Teaching In Socks

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.

Kobe Biennale
November 16, 2009, 4:03 pm
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I’m usually not a huge fan of installation art–I find it too often grays the area between art and furniture. Not that the two mediums are mutually exclusive. Instead, I would say that it’s extremely difficult to be just a good artist or just a good interior designer. The ambitious blending of these two fields  tends to result in things like pieces of garbage hanging from the ceiling with fishing line or chairs made of broken glass.

That in mind, this weekend I went to Kobe Biennale art exhibition. The exhibition takes place at many sites through the city, however the focal point was in Meriken Park, at the Port of Kobe. There, organizers had a erected a small, improvised outdoor museum.

Origami was promised- "Origami Shrine" by Goco Tomohisa

The highlight of the Biennale was the “Art in Containers” International Exhibition. Thirty contemporary artists–all who have some connection to Kobe–were chosen, and each were tasked with creating an installation piece inside a 40 ft.  deep  shipping container.

As I said before, I am not a huge fan of installation art; however, I do think the utilization of shipping containers buoyed the effectiveness of some of these pieces. Having a defined space provided a clear segmentation between each piece while elegantly condensing and focusing some of the art in a manner that enhanced the experience.

Cardboard sculpture Buddha- "BUTSU" by Honbori Yuji

That’s not to say that I loved every piece. Some of them were the typical over-thought and under executed installations that modern art is often criticized for. There was the boring 3-D animation from the early 90’s on a wall container, and another that was simply a dark space with weird sounds. I actually didn’t stay in the any of the darkened containers  for any extended period of time. I’ve seen to many crime shows to feel safe when alone in a pitch-black shipping container; at any moment the door could slam shut and not reopen until days later some detective finds your frozen, dead body in Arkhangelsk and he then has to get in his Lieutenants face just to start making inquiries with the local organized crime syndicates.

On the whole, many of the installations were interesting. My particular favorite involved a container where the walls and ceiling were covered in tiny wall clocks. The sound of hundreds of clocks ticking simultaneous was one of those unique art experiences (clock shops excluded). Also, a in the container at the same time as me lady had the audacity to touch one of the clocks. Of course, the clock she touched and another fell off the wall and shattered on the floor.  I somehow was able to catch the entire spectacle from her initial arm extension to her sever and instantaneous reaction of regret (it’s a universal expression). I don’t really like performance art either but this was like my own private candid camera show, except for the part where she actually looked at me and I had to quickly reply “daijobu” (everything is okay).

Walk into the light

Also, this is Japan, so there was some cool large scale origami. There were other containers that had a more circus atmosphere–funny mirrors and one with just a bunch of fans and mounds of confetti that you could play in. While one might dispute the artistic endeavor of these installations, the fun quotient of them can really be debated.

watch your head

Pig Flu and Masked Men
May 18, 2009, 5:22 pm
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On Friday, the H1N1 virus hit Kobe. A high school student, who had not traveled out of the country was diagnosed with the virus, as were a number of students from other school that he came in contact with at a volleyball tournament.

I would say the Japanese response has been calm and measured, but that would be blatantly incorrect. Instead moderate to laughable panic ensues: locals schools have been given the week off (so that all the students can assemble in the mall), the news palpitates reports of a new confirmed cases, and drug stores in the area are selling out of medical masks.

I don’t want to dwell on the merits of school cancellations, or on the dangers of how mainstream news media reports/fear mongers an outbreak. I think other people have and can do that better than I can. I also will concede some of the measures taken by the Government have been responsible and logical. Also, some of the paranoia is understandable when you consider that I trapped on a densely populate island (it’s not likely divine wind would save Japan in this instance).  What I do want to talk about is the masks.

Flu season, allergy season, cold season, train rides, airplanes, nature hikes and now pandemic outbreaks: these are the places I see Japanese people wearing masks. They are ubiquitous and disconcerting at times–certain train rides trigger "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder" flashbacks.

The SARS outbreak gave me a nice sampler of this imagery, but I thought it was purely a crisis-mode phenomenon. What perplexes me the most about the mask is the amount of faith that many Japanese put in them. I understand why Surgeons wear them during an operation (to hide their identity in case something goes wrong and there is a malpractice suit), but they way Japan turns to them almost instantly and indiscriminately you imagine they’d wear them to a gunfight.

They believe it keeps a variety of germs out. They believe is keeps pollen out and prevents hay fever. They believe if you have a sore throat it keeps your throat humid and hastens recovery. They believe it prevents sore throats from dry seasons and long airplane flights.

I, however see their paper panacea as the Great Wall: it looks impressive, and probably servers some purpose, but eventually the Mongol horde, Manchu invaders or the seasonal flu virus is going to past it. The mask may have some fancy efficiency statistics but it’s a placebo with elastic bands. I’m too lazy to research the effectiveness of these masks, but I recall during flu season, a student came to class wearing a mask. He sat down right next to me and proceeded to tell me about how he had the flu yesterday, which is why he was wearing the mask.  As I listened to his muffled explanation, I could see his breath, permeating through a gap in top of the mask, fogging up his glasses giving me his germs.

