Teaching In Socks

Sophmorism and Sakura
March 31, 2009, 5:32 pm
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The last two weeks have been fantastically hectic–so much so, that I haven’t really had any time or energy to post or document any of the action. Since I’m still short on energy I’ll try and run through the two interesting points as briefly as possible–excluding a haiku format.

1. Of course during a visit from two good friends we found the first vocally xenophobic (or perhaps just anti-American) Japanese person I have encountered since I arrived. In retrospect, perhaps he was just the first one who expressed his disdain in English (I get a variety of looks on a daily basis), I’d know, but either way he was a total J-hole.

Completely unprovoked this fine gentleman was standing alongside a crowded path we were following to a temple in Nara and said, in discernible English, “I will drink Champagne when you leave Japan”. I must first commend him for the risky diss; what if we were French? However, the overall lesson I took from this experience is that this man was an incredibly  intrepid jackass. It takes some effort just to learn how to insult someone in their own dialect, let alone so elaborately. While simple f-bomb would have sufficed, something compelled this man to move further. Great job, Earth.

I was so taken aback my only reply was a lightly toned sarcastic  “thank you”.

In his defense, at least once a year, without fail a stranger lobs and unexpected insult my way; some are more memorable than others. In 2006, while walking in the West Village to pick up a package at  UPS Purgatory, I caught the eye of a man crossing the street perpendicular to me long enough for him to ask, “whatchew looking at fatass?”.

I don’t take these attacks to personally (that would be awful). I see it as God playing Cato to my Inspector Clouseau, keeping me on my toes.

2. Cherry Blossom season has begun. I have the feeling it’s a five week season that can be broken into four stages: two weeks of talking about how awesome the cherry blossoms will be, two weeks of staggered blossom fruition, and one week of talking about how awesome the cherry blossoms were.

Currently, we appear to be ending the second week of build up and anticipation. The few early bloomers light up the mountainsides and streets like fireworks, but it’s obvious by the amount of bare stems and branches that this is just the preamble.  Still the excitement is palpable.

Full blooming trees are often crowded by camera or cellphone wielding  admirers–it’s not a passion, it’s an obsession. An old lady backed square into me the other day as she was staring at particularly elegant early bloomer, and the clerk at my local convenience store has been using it as his stock bit of small talk for the last few days. The hype is to immense for me to really grasp a sense of whether it’s too big a burden for these trees to live up to, or an appropriate amount of brouhaha  for what must be an brilliant botanic spectacle.


Dairy Disaster
March 17, 2009, 5:20 pm
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As inevitable as Manifest Destiny and the failure of communism, another language disaster has wreaked it’s havoc on my otherwise peaceful and uneventful existence.

This episode began when, in a rather suspicious turn of events, my local mega-grocer sold out of, or more likely removed for health and safety precautions, my regular brand of milk.

Due to my vicious cereal addiction (serial cereal eater?) and the fresh box of Frosted Flakes already in my cart, I was forced to seek out a new brand of milk.

Sadly, while I can read the word “milk” in Japanese, my comprehension of the surrounding milk variables is rather insufficient. The only reliable clues available to me for any sort of scientific determination of  a suitable replacement brand can be summed up accordingly:

1. Is it in the dairy section?
2. Does it have the word “milk” on the carton?
3. Is their a picture of a cow of the carton?

Using this elaborate criterion, I settled on two specific brands. I then determined one to be superior (read: safer) than the other based on the fact that it had a picture of Hokkaido accompanying the logo. Hokkaido is Northern-most island of Japan and is for all intensive purposes the Wisconsin of Japan. (Wear that title with pride Hokkaido!)

The following morning, after a shower, I confidently put the great experiment into action.

Despite passing the visual consistency and basic waft/odor tests, the flavor phase–really the point of the entire experiment, was a gigantic failure. Be aware that this determination is coming from a man who ate temperature tampered organic strawberry yogurt on several occasions last summer and voiced only a minor internal complaint.

Despite having insufficient to illustrate the gustatory torture, I will say it tasted like cereal sugar, lemon-lime gatorade, orange juice, and a hint of generic dairy creamer mixing in my mouth all at once. I realize that previous description may sound like a tasty, albeit low-budget, citrus dessert (don’t get any ideas Sonic!) but really it was awful.

