Monthly Archives: September 2009

On things consuming other things

I swear to god I’m gonna die, for about three seconds, every morning I walk to school.  There is this one dude’s house that I walk by, and he must have some kinda goddamned dog-repelling device or something.  This high-pitched noise just wrecks me whenever I walk by, then when I leave it’s gone.  Maybe it is an American-repellant as well?  It would not surprise me to discover that there is some sort of ¥90,000 device that you can buy that emits unpleasantly high frequencies to prevent animals from hanging around your place, and it would surprise me even less to discover this man has purchased and uses one to protect his lawn (it is the most meticulously groomed I have personally seen in this country, and I catch him sometimes outside bent over primming and trimming his masterwork).  To assume such things is of course to ignore the plain fact that he has erected a fence of brick and steel around the entire perimeter of the plot, with a wrought-iron sliding gate in front.  Maybe the high frequencies are just to discourage little doggy or neko-chan: you hear this shit?  If you can get in, you are not getting out (I am not afraid of eating you as a component of my traditional breakfast).

Last Friday, somewhere around a thousand stairs into the side of Kompira-san, a massive staircase up the side of a mountain, lined with vendors that taper off as they give way to a liberal assortment of shrines and temples–and the nearly-sole attraction of the tiny town of Kotohira (aside from the train stations in and out)–we spot a stone statue of a turtle.  He’s got a few 1-yen coins on him, and I can’t tell if he’d appreciate or deride those who place such worthless trinkets on him.  It is a monetary gift, at least, to the turtle, and who could fault the by-and-by wallet-weary trekkers?  By now, even the most stingy among them has reached in for coinage a dozen times, every shrine inviting currency, to be justly delivered with a hollow wooden-box thud and, if one is hardy, a hand-clap and bow.

She reaches out to him and I wonder if he’ll pop his head out and snap.  I consider what horrible misfortunes might befall me if I were to take one of the useless coins.

The view at the top of the mountain, after another three-hundred some odd steps, is stupid, which I mean in reference to dumbfoundment: no man should be allowed to look upon anything from this high, lest he begin to ponder his tiny existence.  Precisely, I assume that is the allure: check out how worthless you are, now drop that coin, while you’re at it care for a charm of protection only five-hundred yen?

To say it was an experience would be about exactly right–more meaningful having quested there by our own means on foot with thin hollow bamboo walking sticks lent from a feisty elderly woodworker near the bottom of the mountain, where the vendors still number in the high dozens and the prices of cold drinks are expectedly proportional to the altitude.  I was neither dumbstruck nor underwhelmed: so this is what it’s like up here, is it? Now time to get back.

The turtle silently mocks me on my trip down the mountain.  He has the right idea: get up here once, stick around, and enjoy life as people place money on you and fear taking it lest they be cursed.

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Chewy noodles and modern art

I am primarily drunk (and partially sunburned) in a hotel room on Shikoku, an apparently oft-forgotten section of Japan composing its midsection, an island just off the coast of the mainland, accessed by a four-hour trip on “Jumbo Ferry” from Kobe. We caught it at 5:00 on Wednesday, and that’s not P.M., after sprinting across the bridge over the bay from Port Terminal, where we thought the ferry would be docked (but it wasn’t).

In Shikoku specifically, we are in Takamatsu, the main northern port town, and the first step into a region most known for their special food: sanuki udon, a variant on the nigh-ubiquitous wheat noodle, more chewy here and served most often in what registers to this admittedly neophyte pallet as a broth a bit sweet when stacked against other udons. The shit we had the pleasure of chomping on shortly after arrival was something just barely short of what I’d call revelatory, with free tempura clumps topping it elevating it to the level of Emminently Consumable.

This is to say nothing of the not-Japanese foods we’ve eaten while we’ve been here, including (but of course, not limited to,) the greatest Indian meal I personally have ever tasted in my life, a multi-course affair including a well-dressed salad, deep fried curried-potato pockets with chili sauce, a tandoori chicken plate with still sizzlin’ onions, and the pietze de triomphe, dual curries of impossible flavor accompanied by both cheese-stuffed and traditional naan.

But on the topic of food I frequently digress, and it’s not the topic I intended at all–that is to say, we are on vacation for the national holiday called “Silver Week,” and it happens this year (as it does once every six) to comprise a series of national holidays that occur in rapid succession on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, with convenient work-free days also occurring on Saturday and Sunday, and for me anyway, on this following Thursday and Friday (and, by extension, the subsequent Saturday and Sunday), due to prior relief from would-be work commitments, re: compensatory vacation as a result of compulsory attendance at the annual school sports day and a carefully requested day of Friday “nenkyu,” which is the Japanese term for a paid day off (the assistant language teacher of my persuasion receives twenty per year, only a fraction of which might be realistically requested when considering the Japanese workplace and its resistance to one’s shirking one’s duties)!

