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.