Teaching In Socks

Vend Diagram
August 29, 2008, 4:58 pm
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I’m going to keep it light for the weekend. Attached are images and descriptions of the vending machines that are keeping me alive.

Here is sector one.

The Grail

The Grail

Nothing exceptionally special here, however i would like you to take notice of the volume of machines, and perhaps the ration of machines to customers at this given moment. It’s usually like this, and since I’ve arrived,  I can’t recall seeing a queue, or small riot demanding more machines. Maybe I missed the great “storming of the machines”  and there’s a holiday dedicated to it that I am unaware of but frankly I see five drink machines bunched up together. It’s a bit of an overkill. Perhaps even machine cannibalism.

I do enjoy the variety though. Within in these machines there are roughly around 100 different buttons you could hit that would provide you with a can of brewed, chilled coffee for 120yen. Would you be surprised if I told you that I caved to this dark master every morning?

That said, each variety has 2 buttons of territory, but you’re still looking 50 different varieties of coffee, all somewhat reasonable priced. We may not have a Starbucks in town (that I’m aware of) but this lonely mall corner caters to my needs.

Scientifically, this corner alone contains enough caffeine for a few third world countries. If only we could deliver it to them somehow it would provide that igniting spark of energy eventually leading to a repaired developing world with a new economy, government, agricultural practices, transportation infrastructure, criminal justice system. social hierarchy…but I DIGRESS (coffee does that to a man).

Back at the coffee corner I should mention that they have more than coffee. In fact there is a plethora of choices available: your typical selection of teas, juices sports drinks for the active shopper (Gatorade, however, is absent as it is not a global thirst quencher) as well as water–which happens to be the most expensive item of the lot at 130 yen. Typical.

Here is sector two, which is a mere 7 meters from sector 1.

The Moneymaker

The Moneymaker

This is really celebration station for me.  In the center we have the juice box machine. This is the best value at 100yen a box, and is a panacea for the health-conscious sugar addict. I turn to this machine when I’m feeling guilty about drinking too much coffee, or more accurately, when people ask me why my hands are shaking and I realize that I’ve had too much coffee. In retrospect, I should probably make more use of this machine in the future because I have a feeling students can understand me better when I’m not trembling with the excitement of a caffeine buzz. My pronunciation is a little more articulate and my sentence structure perhaps a bit more diligent.

To the left, yes that is a cigarette machine.

On the right, is what I refer to as paydirt. Yes, you are seeing that correctly, those are ice cream cones in a vending machine. I have tried every flavor except the ones that look gross–namely Pina Colada and some form of fruit slush that I haven’t been able to deterine the fruit base of. Rule of thumb, if you can’t locate an exact citrus foundation of something orange and yellow and you are in a foreign country, stay away from it, it could be ANYTHING. There are no “safe” colors here.  You have to remember that in Japan, no matter what color the food is, or the medium in which  it is presented to you, it could always, I repeat always, be fish.  Sometimes, you just don’t want fish.

Regardless, I have sampled the six other flavors fearlessly, and I have no favorites but tend to stray to the chocolate side of things (insert whatever inappropriate punchline you can think of here on your own time, this is a family site).

I apologize if this dissapointed. I know most of you were expecting a more otherworldy array of contraptions, like a coffee machine with a tiny dog baraista inside it, or perhaps a machine with an army of sushi making robots. Unfortunately, I haven’t found those…YET. In the meantime, this vending machine cornucopia keeps me alive, gets me through the day, and pushes me down the path towards early-oneset-diabetes. So worship it accordingly.

When They Ruled the Lawson Station I Patron….
August 27, 2008, 4:34 pm
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I was going to file a eye-opening expose regarding the Sunday night bicycle police checkpoints here in Ako, but less than an hour ago something shook my foundation so greatly that I am forced to delay that report for another time. Don’t worry though, for those interested in bicycle regulation, as soon as I manage to remember to take a suitable picture of my bike (The Chairman) in broad daylight the aforementioned dispatch will be filed.

