Teaching In Socks

Kid Tested Visa Approved
July 28, 2009, 6:09 pm
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Today is 368 Days after my arrival to Japan. On Monday, I picked up a renewed Visa, permitting me to stay for another three years (I made an impression). While It’s not necessarily and achievement, it’s nice to go another year without getting deported.

In terms of the previous year, I think as these things tend to do, it has differed slightly from what I expected. Then again, as it has been a year, I can’t exactly remember what I expected. I stopped believing in time capsules and seventh grade and since then I have refused to play the Nostradamus game of writing down expectations and revealing either how naive I am, or how predictable life is.

That said, let’s review some facts.

In my year here, I’ve been to three castles and something like 15 temples. I’ve met enough new deities to throw a party, but most that are worshiped less than Wolverine at Comic-Con. I’ve either met no robots, or a bunch of really awesome robots that are too life-like for me to identify.

I have not been attacked by an Sea Monsters (or Monster in general) but if they exist, I probably have eaten them.   I have eaten parts of animals that I don’t know the Japanese names for. I have eaten animals and plants that I don’t know the Japanese names for. I haven’t thrown up once (there has been a close call or two). I have given up hope and eaten McDonald’s five times.

I have probably executed three correct bows; they probably weren’t the three I wanted to get right.

I have picked up a couple hundred words, but I can count the number of “successful” Japanese conversations I’ve had on one hand. I have probably said th word “hai” meaning yes 100,00 times. I say it when I’m confused, I say it when I’m nervous, I accidentally say it instead of “hello” sometimes. Just today a man came in to ask me about studying abroad. He squawked at me for 15 minutes, while I intermittently replied “hai” and somehow he didn’t seem to grasps that I had very little understanding of what he was saying to me.

The war has come up a few times, but it yet to be unmanageably awkward.

I’ve only seen three anime. I have yet to start dressing up like a cartoon character (besides Jon Arbuckle). I haven’t appeared on any game shows. I haven’t eaten any bugs. I sill have all my fingers.

I’ve been called Harry Potter a few times, I’ve made a few inquisitive kids double-take but the important thing is I’ve never been chased to the embassy–still somedays I feel like I’m only a poorly timed “hai” away.


It’s never what you think it is

The weekend as I was getting my haircut, my hairstylist brought up the death of Michael Jackson. I was a little surprised at first and thought to myself the token Generation whatever I am thought, “wasn’t that three weeks ago?” but in retrospect, this news, within this time frame, is perfectly reasonable barber shop small talk. Furthermore, as I am his only American client, I am sure he felt that this was the topic where we could find some common ground. Michael Jackson was his mother’s favorite musician, Michael Jackson was American, I am American and thus must have some sort of anecdote that would segue into a solid, entirely not uncomfortable, conversation.

While I would have loved to tel him about the Michale Jackson 3-D Epcot experience I vaguely remember seeing when I was five. My Japanese is not quite there yet. I mumbled out a few sentences then got stuck on how to say “surprising”  in Japanese (odorokasu, maybe?). Odokorokasu. I then went on about how In Tokyo they played Michael Jackson everywhere I went all weekend. He was not surprised, Japan loved Michael Jackson. Also, I imagine that there was enough distance that they stayed away from the media grilling many of the US networks gave him in the 90’s and beyond (perhaps deservedly).

Just as we we were hitting he end of this line of conversation a really slow and terribly 80’s sounding soft-rock ballad came on. I was about to try and reignite the conversation by pointing out that I don’t enjoy this type of music very much, luckily, I was taking a while to formulate my sentences. As I was about to give it a go, he asked me if I like Mr. Big, and specifically lead singer, Eric Martin. I said that I liked the song, “To Be With You“. He then proceed to tell me how the song we were listening to was Eric Martin, and that he was very popular in Japan, and a very talented singer.

