of muscle, and happens to be the regional Judo champion for his age group. I was writing on the whiteboard with my back to the class, and turned around just in time to see the smaller kid walk up to the loudmouth, say something in Japanese, and slug him in the face. Blood starting coming out of his nose. I stormed over and hauled both kids out by their collars and sat them down on a bench outside of the room while I got a Japanese-speaking authority figure.

At schools I've gone to in America, it's almost always the kid who throws the punch who gets in bigger trouble. Not here apparently.

The loudmouth got a speech that amounted to: "Listen, you're big but weak and no one respects you. If you are stronger and have a strong mind, people will come to respect you. You must know when it's okay to joke with someone, and when they will take it personally. If you don't learn this, you will get punched in the face sometimes."

The kid who did the punching got absolutely zero punishment--not even a stern word. Everyone--my boss, his parents, the loudmouth's parents--thought he was absolutely in the right and justified. I completely agree, but this is not how it works in the US of A, to the best of my knowledge.

We talked about the incident afterwards, and the consensus around the office was that this kid got what he deserved, and that a little well-placed ass-kickery in his youth might yield lessons that will serve him for the rest of his life.

And you know what? This week in class he was a hundred times better. Are American schools ruining an important part of childhood with their zero-tolerance approaches towards fighting? I think they might be. But then again, it's not ever a concern that it will escalate into a gun or knife fight here, either.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Best Job in Japan

The Japanese are famously industrious. They have to be. Everything in this society seems to be somewhat complicated, and there's a right way to do it, and dammit you better do it the right way. The Japanese housewife must strike with mongoose speed if she is to prepare the many compartments of her husband's mid-day bento, hang the futons in the sunshine, and still get everyone out the door smelling like fresh laundry.

The Japanese man, meanwhile, simply has to put in 12+ hour days from birth until death, always on high alert to the shifting office social dynamics so as to display the proper amount of supplication to his boss and superiority to his underlings. After a long day of work he is sometimes required to spend a night at the Izakaya drinking sake and singing Michael Jackson songs. He probably smokes 3 packs of cigarettes a day.

This all adds up to a lot of stress. I have, over the course of the past couple of weeks, discovered the best job in Japan, though. I run past the local fire station every day, and being a Japanese firefighter seems like the coolest job in existence.

Japanese people are far too conscientious to ever inconvenience the department by lighting dangerous fires, so these brave men have nothing to do. Instead, they spend their days turning the fire station into a James Bond villain training camp. During my period of observation, this is what I see them do:

1. Rappelling off of the roof. They have a big wall with three red dots. They scream something in Japanese and rappel down their building at top speed, feet bouncing off the three dots at the top, middle, and bottom.

2. Sprinting through the fake air vent. They have a big mock-up air vent, and they scream something in Japanese and then drop to their belly and squirm through it, with another guy timing.

3. Wind sprints. Sometimes 2 guys will just scream something in Japanese and take off sprinting against each other. First one to the statue of a cartoon character in front of the station wins!

4. Playing with the cherry-picker. Often, they hang out in front of the station messing around with the cherry-picker for hordes of astounded kindergarteners, their neon green hats pointed skyward in awed unison. The firefighters just giggle and make the cherry-picker basket go up and down, seemingly having more fun than the little kids.

5. Hanging out. They seem to hang out and do nothing a lot. Ain't nothin' wrong with that.

So...the votes have been tallied, and this seems way cooler than a slow death in a dark suit over the course of 40 years in a nameless office building, don't you think?

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Plot Thickens, Tastes Grainy

I went down to the boathouse today to pick some heavy stuff up and then put it back down in the exact same place (a testament to how warped modern society is), and I saw a big cardboard box in the corner. I peered inside.

It was 4 5-pound tubs of designer whey protein from America. Something is afoot. I hope this mystery doesn't end with me weighing 300 pounds.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Eat More Meat

Today I went down to the boathouse to lift weights. I grabbed a couple plates and happened to notice the random chalkboard hung in the middle of the fading Japanese rowing posters.

