Teaching In Socks

Naked and Confused
March 25, 2010, 4:02 pm
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During my “blog blackout” last month I made a short weekend trip to Kurayoshi in Tottori prefecture. Tottori prefecture is on the North side of Honshu (the Japanese “mainland”) and to get there I had to take the Super Hakuto train north, all the way across the island. I had never traversed the country from North to South before and it was quite interesting to watch the shifts in the landscape outside the window.

When foreigners list things they associate with Japan, the shifting landscape probably isn’t high on the list. This is unfortunate, because it’s kind of spectacular.  The numerous and lengthly tunnels couple with the quick progression from plains to field to mountains to coast line resembles the ride at Epcot–you know, in the good way, minus the space part and the talking Presidents.

I started in Aioi, along the coast of Seto Inland Sea, where it was cool and sunny. Within twenty minutes on the train the horizon was filled with sharp, gray mountain peaks and snow-blanketed fields. A handful of stops later, I was back again at sea-level, passing the famous sand dunes of Tottori and traveling alongside the Sea of Japan as waves crashed against the shore.

The abrupt transitions reminded me that I wasn’t in America. Back home it often always seems like you have to travel for days or jump on plane for the scenery to change significantly.

I headed to Tottori with my fiancée and her family for two reasons: Onsens (natural hot springs) and Crab meat. I can’t speak for the rest of Japan (although I think I do) but here in Hyogo, heading North to eat crab and sit in scorching hot water are a winter tradition.

Onsens have always kind of freaked me out. While Japanese culture highly values privacy, the notion of natural purity seems to supersede it. What I really mean is; at most onsens you are required to bath in them naked. There is usually a number of pools connected to the hot spring and they separate the men’s side and women’s side. Thus, when I go with my girlfriend, this basically leaves me stranded in terms of having a cultural consultant. Normally, I can hold my own, but onsens complicate the situation there is a strict code of etiquette at the onsens, (that involves bathing at certain times, not having tatoos and so forth) that is designed to maintain the purity of the water.

Now, I can get past the nudity (barely), and as you might have noticed from reading this blog, I have a wealth of experience in dealing with social faux pas. However, the one thing I dread is committing a faux pas while naked. Naked faux pas are like the sixth of Faux Paws hell (I saw six because I there must a be a seventh circle that I don’t want to–and hopefully am unable to–imagine).  Also, any transgressions is compounded by the fact that I am a foreigner– it’s not like I can blend in the with crowd or hope that an incident will slip anyone’s notice.

Now, I imagine that you, the reader, are anticipating some ripe and juicy story where I do something offensive and am chased down the streets, running to the embassy buck-naked.  Unfortunately, I have to disappoint you. I lucked out. First, we were traveling on a Sunday and Monday so the ryokan (Japanese style hotel) was fairly empty. In fact, at night I had the whole men’s side of the onsen, with four different onsens–two indoor and two outdoor, to myself. I could have swam laps ( sort of did, I ran around and jumped in every onsen for no explicable reason). The second day, I stumbled upon a poster in the changing room that outlined the proper onsen etiquette. For those interested it’s:

Step 1: Take a shower

Step 2: Get in the onsen.

Step 3: Don’t splash around or swim. Don’t eat food, don’t drink, don’t put your washcloth in the onsen, it’s uncouth.

Step 4: Chill out, you’re in mineral rich hot spring water. It’s one of the few benefits of living on top of a bunch of volcanoes.

Getting that sussed out helped make the weekend more relaxing. In between going to the onsen and eating the largest crab meal I have ever had we had a chance to go to a Yakuza-run arcade (classy and retro) and walk along the river–which held an outdoor all-male public onsen. I’m not sure what the protocol is on the outdoor onsen, but I bet it’s a bit too European for me.


Fill'er with Diesel and Bacon

Since January 15th of this year McDonald’s has been running it’s “Big America” campaign here in Japan. I assume the “Big America” title is supposed to be some sort of word play involving the “Big Mac” but all it makes me think of is fat, lazy McDonald’s-inhaling Americans (like myself). Basically, it’s a rather apt title.