This Guy

Now, I had some peripheral knowledge that Eric Martin, was big in Japan. But I guess I assumed it was with the same type of people who were into Jimmy Buffet or Tesla in the U.S. not people who are also into cool stuff.   But here he was,  a guy much better dressed and more popular with the ladies than I am, he watches some of the same TV shows, and it certainly more tapped into what is cool in Japan than I am, and he’s raving about Eric bloody Martin. Maybe the most one-hit wonder of the one-hit wonder power ballad bands.

Within minutes, we had gone from talking about a an American artist that is globally accepted as cool, to another American artist, who is overlooked in his home country, but widely and transcendently  accepted in a country that doesn’t even speak the same language as his lyrics.

I remember reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point a few years ago and at first being riveted with insight and then later dismissively it all as formulated and selectively contrived anecdotes. But I think one thing I recall from the book, that maybe is evident in this situation is that grabbing the right audience/ consumer is more essential to success than having Quality or craftsmanship. Say what you will about the concept of a the collective unconscious but the conundrum presented at least is somewhat contrary to the idea that a universal artistic value is a dominate force in determining what is popular–if said force even exists (I hope it does and that Dan Brown feels its scorn). What’s popular is relative and often surprising.

Having avoided insulting the musical taste of man who holds the appearance of my hair over the next eight weeks in his hands, I counted my blessings and praised my poor Japanese.  As Calvin says, “never criticize a guy with a razor”.

We continued talking about Eric Martin, and his incredible vocal range. I made the comment that it was similar to Freddy Mercury (it’s not even close, but whatever). My Hairstylist gave me a strange look. I repeated, Freddy Mercury…you know, Queen? He continued to stare, so I did the “We Will Rock” you drum beat. He nodded, “Ah, yes, Queen, very good!”.  At least some things translate.

Hit Ball Hard
July 15, 2009, 4:03 pm
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Even before I arrived in Japan, the mythology of Japanese Baseball and it’s fans made going to game here an item on my Bucket List.  However, since my arrival there have been a  number of setbacks (sold out games, my inability to read a schedule, the offseason) which have prevented this from happening.

However, a visit from a friend and a trip to Tokyo provided the proper inspiration and I finally found myself at the Tokyo Dome, taking in a game between the first place Yomiuri Giants and the second place, cross-town rivals (although not main rivals) Yakult Swallows.

* It should be noted here that with the exception of the Yokohama Baystars, teams take on the name of the corporation that owns/sponsors them, not the region or city they represent.

At the game, surprisingly (not at all surprisingly in Japan) the first thing I noticed was the cleanliness. Japan is a remarkably clean country–despite seemingly to be devoid of public trash cans- yet to maintain this standard in a stadium of all places is remarkable especially considering that in America stadiums are cultivating their own brand of military-grade grime and shirtless fat people.

It’s a little depressing that the twenty-year-old Tokyo Dome is noticeably cleaner then the three-year-old McStadium the my hometown Cardinals play in, but you have to appreciate a job well done. That’s not to say I would eat off the floors here, but it is to say that said floors weren’t cheetah-spotted with old gum, nor were they coated in the traditional stadium flooring treatment of spilled beers and a mystery film that is physics-defying slick and sticky at the same time.

We were able to bring food and beers into the stadium with us which may be one of the reasons was the Nippon Professional Baseball league has struggled financially at times. Still, this seemed like an appropriate throwback to the right way to conduct a baseball game.

The biggest difference, and  the thing foreigners are bound to be most curious about is the food. I did a thorough scan of the concession board and here’s what I can report; Yes, there were Hotdogs (although the Japanese variety tastes a little different), there were also pretzels, chicken wings, Baskin Robbins ice cream (no helmet cups though). However, all of this was placed right alongside BBQ Eel, onigiri, and mystery meats on sticks. The only absence I noted was nachos, but let’s be honest they are obviously the least cannon and most digestively suspicious of  standard American Ballpark fare.