The only things I could read were: nai-to, 11/11 6:25 and underneath that 12/9 6:15.6, and underneath that, the katakana for "protein" (pu-ro-te-i-n). Apparently my progress was being studied, beginning with the random 2ks I would sometimes do after practice, which is where the first one was from. The second one was from my race in Sendai.

Now I'm really curious about the rest of it, and if "protein" was the conclusion for my progress that month.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Lost Apartment Key Mystery

Today I got up early and did a bunch of writing. My brain felt bigger--too huge almost, like it was about to explode from my scholarly activities. I needed to release some of the pressure and I knew just the ticket.

I jogged down to the boat club and spent the next chunk of the morning doing dead lifts and bench presses while listening to gangsta rap on my iPod. After a half hour of this my brain shrunk down to normal but I felt swollen and angry. I needed some food to re-balance my chakras, so I jogged over to the grocery store, purchased an array of pork and vegetable-related products, and was on my way. I still had an hour before work--just enough time to cook some pig, take a shower, and cycle over to school.

But when I jingled my hand around my vest pocket, I felt coins jingling, but no corresponding key jangle. So there I was, in workout clothes with a bag of groceries in front of my apartment and less than an hour before work, and no keys. Things were not looking good. My biggest problem was that I had covered about 4 miles from when I last saw my keys, so I had to backtrack with all the sleuthy perseverance of a well-trained bloodhound.

My first stop was the grocery store. I entered, and went to the woman who helped me at the checkout counter. I said something to the effect of "I don't have my key" and made a startled pantomime recreation of checking my pocket and not finding the key. She seemed to understand and directed me to the service counter.

Here is the exchange that followed:

ME: (in crappy Japanese) I need key.

STORE EMPLOYEE: japanesejapanesejapanesejapanese

ME: key..where?...I don't know...oh no!...house key...

STORE EMPLOYEE: japanesejapanesejapanese....ano...japanesejapanesejapanese

(At this point we're both babbling incomprehensibly to each other and pantomiming with great vigor)

As an ironic side note, my Japanese lesson last night consisted of how to tell the hotel that you lost your key. Of course I had forgotten everything by today.

2 other employees were summoned--a man in a face-mask and another checkout clerk. They fanned out across the store, covering every square inch of the floor. Nobody found my key and I felt bad that a chunk of this store's super efficient staff had been thrown off their routines because of my mistake. No doubt their fingers would be burning with shame as they frantically tried to catch up to their sushi quota later that day.

I decided to cut my losses and keep looking. I wrote my phone number down for yet another helpful clerk, thanked them profusely, and moved along.

I had about 40 minutes to get to work, and I was still wearing spandex and a skintight shirt, and while there are some jobs where that will fly, this ain't one of them. I had a lot of backtracking to do and not much time.

Unfortunately, my legs were spent from lifting weights, so I had to do the zombie-stagger run until I got tired, then I walked, then I staggered some more, my head shiftlessly swiveling back and forth like some demented Stevie Wonder as I scanned the ground for the glint of metal. I noticed a guy down the path staring at me. He was old and looked angry, and I thought he was going to stick a knife in my ribs for what we did during the war or something.

But it turns out he was just scrutinizing this stumbling moron and thinking "I just found some keys in the bushes, and there's a 110% chance that they belong to this careless foreigner." And he was right.

So with a burst of "japanesejapanesejapanesejapanese" he revealed my keychain in his hand. He seemed guarded, but eventually decided that it would be preposterous for some big foreigner to randomly try to scam some random keys off him. So even though I didn't understand everything he was telling me, he believed me enough to part with the keys.

Sweet! By now, I had about 35 minutes to get to work, so I staggered home, ate lunch in under 3 minutes, showered, and got to work feeling like a million pesos.