As for the earth shattering event:


On my way home from work, I walked into Lawson Station, my local convenience store. It’s not much different than a 7-11. I go this one because it’s across the street from my apartment. Convenient, I know. I go there every night. If I could have managed to conjure up a little basic Japanese on any given night within last month, the counter staff would know be my name and I’m sure we’d be best friends, trading emails, and planning vacations together. That has happened yet, and perhaps there are a number of reasons it’s for the best that we keep our exchanges limited to friendly head nods.

Tonight, I walked in to procure my standard nightly snack item and “Liter Water”. I chose the Volvic brand because when i think of France, I think clean water. As I entered the establishment, I was met with the haunting Banshee, cacophony of the latest Coldplay single playing over the store’s stereo system; you know, the one from the Apple Itunes commercial. From that commercial alone, I heard this song so many times before I left Japan that I was sure that I had built an immunity to it. Honestly, when I initially heard it tonight, it didn’t bother me that much rather I was surprised, realizing that I hadn’t noticed they played music in Lawson’s.

And then it happened. Abruptly, the lead singer’s lyrics switched from English to Japanese. It’s clear, Coldplay is invading Earth and there is nothing we can do about it.

Actually, when I think about it, the language transition just transformed junk into junk that I could now only understand half of. Perhaps this is an improvement, however the language transition reminded me I have yet to convey to you one of the dark secrets of the music industry I have learned from living in Japan.

The “shopping center” my school is located in, broadcasts and constant stream of shopper friendly songs over the loudspeakers. Apparently people require some sort of Pop symphony in order to get in the right state of mind to shop at a dollar store or walk to a movie theater. (This is not the secret, retail shops acorss the planet have this exact same strategy but it’s absurd concept and a major part of the pretext for the secret I am about to reveal.)

The troubling thing about this particular soundtrack is that the majority of the songs on it are popular English songs from a few years ago refurbished with Japanese lyrics and new Japanese singers. It’s the same beat and melody, and I can only I assume the general sentiment of the song is the same, because sometimes they don’t bother to change chorus–often that remains in English, because why ruin the catchy part? I find this strange though, it’s an open confession that the music industry is either that short of ideas, are more likely fears that one cannot form an emotional connection with a song if you can’t understand the lyrics some hack ghost-writer has put together for Mariah. This practice seems to at least partially reject that music is a sufficient language on it’s own. Apparently the masterminds behind this are not big fans of Bach. I don’t mean to sound snooty (I’m saving that for later) but I feel something is fundamentally wrong with that belief.

Furthermore, it messes with my head. As I mentioned before,  they replace the original signer and regenerate the track through a Japanese Pop star. This is not Enrique Iglesias or Beyonce singing in Japanese–he doesn’t have the mental capacity, and she doesn’t have the time. It’s someone else, someone who the Japanese public has forged a relationship with, and thus see this as a modern song, with a modern look and sentiment to it. So while it may be crap, at least it’s new crap to them.  Meanwhile, I’m stuck pedaling around town with some Shakira stuck in my head. And yeah, sometimes I find myself humming it. It’s utterly embarrassing.

Returning to Coldplay– I’m not sure what to think of this blending tactic; in light of the Shakira disaster I’m not sure if it will save me from something worse later. I do know that there’s clearly some grand metaphor to be constructed here, perhaps painting Coldplay as an agent of Globalization and then connecting this language transition with general progress of civilization, but I don’t want build that bridge, nor do I want give Coldplay any sort of credit for anything other than stealing from Radiohead and producing thoughtless trite compositions that degrade the achievements of their predecessors and anyone, man or ape, who has picked up an instrument.

I know this is a tired train of thought but I’m pretty sure that behind their bohemian rags, smarmy British accents, and ultra-proper manners, Coldplay is the devil. Seriously, I heard they hit dogs.

was it worth it?

was it worth it?

