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 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. "'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.