As a respite from the domicile in Kobe, we have decided to Connect with other sections of Japan, and this trip has been most exciting: by design, in only a mere two days here, we’ve:

Ferried under the longest suspension bridge in the world,
Seen the most famous(?) park in Japan (Ritsuren-koen),
Visited the ruins of a decommissioned castle,
Rented bikes at a hundred yen each and used them to cart all over the city,
Eaten the tastiest udon and curry I’ve personally ever had,
Ferried to Naoshima, a tiny northerly island, and seen art by Monet (and an assortment of icey “Modern Artists”),
Said hello to cats wandering the streets,
Immersed ourselves in peculiar Japanese programming,
and a variety of other things.

Tomorrow morning we leave for Kotohira, a tiny town of no more than a few thousand residents, and most known for its famous Kompira-san, an ancient temple making up part of a complex that is reached after ascending 785 steps (so says this particular guidebook), which can provide an impetus to visit certain attractions on the way, including but not limited to Asahi-no-Yashiro, the sunshine shrine honoring the sun goddess Amaterasu. Tomorrow night we are staying in a ryokan, a traditionally-styled lodging, which contains six rooms, and where we will dine on also-traditional breakfast and dinner.

I’ll put pictures of everything up once we’re back, honest. For now, in front of me on television, people are hawking Wii Fit Plus and Monster Hunter Tri. Also, apparently season three of Heroes is on DVD, and Shiseido shampoo will transform you into an attractive Japanese woman? I am busy with my lemon-flavored alcoholic beverage, purchased for 190 yen from a vending machine right outside my door. Their efforts, sadly, may be a trifle in vein.

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The early dawn, the shades of time

The conversations of my world occupy a strange battleground between background noise and inescapable linguistic immersion: at times so impenetrable as to be no greater than trying to understand the language of crows, and at other times glimmering with rare brilliance.  This is what nothing sounds like, this is what everything sounds like.

I try not to talk too much about school in here, but today at my school for students needing special attention in regards to their visual and mental capacities (as close as I can put it to the Japanese, in English), I was shown how to do a special folk dance by three kids, and how to do the “radio stretch,” which you may be familiar with from seeing a huge field of Japanese youth doing stretches while a voice barks out over some series of speakers.  They taught me so that on Saturday I can attend their school’s sports day and participate in the activities. At lunch in the cafeteria we had Mapo Doufu, a dish consisting almost entirely of huge chunks of tofu, which I somehow ate happily and totally enjoyed (one of my fellow educators suggested a way I could cook it at home and make it more spicy than the tame version they served to the kids here, as “Mapodon,” or this dish over rice, or in other words, right up my alley). I drink milk out of a glass bottle here. Just now a little girl and her teacher came in and sang a song then the girl used the keyboard and I listened to it say those mechanical letters outloud, once more with every tap of a key, a a a a a a a a i i i i i i i i i u u u u u u u u u u u u u e e e e e e e o o o o o. One teacher says she will be my mother while I am here, and brings me cookies and shows me how to use the hot green tea machine. A small boy in a wheel chair asks questions and has full conversations with me about Michael Jackson in better English than several of the teachers can speak. He is completely blind and has the use of three fingers.

My ability for the language waxes and wanes like any sensible moon: today I fully read the two kanji for “densha,” meaning train (電車), and so what if it’s only cause I know them as part of a Japanese TV drama series. The full context I saw them in was as the name of a sports day activity on our program called DENSHA DE GO! which barely means anything, but pretty much translates into GO BY TRAIN! It is a game for kindergarteners, and involves them I think holding onto each other and running around like a big train. I will also see how to play “floor volleyball,” and “soft baseball,” which are both modifications allowing the sightless to participate in some of the most popular of Japanese sports.

Last night I cooked an honest to goodness double hamburger in my fry pan from some store-purchased after-20:00 half-price ground beef, coated it in black and white pepper for that authentic Japanese burger flavor (really, their burgers are all peppered), then melted shredded cheese on it and nommed it with ketchup. Aside from the occasional ¥320 box of imported Mac and Cheese, it was probably the closest I’ve gotten to replicating the flavor of America for my own tastebuds in the last 47-odd days. I savored every bite, and washed it down with a totally American Yebisu All-Malt Beer and a Caramel Salt Kit Kat.

I’ve put a combined 32 hours of gameplay time into Dissidia: Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core (two PSP games) in the last three weeks or so.  I basically only play on the train, which gives you an idea where most of my (and many Japanese people’s) time goes.  The sick part is how much I love it.

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Little Shop of Horrors

“A little weird, so…”  He gestures to my nose, points what looks like an airbrush at my face.  To numb me, he says, to numb the insides, the nasal canal.