On nourishment…
August 25, 2008, 2:59 pm
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I could be wrong about this, but I suspect a number of you back home are wondering what I eat here in Japan. For those of you who aren’t interested in my Japanese dietary habits, just keep hitting the “refresh” button until I write another post.

My answer to the curious bunch: For the most part, ice cream. It’s summer, and nothing, let alone a trans-Pacific move, will keep me from my daily summer sugar, cream, and ice ritual. Aside from saccharine pseudo sacrament, I do eat real food on occasion.

Obviously, the general American consensus is that they eat a lot of sushi here. My suspicion of this stereotype was confirmed when almost everyone who learned I was moving to Japan asked, “wait, do you LIKE sushi?”. I get it, we don’t hear much about Japan cuisine that doesn’t involve raw fish, and I don’t really give off the “sushi aficionado” vibe.

I admit I may have had a reputation in the past of confining my culinary preferences to a few options. However, the days of “Ted doesn’t eat anything green” and “Ted fears the prospect of uncooked fish on top of rice” are over. I eat things. And as part of the travel experience, sometimes those things are weird.

However, I have only had sushi once since my arrival–today in fact, and it tasted soooo cliche. One might say it was comparable to uncooked fish on top of rice in America.

Aside from the occasional squid-fest (as I mentioned in a previous post) I try to keep a diverse palette, including both Japanese dishes and a number dishes with varied ethnic origins. The Indian restaurant in the same shopping center as my school is a nice asset because they serve a decent curry and they speak English. In fact, if they didn’t aggressively blast Bollywood soundtracks over their speaker system all day, I would probably refer to this restaurant as The American Embassy. For now, the “Japanophone” yet American influenced KFC, McDonalds, and Baskin-Robbins (aka: 31 Flavors) food court takes that title.

In terms of traditional Japanese cuisine, so far the highlight has been Okonomiyaki. This is essentially a pancake of sorts filled with whatever you want–pork, shrimp, beef, vegetables, and topped off with “sauce” (BBQ sauce) and mayonnaise. It is not as good as my grandmother’s pancakes, but aside from those, It’s probably the most delicious thing I have eaten; unsurprisingly, it has a health value of negative five.

My only complaint about Japanese food is the temperature. While many people, clearly with sushi and noddles on their mind, associate Japanese foods with being cold and slimy, the truth is quite the contrary. Anything ordered hot is served at near sizzling temperature. Fries from Mos Burger, roasted chicken. an even the “hot” towel they give you pre-meal, all clock it somewhere between searing and meltdown on the thermostat.

Thus, I generally burn my mouth three to four times a week. It’s a painful and inevitable process. I’m sure there is a Taoist/Buddhist/Zen element to this that Japanese people have mastered, but I clearly have not studied those texts diligently enough. Regardless, as an American, I fear the level of patience necessary is not in my repertoire. However, there is a silver lining: One no longer fears a strange or unfamiliar food when he is aware that all scalding food tastes the same (think about that Lao Tzu!).

For when I want American food with a Japanese feel.

Mos Burger: For when I want American food with a Japanese feel.

Castle Boy
August 20, 2008, 4:13 pm
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The previous weekend was perhaps my most accompllished this side of the Pacific: a cornucopia of squid was consumed, a face was sunburned, and gifts were purchased. Entire continents have had less to show for a weekend–that’s right, I’m looking at you Antarctica. The success story started on Sunday morning. After much begging on my behalf,  my friend agreed to give me the royal tour of Ako. I for some reason decided that 11:30am would be a suitable time for us to meet at the train station and for the tour to begin. When I arrived at 11:45am we decided it would be best to start with something to eat and pedaled down to JusCo, which I might start calling Xanadu-Ako location, to patron the largest food court the prefecture has to offer that is also within the city limits of Ako.