Gag-inducing, and entire-bowl-of-cereal-wasting bad.

If I had to sum it up as asccintly as possible I would have to say it tasted “weapons grade”.

I’m still not sure what the substance I bought was, but it certainly wasn’t milk.

While I lived, this experience reminded that I need to learn some Kanji and not make decisions based on guesses when it comes to milk or meats; it’s no different than entering the minotaur’s maze without any string.

March 11, 2009, 5:41 pm
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Soccer Swans
March 9, 2009, 4:56 pm
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i thought winning was the only thing.

half-time entertainment = mountains

On Sunday, I went to Kyoto with a few of my students to watch a soccer game. I went to several games last year to support my adopted team, Vissel Kobe, but this was the opening week of the 2009 season.

The professional league in Japan, J-league 1, was established the same year as MLS was in America; however, it is, it my estimation, relatively more popular in Japan.  While baseball is wildly popular and has a similar season, it is the only sport that the J-League really has to compete with for an audience.  It also helps that Japan has co-hosted a World Cup within the last decade, and soccer doesn’t carry the kind of stigma in Japan, the some feel it has in America

Thus, I found myself at a packed converted college stadium with around 17,000 other people to watch Vissel Kobe take on Kyoto Sagna. Being a new league compared ot Europe, the teams, and their fans specifically, look to Europe for inspiration in building traditions. As with anything that corsses language and cultural barriers, there are elements that are lost in translation.

Several team names are the most obvious examples of this. The most successful team over the last few years has been the Kashima Antlers. The translation of the city name Kashima literally means “deer island”. Still my students were delighted to learn what the word “Antler” meant, even though the team logo is a silhouette of a deer head.

Another popular team, Gamba Osaka, has a name with mixed derivation. “Gamba” in Italian means “leg”. “Gambaru” is a Japanese word for “do one’s best”.  I’m not sure many of their own fans pick on the cleverness of the nomenclature. My students actually argued over the root of this name until we checked the internet to discover that they were both right.

However, I think the names of the two particpants of the match I attended are the most interesting of the bunch. Vissel Kobe is a derivation of two English words into what might be described as an English non-word. Kobe is famous for it’s shipping port, which prior to the earthquake in 1995 rivaled Tokyo’s, thus the owners or marketing wizards in charge combined the word “victory” with the word “vessel”, hoping to capture the spirit of the city. Instead they created this lexicographical mutant, which I had always assumed was denoting a corporate sponsorship of the team by a vacuum company. (Please note, I do not condoen Vacuum compnay sponsorship of professional sprts teams unless it’s one of the following The Dyson Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Cubs brough to you by Hoover, or the Washington Oreck-Generals) (SubNote: The New Jersey Dirt Devils may also be acceptable).

While, Vissel is a non-word, I found that even less people knew what “Sagna” meant even though it has actually etymological roots. I will confess I had to turn to Wikipedia for this one, but the article stated that “Sanga” is a Sanskrit word for “group” and is an homage to Kyoto’s tradition as the epicenter of  Buddhism in Japan.

I’m not sure which is a more peculiar choice for a team name, a modern cocktail of two words, or a word from multi-millennium old language that has about a total of 14,000 living speakers remaining, none whom live in Japan, let alone Kyoto (that I know of).

Nomenclature aside, a game was played between the “victorious ships” and the “group”. While there were moments of inspired play, it was evident that this was the beginning of the season.  While Kyoto Sanga spent a good portion of the start of the match and the end of the match backed up against their goal, they were able to grab a goal in the middle and keep a clean sheet and the 1-0 victory.

Having read the soccer-sociologist bible, “How Soccer Explains the World” a few years ago, I’m always trying to look at the game as something greater than just soccer– rather and entity indicative of a social identity. On Sunday, two things stood out in this regard. First, the league allows each team a quota of four foreign born players. Almost league-wide these players tend to be Brazilian or Korean–and I would say a brief survey suggest they are predominantly Brazilian. Brazilians are to the J-League what Americans are to Japanese baseball.