I have told him about the problems I sometimes have with my right ear, the way everyone’s voices become echoey, the way I can hear my heartbeat, hear myself breathe, that moving my jaw around like I’m some sort of dead-faced Mask-era Jim Carrey makes it occasionally start or stop.  I’m at a Japanese hospital, one that even touts itself as international.  Like all places and services tolerant of and/or designed for foreigners in Japan however, today I’m the only American there.

He sprays it up there, the little paint well filled with piss-colored anesthetic, some primordial nasal date rape to get me acquainted with the idea of his foot-long thick-spaghetti-sized endoscope travelling up (and then down) my nose/throat/whatever.  I literally see him lube it up in front of me, but I’m looking past the blob of viscous gloop and to the TV monitor, upon which is projected the image from the end of the endoscopic camera.  “Maybe we can even take a look at your vocal cords,” he says gleefully as he slides it in.  I watch him part the hairs of my nose from inside, a red sea, then vague images of pulsing matter.  “Your eustachian tubes are fine!”  A droplet of cold lube drips down from one nostril but I cannot speak or move, all Neo-from-the-Matrix only the fucking thing is down my throat instead of in a port at the back of my neck.  I can’t remember if I’m breathing, the images get stranger and stranger as I start focusing less on the TV and more on the fact that I just want the goddamned thing out, but he cannot get enough.  “Look at this!  Do you see this opening!  This is where blah blah blah whatever man I want it out.  I cough on it, feels like someone’s got a hunk of Twizzlers stuffed down there, but this man is all glee.

“Remember we said we’d look at your vocal cords!”  He shoves it down further and I’m being mined for precious ore, all I can muster is a vague gesture, an anemic dual-handed kung-fu push-off, a geriatric Hadouken, eyes half-squinted but transfixed on the peculiar images on TV, pull it out pull it out jesus christ!

“Look at the vocal cords!  Say one two three four five!  AHAHAH!!!!”  He is actually literally saying this.  He is a maniac.  Then he says “enough?” as he twists the fucking thing, I am gagging, there is a Wendy’s Frostie maker in my sinuses, then it’s out like a T-1000 metal rod, gel dripping out my nose.

All I can muster is a “jeez, sorry.”  His expert diagnosis: we don’t have any specific treatment, whoops!  I tell him, I need to, you know, I gotta talk to teach, I gotta hear the volume of my voice.  He laughs!  He laughs at me!  “Maybe your own solution works well enough,” he says, and I assume he’s referring to my swinging my jaw around like it’s connected with a slack balljoint.  I tell him no, no it doesn’t really, and that is it.  In Japan I pay only 30% of the bill for their trouble, a scant ¥810 for the privledge of violation.  I have, upon further review, made far worse personal decisions in this life than this.

Later, after being “cured,” I sought retail therapy with Jessy.  We came away with a festival bounty, Mark III, a ten-ton walrus stuffed with goodies:  UNIQLO clothing.  A book and DVD set about a Japanese cat named Maru (book title “I am Maru”) who is famous for being lazy, sliding in boxes, and doing stupid shit while looking cute, or in other words, famous for being a cat.  Two separate ass-whipping gashapons (Eva Unit 01 and a “Lunar Rabbit” girl Mina with a giant carrot weapon), the best ones of each set on our first try.  A bag full of snacks from “Donki,” which is a store which bears the actual name for some reason of “Don Quixote.”  Chicken and egg okonomiyaki, a variety of dumb shit from the 100-yen store, and a spicy homemade stir-fry donburi capped the evening.

At night, I listen for the wails of the doctor, and sense the slick black endoscopic plastic slithering along my tatami.  It cries “this is not the last time, this is not the end.”

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In My Life

This is every morning around 8:20, as I pass the shrine and crane my neck to see if the cats are here. There is a white one and a striped one. Sometimes the white one sleeps on the rock, sometimes he is just in the dirt. In the morning, the two of them rarely patrol the streets but today I catch the striped one crossing back from the photograph place. The Powers That Be seem to actively dislike the cats’ presence, putting up signs telling people who read Japanese not to feed them. They place full water bottles strategically around the perimeter, a non-confrontational approach designed to ensure the cats somehow see glimmering light or their reflection and are horrified to the point that they will never return. The same method is employed to prevent pigeons (hanging shiny CDs from string on your balcony), who to be fair are mostly stupid, and cats are on to your bullshit. It obviously does not work. I wonder what they are getting into when they are gone: rummaging through the impeccably bagged trash, terrorizing those stupid birds, snaking the hallways behind Mister Donut. At night on the way back to the station I take a look for them too, another seasonal fifty-fifty lottery chance like all the stupid gashapon machines I play. When they are there I’ve won for five seconds, look at the cats, look at the cats, time to keep walking.