Now as much as I’d like to tell you I went on some bold culinary baseball journey, I didn’t. I stuck to the safe picks and avoided mixing beer and dairy. I did knock down a foot-long (or 30 cm long…whatevs) dog, some chicken wings, a pretzel and few draft beers (I forgot to mention that sake and whiskey were options as well).

The conventional theory is that you can tell a lot about a Culture by how they support their sports team. And while I think this theory often lends itself to blanket generalizations; on the regional level it does provide an interesting colloquial snapshot from which to draw some shaky insights. Thus, I was somewhat interested to see what fans of the Giants are like.

For those unaware, the Giants are Japan’s equivalent of the Yankees. They are the oldest and most successful team. They play in the biggest city and their players are often the biggest names making the most money. I have to say, the crowd was were the comparisons ended; they were polite and fantastic.

There were the organized chants and synchronized towel waving, and inbetween it was a crowd that was paying attention with watching with a knowledgeable eye. While there was lots of energy, my friend and I were perhaps the most rambunctious of the people around us simply because of the instinctual  American custom express displeasure when the umpire makes a questionable call–oh and my friend was giving out high fives to strangers around us in the midst of a global pandemic scare, regardless, the people in our section were extremely friend and patient. It was a wonderful balance.

They weren’t comatose and clueless like Atlanta Braves fans nor did I have some yelled umcomfortably close in my ear at inappropriate moment like I was at Fenway. And unlike St. Louis, everyone kept their shirt on.  I guess my only complaint was that it wasn’t strange enough. I wanted something odd and colorful to happen and all I got is a bunch of nice people being happy and expressing it a sociallyly acceptable way. I suppose I’ll have to wait for a Hanshin Tiger’s game for the real eccentrics.

By far the most promising thing Japanese baseball offered was the beer girls. It’s amazing how the complexion of the spectator experience changes when you replace the sweaty, potentially a sexual predator beer guy with a potential target for the former; a peppy twenty year old girl with a pony keg back pack dressed in bright neon clothes. Also, instead of muttering swear words under their breath, these girls seemed to have an endless supply of pep and energy (and they aren’t even getting tipped). Even after eight innings of huffing a pony keg through the stadium aisles their enthusiasm seem unwavering. It was impressive and a bit scary. Who knows what else they are capable of.

In the words of my mother, we brought home a winner and it was a ncie way to ease into the water of Japanese baseball. I’m looking forward ot catching the local team, The Hanshin Togers in action soon. They are known for being the loud, wild and absurdly passionate fans–which basically means there are at leats two ballon launches per home game. Interpret that however you will.

No substitutions

I suppose one cultural note that I have forgotten to manage over the last year is that ordering off the menu is completely unheard of in Japan.

When I first arrived, I viewed this as a culinary adventure (in addition to all the other adventures it is) and thus never even considered trying to ask for a dish other than how it was presented on the menu–not that I could have linguistically managed it anyway. I ordered, ate and kept my complaints to myself (most of the time). It has become such a habit that I have completely forgotten that food alterations and specifications were physically possible.  And I don’t feel like I missing some necessary meal-enjoyment tool, which is odd, because I feel like I should be. There was probably a period in my life (forever) in which "On-the-side Reilly” would have been an apt nickname (“hold the salad”and “I’ll make a PBJ” would have also been appropriate).

In a sense, the language barrier brought down a culinary barrier. Even this past weekend I discovered at both lunch and dinner that I had ordered dishes with capers in them. Privately I thought, “fucking capers” (because I was hungry and I use curses word rather liberally in my thoughts when I am hungry) but in no way did I ever consider the possibility  that I could have requested the same meals devoid of capers.

That said, being deprived of their certain inalienable customization rights seems to be one of the few drawbacks visiting Americans encounter.  In both cases where I’ve had visitors, there has been occasion where we have been out a meal and the visitor says, “can we get it without X?”. This request is always something that seems relatively logical, and uncomplicated.  Then I start to give the standard “ehhhhh” response and their first inclination is to say, “oh because you don’t know the Japanese?” and while the answer to that question is usually yes, the more important answer is that anything I say will undoubtedly confuse the hell out of our server. It likes going to the bank and asking them for haircut–they really don’t know what to do with what you’re saying.