But against all odds, I made it there on time.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bring Some Light-Hearted Whimsy to Your Funeral

I was riding back from the mall the other day when I saw this. Take a look.

That's right, let people know how much you love crappy movies for eternity with this handsome Godzilla tombstone. I'll be honest, this is pretty cool. It's sort of like the people who slept in race car beds when they were kids, and you always sort of envied them because you slept in a lame normal bed.

Someday I'll make a movie where someone gets buried with this tombstone, and the guy next to him in the cemetery gets buried with a Mothra tombstone, and they come back as zombies and beat each other to death with their respective granite monsters in an epic super ultra meta-reference battle.

Of course, the best way to buy yourself a righteous sleigh-ride to hell remains the Kiss Kasket, which I believe they buried Dimebag Darrel in. I don't care how you feel about Pantera, but having a deranged man shoot you in the head while you're shredding heavy metal guitar in front of thousands of screaming fans and then getting buried in a Kiss Kasket is a pretty metal way to go.

If Gene Simmons could find a way to make money off of Kiss embalming fluid, he'd do it:

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Rock n' Roll Japan

Somebody lost one of the teacher's cards. I had to make a new one. The phrase on the lost card was "meet a rock star." Clearly the rock gods in Valhalla caused this to happen. They wanted me to instill a subconscious love of Van Halen in the minds of my little Japanese students.

So years down the road they won't know why, or how, but when "Jump" comes on the radio they'll have a "Manchurian Candidate" reflex and start playing air guitar.

Friday, January 11, 2008

May God Have Mercy on Us All

I saw this idling outside of an apartment complex this morning. I was just finishing up the last 5 minutes of my run, and I sprinted home, praying that I could grab my camera and get back in time to take a picture of this monstrosity.

Relief washed over me when I saw that it was still there, parked in all its airbrushed majesty.

I admire the commitment to aesthetics. Those wings look like they negatively alter the van's aerodynamics, not to mention screw you over in parking garages. I wonder who owns this thing? What are his hobbies? Does the van have a grape soda dispenser in the console? How badass would it be if the guy dressed up like Grimace from McDonald's and drove around passing out candy on Halloween? Or not on Halloween to be even creepier...

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

My Ironic Day

One of my classes just started learning the names of different classes. We did art class, music class, swimming class, math class, English class...and karate class.

How do you pronounce "karate?" Probably something like ka-RODDY, right? Well, me too. In Japanese you say it more like ka-ra-tay (using the funny Japanese r/l mixture sound). And it is a Japanese word after all.

But since this is English class, I'm teaching the kids how to say it American style. So in essence, I am sitting up there teaching them how to say their own damn word incorrectly. They are coming to school in order to learn how to say a word they already know, but with an affected American accent.

It's like a Japanese person telling me how to call my favorite video game "Su-pa Ma-li-o Bu-ra-sa-zu" or something.

Luckily, the kids are only ever thinking about playing their Nintendo DS Lites and drawing cartoon feces, so this all went over their heads.

Probably for the better.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Vacation Pictures!

It used to be (according to the movies that are my only reference) when someone invited you to look at vacation pictures, you approached the event with dread. It meant sitting captive on someone's couch, watching slide after slide of his pasty family waving in front of the Eifel Tower. Well, this is 2008, and we demand instant gratification.

So here are a select few of my vacation pictures. The best part is that you can look at all of them in about 2 minutes--less if you get bored. It's a great time to be alive and distractable!

The drive to the beach, like Kate Moss, was cold, beautiful, and coated in a fine white powder.

Tis Homer, the greatest Dane of them all!

This picture looks like it should be on the cover of an Ayn Rand novel about the indestructible power of man's spirit or something. There's so much majesty, strength, mystery, and explosive greatness contained in this photograph, that it takes away from it when I tell you it's just 2 of my friends being dumbasses.

This is also awesome. When you fall on your ass and your reaction is still one of defiant triumph, you win at life.