I was persuaded to try Takoyaki, which essentially batter, squid, (which I still call calamari for my stomach’s benefit) and what the Japanese universally call “sauce”. Sauce is BBQ sauce, and I think the BBQ nomenclature is something this country should embrace. Let’s be specific Japan, “sauce” sounds a bit vague by virtue and bit suspicious–like something they give you at Jack In The Box (oh wait, that’s called “jack sauce”…still).

I know what you’re thinking, squid balls for breakfast? gross. I agreed, and consequently was compelled  reward my stomach for it’s cultural martyrdom with two scoops from 31 flavors. I won’t contend that BBSQ squid balls and ice cream is the foundation of a healthy breakfast, but at least it has more flavor than Special K

Having satisfied our culinary aspirations, the tour embarked. Our first stop was Ako castle. It was once a large castle built in the 1300’s but all that remains now are few castle walls and guard posts, a small temple building and assorted ruin among the footprint of the castle. We took few pictures, prayed to a few Buddhist gods, and then headed to the beach

The beach in Ako is small but adequate. It’s a place where I would recommend one build a sand castle, nor encourage any scuba diving, but a book can be read and a sunscreen-stubborn Caucasian boy can find himself with vicious sunburn. That same Caucasian also may have bruised my foot on a rock. It wasn’t my best moment.

Afterwards we headed to Ako’s finest restaurant for dinner, Sakuragumi. Sakuragumi is a fairly famous pizza place near the castle, and has full Napolitana accreditation. It happened to be prix fixe night, so we each spent around the equivalent of $55 for the meal, but it was a delicious eight course feast. Three of the courses were squid based.

The next day, my friend was nice enough to be my guide as I scoured Himeji for a gift for my mom’s birthday. They have a little broader shopping selection in Himeji and it’s small trip from Ako. to avoid any present revelations I’ll skip the shopping details until the gift arrives stateside, which will most likely be in October. Ships are slow.

After the shopping mission was completed, I kind of hinted that I might have an interest in walking through the castle. Himeji Castle is a world heritage site, and it lives up to it’s billing. The castle construction began in 1346 and was completed in 1618. It’s cool to touch things significantly older than my country, however the two castles in two days gave me flashbacks childhood summer trips.

Himeji castle, from below.

Himeji castle, from cellphone.

At some point in the mid 1990’s my family decided it would be a great idea to take vacations that involved extended road trips across the country. I’m not exactly sure why this decision was made, perhaps we wanted to put the family motto, “Fortitudine et Prudentia” (Fortitude and Prudence) to use–with an uneven concentration on the former, or maybe we had decided things were going a little too well and we needed to pursue a balance by spending thirteen hours in a car during the hottest months of the year. Catholic guilt can be a strange and persuasive motivator.

Regardless, these things happened and we spent eight hour nights at Hampton Inns in Ashville, NC and kept a running survey of McDonald’s Playlands from Memphis to Mobile. Often on our return trip, my dad would be determined to detour us to some arbitrary civil war battlefield that may or may not be along out route. It wasn’t bad enough that we were on a 13-hour road trip, it had to be educational too. To my father’s credit, I can only recall one such occasion where we pilgrimaged to one of these AAA “points of interest”. I think it was in 1995, but other than that all I remember was that it must have been 15 degrees hotter there than anywhere else in the world, and that I spent a significant amount of time in the backseat of our minivan beating the hell out of a a plastic child car-seat.

However, this past weekend both of castles kept a temperature that was five to ten degrees cooler than the outside, and I observed absolutely zero no car-seats were abused by frustrated teenagers,or anyone else for that matter . Clearly, my childhood could have been marginally improved with an American castle or two

I did make one error though; by visiting two castles back to back, with the same person, I acquired the “Castle Boy” nickname. I wouldn’t mind it, in fact I coined it, but the Japanese are crafty. If word gets out, it could only be matter of days before I end up with a finished, “Castle Boy” spandex and rayon outfit in my hands and the Japanese take gifts very seriously.