In one instance, a restaurant we were eating at had spicy-sour shrimp and spicy-sour beef  on their outdoor menu. Inside, the menu we were given had only the shrimp. We asked if they could give us the beef (they had many other beef dishes) with the spicy-sour sauce. This seems like a simple request; they have the beef, they have the sauce and the ability ot mix the two.  The waitress first titled her head in they way that all animals do when they are painfully perplexed. After processing what we were trying to ask her, she replied without hesitation said that it was impossible. I suppose there is a small price to pay for not having to tip your servers.

The only success I’ve ever seen was a friend who studied up on the Japanese names for ingredients of a McDonald’s hamburger and then drew a diagram that indicated that he wanted only ketchup. While his method was successful, I think we can all agree that a man who goes through that much trouble to get a plain burger is mentally unstable and is most likely eating burger that contains ketchup and lugee well, they’d  They’d never do that in Japan actually, but definitely ketchup and mental lugee.

watashi to tokyo
July 2, 2009, 4:13 pm
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Godzilla broke my building (oh dear)

it came like that


Tokyo made me realize how much I missed the challenge of urban orienteering. Ako is great and picturesque but there are a limited number of streets to get lost on. While  I have never been much of an avid hiker living in  London and New York exposed me to the joy of trying to get from Point A to Point B in a vast urban landscape. It’s part puzzle and part mission and doing it well is essential to fitting in and feeling the personality of the city.

Each city has it nuances. New York–with the exception of the West Village–has it’s logical grid layout which is undermined by it’s disorientingly tall high-rises. London  considered a grid layout after the fire, then decided against it leaving modern day inhabitants with a labyrinth of alleys, roundabouts, and serpentine thoroughfares.

Above ground, I found many similarities between London and Tokyo. They are two cities with the foundation in the 15th century ideal of urban planning; However, both suffered massive destruction in the middle of the century and have had opportunity to rebuild and incorporate the technology of the age. Tokyo, perhaps out of necessity or cultural habit, has done so more aggressively than London.  While I was able to memorize the key points of the Tube and Subway maps in a matter of days, in Tokyo I could get around, but at times I resorted to actually asking someone (twice for the record, how embarrassing).

London also adopted a ring of greenery to surround the city and prohibit unchecked expansion of the city– if Tokyo has also taken this approach, I didn’t notice it. Tokyo spans across 50 miles at some points, has reclaimed land from the sea, and seemingly melts into other surrounding cities.

The most unique thing I noticed about Tokyo was how it expands vertically both above and below. From the street, if you’re trying to get from one building to another, it’s often not difficult. The horizon is often visible, and the inspired architectural design of the cities buildings allows one to distinguish quick landmarks. But often you are in a spot looking for a movie theater or cafe on the 5th floor of bulding, or for a shop inside a shopping center connected to a train station. For exmaple, I knew how to enter the Shinjuku JR station from the south exit, and I knew how to leave the station from the west exit (which was a bit more conveniant from the hotel).  However, if you asked me to enter the station hrough the West exit, I’d spend hours looking for it–and finding the entrance to any of the four department stores connected to the station was almost always pure luck.

This doesn’t even begin to take into account the system of tunnels connectting buldings and train stations. I tried the tunnel system once, from the station to City Hall (really to my hotel that was sort of across the street from City Hall), and then panicked after about ten blocks of blind guessing and picking turns on a hunch. The ability to navigate these tunnels–even though they are filled with signage– clearly separates the tourist from the locals.

And that’s the thing, there is lots of helpful color-coded English sigange. Everywhere. In spite of which, you’ll still get lost at times, only to find yourself staring at another sign or another building, trying to grab your bearings. Which is why it’s always easy to spot the tourist, no matter how they dress or talk, they’re always looking up with their mouth open.

it eats toursists

it eats toursists