While in one respect this can be attributed to the surplus of soccer talent in Brazil,  while in Japan I have learned that during the 1980’s there was an engineer exchange program between Brazil and Japan. many Brazilians came over to Japan as part of a program to train engineers. There are several cities in Japan that have substantial Brazilian populations. I imagine that this program, over time, has forged a national familiarity between the two countries, and soccer has become part of the social currency exchanged.

Stylistically too, the Brazilian players compliment the Japanese style of play. Although I’m not sure to what degree Brazilian influence has crafted the Japanese style any more than any other country; from loose observation what I saw, and have seen from the national team, appears to be something that feels organically Japanese.

Goals and chances may begin with a variety of ways, but the preferred method of attacking always seems to include lots of short, quick passes, delicate footwork, clever and calculated little runs complimented by these intricately weighted balls designed to dissect the defense rather than overpower it or out-run it.

Watching Japanese soccer always reminds me of Oragami. I think of this way: if you asked an American or German to turn a a piece of paper into the shape of a swan, they would get out pair of scissors and swfitly cut the paper into the proper shape (and Germans would yell cuss words the entire time and measure things in millimeters). However, A Japanese person would undertake the process by executing a sequence of precise folds, exuding  diligence  with each step until creating this fascinating  3-d representation.

In soccer terms, this can be a frustratiing process to be audience too. Whether it be Vissel, or the Japanese National team (which is notoriously guilty of this style of soccer for better or worse), I often find myself wanting to shout at the player to play more directly. The again, America’s soccer record doesn’t give me much leverage in any suggestion I would make.

train pain
March 3, 2009, 5:30 pm
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I went skiing this past weekend. I didn’t make it up north to Hakuba or Nagano, where the real choice slopes are in Japan, but I did venture out to the biggest ski resort in Hyogo, Hachi Kita. I get the impression that skiing  Hachi Kita is similar to skiing a half-decent mountain in New England. Hachi Kita wasn’t a hill, but it would have trembled at the size of Whistler & Blackcomb.

I’m not going to complain though; with the degree of difficulty turned down a few notches, I felt a bit like pro on the slopes. It did seem like a lot of people in Japan decided to take up Snowboarding as their New Year”s resolution, but didn’t get around to hitting the slopes until last week. Thus, In addition to my normal skiing, I got to practice a few evasive maneuvers.

Considering this was the first time I had seen snow since last March, I was really savoring the moment. My enthusiasm was also bolstered by the fact that it took quite a trip to get there in the first place.

Normally, one books a tour package that includes lift tickets and a round trip bus fare out of Himeji. However, there is only one bus per day and it leaves at 7:30 am from Himeji and then departs on a return journey from the mountain at 4 pm. From a purely practical perspective one might say it was a logical and wise decision for my girlfriend to book us on this tour. However, a bus departure time of 7:30 am means I have to wake up a make a 6:30 am train to Himeji. This becomes difficult when the soccer game I want to watch starts a midnight.

In my defense, I woke up at 5:45 am….and then again at 6:35 am. Just in time for her to ring my doorbell. Also, I my defense I made pancakes while we made contingency plans.  In the end, and at the risk of sounding like a Mastercard commercial (does Mastercard still exist by the way?) a $150, simple round trip, one day ski junket turned into this:

6:45 – Make pancakes and apologize profusely

7:00 – eat pancakes, cancel tour package for 50% refund.

7:44 –  Take a train to Himeji (30 min)

8:30 – Take a train to Teramae (30 min)

9:15 – take a train to Wadayama ( 1 hr)

10:27 – Take a train to Yoka (closest train stop to Hachi Kita)  (1o min)

Total train fare: $50

Take a bus from Yoka to Hachi Kita Oh wait, the bus company is going out of business and isn’t in operation on Sundays (because this makes logical business sense when you are operating a bus line between a train station and a SKI RESORT! seriously closed on weekends is part of good business model for this industry?

10:45 -Take a Taxi from the train station to Hachi Kita (30 min)

Taxi cost: $80

buy lift tickets: $70

ski from 12 – 3:15.

3:45 Call the bus company and ask if we can still get on the return ride home: success.

cost: cheaper than a taxi.

Total cost of that extra five minutes of sleep: Glad I REALLY ENJOYED SKIING (if you want to be jerk you can do the math yourself, or you can ask my girlfriend because she definitely summed it all together about a hundred times)