The campaign has included four specialty burgers, The Texas Burger, Burger New York, the California Burger, and the Hawaiian burger (sorry Chris, no McRib). Here’s a list describing each burger. I can’t say I fully agree with the ingredients corresponding to their locations. What’s so New York about Monterrey-Jack cheese?or so Hawaiian about eggs? Do they even have eggs in Hawaii? If so they definitely aren’t indigenous. Please note, however, (as the author of the above link does) that all the burgers include bacon. Baconizing everything sounds very American We should be the United States of Bacon. Bacon, the most beautiful thing on Earth.

In Japan I try not to go to McDonald’s.  “Try” is the operative term though, I have gone a few times (they’re everywhere!) and each time I do, I feel like I am fulfilling a cliche. Even if it’s not the case I get the impression that the staff either looks at me and snicker at the humor of the stupid foreigner eating the stupid foreign trash-food or that the person behind the register sees me as some sort of McDonald’s expert who is going to enlighten them with my advanced McDonald’s knowledge. The sad thing is, when I look at the menu, I feel like I have advanced McDonald’s knowledge. I’ve seen McDonald’s items they cant even possibly fathom. Ordering McDonald’s in Japan simultaneously feels like cheating on my dream to be a worldly person and playing little league as an adult.

I went last week because the fries are still awesome, (even in Japan, even in England, even on the moon) and there is one down the street from my office. I resisted the brief temptation to order off the Big America menu. Huffing down a Big America burger would just put me one step closer to being a Big American.

No Pictured: The Jersey Burger- Bacon, Trash, and Tackiness--Class Free

I should also mention that the “Big America” campaign has been complimented by a number of strange commercials that involve a portable McDonald’s driving across America to deliver cheeseburgers to uncomfortably happy people. The whole things seems to be some sort of electric-kool-aid party gone corporate; in the commercials everybody dances as the tiny McDonald’s mobile delivers them cheeseburgers with bacon–which I guess wouldn’t be so bad, I mean bacon is involved.

Just a stranger on the bus
March 10, 2010, 4:29 pm
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In Japan, the public bus system is not used just by people who can’t afford cars and the mentally disabled.  It is used by them, but also other types of people as well: college students, the elderly, and working professionals. Japan has such a excellent comprehensive public transportation system that it really is possible –although not always extremely convenient–to get around without using a car.

I have recently started using the bus system for the first time since elementary school. Overall, I feel as though the Japanese Bus system is vast improvement over it’s American counterpart. However, in some ways this is it’s downfall. Because it’s nice, a wide variety of people use, and thus inside the bus there is a mixture of people with schedules and places to be and people who have absolutely no respect for time. I would even go as far as to say that it’s a metaphor of why communism, socialism, and basic kindergarten sharing all don’t work.

On the flip side I could see someone arguing that the Japanese bus system is evidence of why the previously mentioned ideals would/do work. The buses here are exceptionally clean, they leave their destinations on time, and in my experience, they are fairly safe (read: not made by Toyota) in terms of interior incidents and external accidents. In my opinion though, this viewpoint doesn’t look at carefully enough at the internal bus passenger interactions and overall atmosphere–it’s high tension.

I don’t think Capitalist or Americans are wired for bus riding. In my specific case, I take the entire ride too personally. If between my apartment and workplace the bus seems to take forever and stop at every single stop (as it did today) I take this as an omen that the rest of the day will be miserable. It should be noted that I often view things that I can’t control, such as stoplights, queues and commercial breaks, as God’s way of communicating messages to me (and about me). However within this paradigm it has become apparent recently that the bus ride duration holds a heavier often more dubious weight than the other mediums. Some might call it solipsist to believe that God communicates directly to me and about me through the number of bus stops I get to bypass (or not bypass) each morning but I prefer to refer to it as a brand or perfectly normal failed transcendentalism.