I’m not sure why this is something Japan has adopted, but the west primarily has not. In some ways, I see how the mask represents a lot of characteristics of Japan. Japan is obsessed with science and medicine  (as well pseudo science) and their application to increase general health and longevity.

It’s honorable and desirable to live a long life in Japan. They also don’t as willingly accept taking a day off work or school because they are sick. In America and Europe I think we accept this as part of the cycle–and perhaps a necessary respite or therapeutic break. I don’t mean to imply the West relishes being sick, but I think we like being reminded by our body that we aren’t robots: we are people,who get sick, have some basic limitations and on occasion, must watch the Price is Right and drink sprite even if Drew Carey is untenable at times and sprite can taste like urinal cakes (I imagine, of course). I think Japan, doesn’t see it this way. Sickness is an avoidable obstacle–a distraction that is important to avoid.

I’m sure this all goes back to to the fact that Japan is about small people living in densely populated cities and depending perhaps the most labor-intensive staple crop; rice. Rice requires you to work hard, and if you get sick, everyone gets sick, rice doesn’t grow and suddenly the entire town is in trouble. In this scenario, I’d probably wear a s mask as well.

Meanwhile, America, both Corn and Wheat called, and they said you could sleep in today if you want and watch Regis and Kelly.

Try “Teaching in Socks” with Juice
January 13, 2009, 5:19 pm
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While this weekend rounded up week one of re-entry for me, Japan is very much still in the orbit of holiday bargains. I made the mistake of heading to Sannomiya and was swept up by the sea of people that had arrived with intentions of commerce.  It didn’t help that I arrived sans lunch, in the afternoon, just around tea time. It took us twenty minutes of quietly swearing to myself before we were able to find a cafe.

One of the bargain-sale traditions in Japan is to sell mystery boxes; boxes at varying price levels, only with the size marked on them– what’s inside could either be cheaper than the price you paid, or more expensive–hence a bargain. The thrill of a good gamble interested me greatly and I went looking for a box that I could roll the dice on. This search eventually took me to my favorite place, Kamo Soccer store. Unfortunately, their bargain boxes started at 5,000-yen (about $55) and ran all the way up to 20,000-yen. I stood over a 5,000-yen  level box for a while and tried to think of what mystery items in the store that I want for about sixty bucks. After about ten minutes I realized I didn’t want to waste cash on the possibility of spending it on a Christiano Ronaldo Jersey and matching hair product, or a Frank Lampard kit with matching Chelsea key Chain. Contributing money to these causes would inspire an existential crisis I did not want to begin the year with.  I headed home empty handed, I need to commit the desire to gamble on attire purchases with something less personal than football allegiances.

I did get to see my first snow (yuki) in Japan,  but it was nothing more than a few minutes of flurries. Hopefully something a bit more substantial is on the way.

Now I know there are ad wizards on both sides of the Pond Lake, but for your comedic enjoyment…. Want a healthy and exciting snack but lack culinary skills or basic concepts of creativity? Do you like taking thrilling risks such as opening doors and looking at other people’s televisions? Want to eat a cracker and get your daily serving of fruit, but are unclear or unsure of the the proper way accomplish  this? Then try Ritz crackers… with Juice!

"Ritz, setting 'mofo's' like you free since 1972"

"Ritz, setting 'mofo's' like you free since 1972"

Nabisco FAIL

American Jokes and Language Inspectors
September 29, 2008, 12:44 pm
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One for every State, Sufjan!

One for every State, Sufjan!

I found this in a used bookstore in Himeji today. How appropriate; the book’s prominent display must have been deliberate. I flipped through it, and here is the only joke I can remember offhand:

Knock Knock

Who’s there?


Aleutian who?

I need Aleutian for my feet.

Aleutian Islands jokes, brilliant!

Also, over the past few days I have seen some pretty interesting English signs.

In my Kyoto pictures, some of you may have noticed the “No Smorking” sign. I don’t know why, but “No Smorking” kills me. Personally, I propose we change the word “smoking” to “smorking” I think this potential change has countless benefits.

In Kobe the other day, I passed by a fairly fashionable pizza parlour. Outside, they had their menu written up on a chalkboard. Next to the pizza selections, there was a section with the header “Paste”. Unappealing culinary images appeared in my head. They had to mean “pasta”.  I asked my Japanese friend to confirm the the items under the header were indeed pastas and not some form of edible paste, and we both had a brief laugh.

Finally, I was in a department store in Himeji today with some friends. We were on the ground floor, Women’s Accessories, which was plastered with many signs next tables of hats reading, “Knit or Far?” I was perplexed by the possible relation of these two words. What could one have to do with the other?  I asked my Japanese friend, who looked at me like I was an idiot. “You know, Knit or Far?” Then it clicked for me, they meant “Fur”

These incidents got me thinking: I wonder if American businesses bungle the words when they produce literature in other languages?