Aristotelian junk and other observations
August 20, 2008, 2:59 pm
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Last week I had two days of intense training in Osaka. Two, eight hour days of company brainwashing delivered to me in a binders worth of literature and a litany of British-accented training exercises(unfortunately, nothing territorial army related). By brainwashing, I mean we kind of played kid games for half a day and pretended to know what we were doing cramped in a tiny room in a tiny office for the remainder. It was generally a good group  of people and there was minimal violence to report.

While I didn’t get to see much of Osaka, the small part I did venture into was very engaging. It was like New York, but if the majority of New York still loved reggae music. They love Reggae music here.

However, I’m glad I’m not currently placed there. It would be a lot to handle and I fear I would succumb to the fairly tempting foreigner community and provision the city provides without building up a basic knowledge of anything inherently Japanese. Frankly, I think this would be a tragedy.

I enjoy that fact that when I attempt to procure a cell phone in Ako, it requires most of the store’s staff (5-6 people) and a phone call to a DoCoMo employed Translator only to have me walking out the door an hour later with a phone I don’t know how to use (and this was no way at the fault of their efforts). Quick aside: I tshould be noted, that I did I do learn that I can charge things to my phone bill at the convenience store and other retail outlets simply by placing my phone on top a little pad on the counter. I’ll be sure to document in detail the brilliant disaster this will inevitably inspire and what I have accidentally purchased once it happens– feel free to start a pool of when and what in the comments section of this post (I’m putting 500 yen on womens stockings and August 25th, it’s just a hunch).

Linguistically, it’s nice to be isolated. I think it’s important that while I’m teaching a language, I also happen to be learning a language myself. It’s starting to provide insights, and at some point, it might even improve the way I teach.

I already realized, for example, that I had been incapable of asking a simple question in English.  I often complicated a query by generating the question in a, “What do you think…” or “When do you think…” format as opposed to the using the simple “When” or “What” most intelligent people enjoy.

Perhaps I’m trying to make my questions sound more interesting, or maybe I’ve decided everything opinion and conjecture and I like to subtly recognize that in my speech. It might even be a friendly Midwestern habit of making sure we ask questions in a polite, non-binding manner. Regardless, it muddles up the question with an unnecessary word or two and rightly confuses the hell out of Japanese people.

They just don’t do that, nor do they understand why someone would. Economy of language is as highly prized as the family shrine. You want to know where the luggage is? you simply say, “Luggage is where?” (Nimotsu-wa doko dess-ka, for those scoring at home). It’s quite brilliant. At leats more brilliant than an egregiously overextended passion for reggae music.

Global Frequency
August 16, 2008, 3:28 pm
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Just put my first Saturday where I had all of my classes in the books. I have great students on Saturday. Each of them do an excellent job being attentive in class. They also each have a way of keeping the material interesting (read: silly) and fun which is a big benefit to me.   In some classes I probably learn more than them, and I’m being paid for this.

Today, for instance,  I learned where several  mid-major Japanese cities are located (my status of former Geography Bee runner-up has its limitations, there are still things I have yet to master,mid size Japanese metropolises being one of them) as well as some information on giant telescopes.

Still, eight classes in one day can take its toll. Often,  by 8pm my voice starts to fade and most of my whiteboard markers are dead–today Blue was the lone survivor, better luck next week Red, Green, and Black

It also doesn’t help that I neglected to eat all day (an increasingly common Saturday habit), or that I encountered my first “child tantrum”. The kodomo  meltdown all started three minutes before class when we decided to let one of the 5 year-olds watch some “Tom & Jerry” in the lobby before class. The start time for the class came and I knew it was coming immediately. Frankly I agree with him; I’m not as Interesting as Tom, Jerry, or the combination of the two.

The boy did not want to get out of his chair so the great process began. There was negotiating, followed by  demands, then bribing, and eventually threats accompanied by “stern” parental discipline.  In the end, no wins and no one forgets,and the kid will have to wait until next year ot learn about the possibilities of the letter “K” (hint: Koala).