I would agree though that the bus proves the pervasiveness of solipsism even in a country as polite and conformed as Japan. Actually, maybe it doesn’t prove the pervasiveness of solipsism per se, but more specifically the blatant disregard people have for other people. This is perhaps what I find most irksome about the bus and where it really gets dicey.

On Japanese buses you pay a staggered fare based on how long/far you rode the bus. In order to pay this fare, you have to pay exact change. If you don’t have exact change, there is a change machine at the front of the bus (right next to where you pay). More often than you would think college slackers, indignant seniors, and just general self-absolved jerkfaces at the back of the bus signal that they want to get off at the next stop, then only when the bus has come to a complete stop at their desired stop do they get up and saunter to the front of the bus. Once at the front they suddenly, “oh, I have to make change so I can pay my fare, Let me do this while everyone waits and watches”. Then we, the lucky fellow passengers, get to wait to while this genius makes change, sorts out how much he needs to pay, pays and then finally leave the bus. I have seen people try to hold conversations with the driver while they do this, I’ve seen people look at the change in their hand as if they are doing algebra, I have seen people pay and then stand at the top of the step and look at as if they are some 18th century sea captain surveying a new island –it’s as if they have no clue that there are other people on the bus who have places to be.

I know I sound a bit like a curmudgeon complaining about this. However, being American abroad, I am aware of our reputation as clumsy, impolite fat lazy walking cheeseburgers. In the spirit of constantly wanting to prove people wrong (whatever the dispute may be), I have tried to be acutely aware of proper etiquette and basic public decency. This means giving up my seat on the train to the elderly, holding open doors for excessively long periods of time (one time in Osaka I was worried that I would stuck there until closing) and most recently chasing after a girl through the train station who had unknowingly dropped her cellphone on the ground.

Thus, it ticks me off when it feel like I’m the only one trying over here. Never mind all the little rules I break constantly because I don’t even know them, when people don’t prepare their exact change before arriving at their bus stop it makes me feel like God hates me.

box forts
March 4, 2010, 4:32 pm
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I didn’t intend to take a month off, however it appears that’s how long it takes to move and get Internet in Japan.  Actually, it takes a few days less than that, but if complain about NTT not giving you your Internet password information for a few days while also not checking your mailbox  that is exactly how long it takes.

During the process, I have learned a couple of interesting new tidbits about Japan:

1. The moving process is not enjoyable, not in any country, not ever.

2. A fourth-floor walk-up is a fourth-floor walk up even in Japan where it seems like the stairs are miniature stairs.

3. The Ikea in Kobe is exactly like the Ikea in New Jersey which is both great and terrible.

4. In Japan you can bargain with the sales staff even in the big-box electronics stores. This really surprised; not only have I been getting ripped off but I have been missing out on the thrill of used-car dealership-type negotiations.

Still, it’s great to be in a new apartment. I have a great view of the Akashi Bridge and Awaji island in the new place. Also, I have real furniture that didn’t come with the apartment and is not bolted down in any way.

The new place considerably bigger than my old one (but still small) full of appliances, Ikea furnishings  and a bunch of empty cardboard boxes. Why do I still have all of these boxes? Because in Japan there is a proper way to do everything and in Japan that way with boxes is to cut them into tiny pieces, wrap the pieces into bundles with string and then dispose of those bundles ONLY (ONLY!) on the first Saturday of every month.  Anything else is is an insult to your neighbors (and yourself).

I find this box-disposal methodology a bit cumbersome. It’s a lot of work for something they’re probably just going to incinerate. Also, the waiting time is a far cry from New York, where you could bring anything from your apartment outside and put it on the curb at anytime of the day on any day of the week and within hours that item that you put on the curb would become part of someone else’s home. The upshot of Japan’s way of doing things is that the neighborhood doesn’t always smell like trash; my apartment however, smell like cardboard boxes. Obviously, the only viable solution is to build a box fort in my apartment and just live in the fort until the night before the first Saturday of the month, at which time the fort will have to be sieged and raised. It’s the only logical solution, but that may be the box fumes talking.