In front of one of the alcohol vending machines (yes), there is a squishy green mat. I had walked over it every day for weeks because it was placed at such a nice break point in my walk, and it felt good under my brown work-things. One morning I was early enough to see the store keeper hit a button, lurch his metal garage door to life, declare his store open. At the door’s halfway he emerged with a squishy green mat and put it in front of the alcohol machine. I don’t walk on it anymore.

In the Sannomiya station sometimes there is a man with a traditional cone straw hat who seems inaudible until you are within fifteen feet, and then you hear the “ommmmmmmmmm” from his throat, the solemn gaze he gives out in front of him, through the escalator, like he’s eternally pondering the Sukiya menu, the gyudon or the cheese curry rice, what do I pick, oh jeez, omm. I am afraid if he makes his choice his glance will turn to me, and he will analyze the deepest faults of my inner character. For now it seems he is content to solicit donations for a cause that surely must be important enough to scare everyone who walks by. One day it was a lady, but I don’t think that helped.

Tonight my teachers are having a party for me at an “izakaya,” which is a Japanese-flavored drinking and snacking establishment where one pays a flat fee, and in exchange can drink mainly anything they want, and as much of it as they want, for a certain amount of time. There are also snacks routinely delivered to the table. In partial English muxed with worthless Japanese myself and another man made it clear to each other that we are individually Very Fans of The Beatles, and that the new remasters are excellent. One person said that he is very familiar with sake, and I think through someone’s errant translation he was told that I have a drinking problem. More alarming was his look of pleasure and excitement. I think tonight could either be really horrible, or really horrible.

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Tamago Double Mac out, Tsukimi Burger in

As with all things Japan, the obsessive seasonality of the culture has infiltrated.  Lately is it McDonald’s, which is not only ubiquitous here but popular, because every Japanese kid loves a hamburger (I know, they told me).  They are also really cheap.

Recently, McDonald’s of Japan has come under fire for their “racially insensitive caricature” Mr. James, who is an idiot tourist who came to Japan solely to eat the four new sandwiches that they are rolling out during the summer and fall this year.

You may recall Jessy and I trying the scrumptious Tamago Double Mac earlier. Here is a photograph of what it looks like when you order it, shortly before you stuff it in your head:

If you wanted to try one, and are visiting Japan soon, too fucking bad! Since nothing is ever available here for more than a month, you are totally screwed. What you can try, however, is the new hotness: the second of four sandwiches in the “Nippon All Stars” limited sandwich line-up.

THE TSUKIMI BURGER (literally, the “moon-viewing burger”). It just came out today! It is basically a hamburger with a fried egg, bacon, and a special MOON VIEWING SAUCE on it, which I theorize is made of hand lotion and bleach.

(This is a picture of someone else’s from last year. Apparently it is a fall tradition!)

Anyway, I cannot goddamned wait to try one of these things. Luckily I walk past a McDonald’s store in the train station nearly every single day. Soon, burger, we will view the moon together, and then I will take a bite out of you.

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Is this the real life

Did I suddenly run out of things to write?

Life has become more normal.  Now that we are able to relax at home, normal-life things are no longer so alarming!  What is interesting is that I am finally teaching real actual classes with real actual students in them.  I teach at a few different places, which is interesting: I teach kids who have been given disadvantages by the world who speak fantastic English.  I teach kids who have everything and don’t even try.  I teach kids who know it all and are so shy they won’t look up from their desks.  I teach kids who know nothing but want so badly to learn that they never stop talking.  Every class, every lesson is something new, a brand new job every single day to adapt to, take on differently, and look back on with fresh regard.

I think that’s what I enjoy so much about teaching, the thing I never really thought about before: your “career” is not always about some sort of grand final ambition, the ultimate task.  Sometimes it is less defined, more simple: today, I am doing something new.  Every day I am doing something new.  It is discomforting, unsettling, but perfect.  The nerves of what cannot be anticipated begin to fade.  Instead of lamenting the unknown I embrace it because it is an inevitability.  I am perpetually aware that I am the outsider, the American, the tall white guy who every single kid thinks is cool (or an idiot) just cause he’s different.  It wears off on me, I feast on their curiosity.  I am my own brand new enigma, unravelled to every class differently, at my own pace.  To me this is what I always intended when I considered the idea of changing my life by coming here.  Not just the things I do but the way I approach events, thought processes, attitudes.  It’s exciting!

Also, there are so many snack foods and candies and chips and dried fish jerkies and restaurants that I could never try them all.  I can get a new drink from the vending machines every day for months. 

We are anticipating the delivery of an IKEA as-is clearance mattress which is in perfect shape but was returned by someone and stuck in the clear-it-out room for ¥9900.  It is a glorified futon, and I can’t wait to wake up without feeling like my spine is made of walnuts.

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