Asa result, I now find myself enjoying the comforts of home and the sophisticated bliss of the beginning of a new Barclay’s Premier League season (“English soccer league” for the American readership). Currently, I am in my Japanese apartment, sitting on my “modernesque” reclining floor-chair, eating an American grilled cheese, drinking a 24oz Kirin’s Draft Beer and watching two English football matches (one of the TV special Cable channel I purchased, and another via the internet) neither of which is being broadcast in a language I have achieved any sort of fluency in.  The television match is in Japanese, and the computer match happens to be in espanol. Top that, Globe Trekker!

Let’s face it, right now, I am the most worldly person you know and I’m just sitting at home on a Saturday night.

Tomorrow though I will get out and explore…and maybe have some dry cleaning done, which I assume will be quite the challenge. Does anyone know the Japanese for “light starch”? I’m thinking of trying out “Light, starch-o”…

birds of a feather
August 11, 2008, 7:56 am
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I had my first chance encounter with a fellow foreigner in Ako the other day. I strolled into the Post Office to withdraw some cash (the post office is also the national bank of sorts in Japan) and was met with the sight of a another white dude in a tie. I did a quick double-take just to make sure I was not in fact looking into a mirror. While I am often confused by mirrors, and their inherent trickery, this time I was not deceived, theguy existed.

My first inclination was to give the guy the customary white guy head nod–which really is a universal head nod–however, I quickly reconsidered. I didn’t want to give off the impression that I was trying to start some sort of foreigner club. When you’re American not named Hemingway,  this rarely goes over well.

Plus, it wasn’t like the guy was wearing a St. Louis Cardinals cap, a Liverpool jersey, or even reading some sort of magazine or book that I might have an interest in. This was just another white dude in a tie. We have have no basis for any sort of bond other than the fact that somewhere down the line our  ancestors obviously rocked around European caves or castles within a relatively similar geographical proximity.

Furthermore, as I mentioned before, I think it would be a bit bold of me, and perhaps counter-intuitive to my decision to move to Japan if I just started being unusually friendly with anyone who shares familiar facial features. Sure, It’s one thing if you share a common dialect, but I still had no idea what his native tongue was–he was stone quiet in his tie.

And it was a bad tie at that. Dark, uninteresting colors. It was like he was wearing a tie for the sake of wearing a tie. Something looked off.

He had on a short-sleeve, bleach white dress shirt and wore the kind of dress shoes that might have been issued to him rather than purchased. They were clean and well-maintained, but unnecessarily plain and clunky. Much like his tie. Tom Wolfe said you can always tell who a person really is by there shoes and this guy wasn’t passing any of my shoe test.

The other odd thing was that he wasn’t doing anything.  He stood there waiting and occasionally shooting me an awkward glances as I operated the ATM in English.

As I made my withdrawal, I recalled that when my trainer and I had to bike through town to go to my company classes, he mentioned how people might get the impression that we were Mormons. I asked him if this meant I should be on the lookout for Japanese drivers trying to swerve at us, and again, as he often did, he just chuckled and avoided giving a answer. He did parlay to me that the reason we might be mistaken for this brand of missionary is because Mormons always travel in twos, wear ties, and are the only people in Japan that wear helmets when riding bicycles. I guess their faith doesn’t go deep enough to assuage their fear of head injuries.

With this information in mind, I looked around the room and sure enough saw another guy, across the room in a similar getup, although he was Japanese. I suppose they were tag-teaming, Missionaries are smart about this sort of thing I imagine. They probably do an outstanding  salvation-centric version of good cop/bad cop.   As I left the post office, I saw them sporting matching bright red helmets as they hopped their bikes down the road. Suspicions confirmed.

There might have been a few advantages to knowing another English speaking person in Ako. A don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything specifically against Mormons, Just missionaries. In the grand scheme, I think avoiding a rambling, fanatical, religious diatribe trumps making a new friend most days. Plus this guy must be desperate. from what I can tell so far, Japan is about as happily agnostic as a country can be.