It only took me a short time to realize this was a stupid questions. As much as I like to patriotically tote the brilliance of my homeland, we can’t even keep the “R”  in “Toys R Us” facing the correct direction. Not to mention that our understanding of our native grammar frequently has a few glaring defincies (this blog often included). Furthermore, we have Taco Bell restaurants nationwide. I’m sure the “Drive Thru” (seriously) menu at that establishment has some linguistic combinations that might be lexicogrpahy hilarious and digestively horrendous for native spanish speakers.

essentials, fringe benefits, and the beginnings of an “honor” discourse

I am currently riding the sonic waves of another productive weekend. I returned to my new favorite city, Kobe, made a deal with the devil, and found myself the new owner of a used guitar. It’s been almost two months since I’ve put my fingers to a fret so it was a relief to get back on an ax and find the chords still familiar and remember that the vocals still need work.

There may be consequences though. I fear that the trim thickness of my apartment walls and my irregular working hours might dictate that my neighbors and I a new familiarity with each other soon. I’m trying to keep the guitar fest to a minimum after midnight, but occasionally the musical urge disrupts my biological clock and I find the notes flowing at an unreasonable hour. It appears my only legitimate chance of salvation lies in the possibility that my neighbors enjoy mediocre, acoustic Stones covers and don’t own any large knives. Sadly, this is Japan, sharp knives are aplenty and my chances look slim.

I hope to go out rocking harder than ever (note to self: polish up that mean “Freebird” solo stat).

In the continued tradition of naming my larger Japanese purchases, I will name this guitar “Mr. Katana”. I was going to go with Guitarzilla, but my cell phone has already claimed “Cellzilla”, and a sequential continuation would just seem so unoriginal.

Friends in battle.

Friends in battle.

I also put my newly purchased soccer ball to use this weekend. It was an interesting experience. The field I used was large and empty, but primarily dirt. I had a few spectators in several elderly Japanese athletes who were using the surrounding track.  Between their uniform looking attire and the way the kept glancing at me with stoic faces, I kept thinking one of them was going to come inform me I needed a permit to use the field or that I wasn’t honoring the facility properly, but I kicked around and left without incident.

Games play a large role in my life in Japan and I’ve begun to relish and appreciate their presence.

I think the Japanese agree; Rock, Paper, Scissors (they call it Janken) is the preferred method of dispute resolution in Japan.  I think this is a fantastic policy.

In my classroom, I also get to play a lot of hangman and Jenga. Hangman actually could be one of the five pillars or learning. I’m not sure what the other four are, but if you want to learn a new word and ensure you remember it, fear of fictional, cartoon asphyxiation is a great motivation tool. I wrap up a class with a rousing game of hangman at least five times a week. I’m thinking about going Pro.

It’s hard to determine if my students enjoy the game anywhere near as much as I do, but as long as I have the control of the whiteboard (which is always), the scaffold and stick figure has a place on the board.

I also know what you’re thinking…JENGA? How does he get paid to play Jenga? I can’t actually take credit for this development. My previous teacher had the genius idea to write some English letters on Jenga blocks. If you make the kids pronounce the letters as they remove the corresponding blocks, you have an unstable learning structure of excitement. If given the choice, I would want to learn everything in Jenga format.  My students agree; the popularity of this game with children (and myself) is immense. I also think the fragility of the Jenga structure provides and interesting social insight.

I think it’s fair to say that most of the world looks upon Japan as a culture that champions “honor” above all other virtues.  For a number of reasons that I will address in a future post, so far, i would confirm this assessment as generally accurate.

However, people often misinterpret the attributes and jurisdiction of Japanese “honor”.



I think that several of my friends are the assumption that my child students are incredibly well-behaved due to this invisible honor specter that keeps them in line. This is not the case, or if it ever was the case, the powers of the ghost are eroding with younger generation (very possible this is the case). It appears in the majority of the “developed” world, the days of regimented, militaristic instilling of obedience to authority have ceased. (debate this and the virtues of such practices on your own time).

Honor is very alive in Japanese society, but my younger students are no more well-behaved or disobedient than children I was in charge of at summer camps in America. Even with Jenga–attraction number one for these kids, I still have classes where the average game lasts less than two minutes because there is the kid (or kids) that achieves enjoyment in sabotaging the tower every chance he gets.  Through clenched teeth or anger and disappointment, I appreciate the cultural similarity.

I want to share some other encounters I have had with the Japanese honor system– in didactic enterprise, eating and politics, as they have been extremely relevant as of late, but they will have to wait as the require their own separate and esteemed post….

Sometimes Japan is like the Lake of the Ozarks…
September 5, 2008, 5:46 am
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You have to love a good poor translation:

convenient for lovers of Boats and women.

convenient for lovers of Boats and women.

and a Mcdonalds next door! “New Open”!!!!