Monthly Archives: October 2009

I do declare!

There’s this one black cat that I see every day I go to my main school, and he’s usually hangin’ out in this parking lot where he sleeps under a car or lies in the sun or on the windowsill. Sometimes he’ll wander across the street to this empty overgrown lot and just pounce around on shit. I wonder sometimes if he is there all night, all day, every day, if the trash pick-up area right out front serves as his food source. What reason could he ever have to leave?

I’ve been trying to think of the reasons I’d have to leave (Japan), just to play the advocate of devilry. It is a mostly stupid hypothetical musing, because I have no desire to leave, and because here I have a job, and enjoy my life. But here are some things that I wish were more available: really spicy food, cheap pizza, huge packs of meat, American football and ice hockey, really good beer (these go together), Family Members (aw).

But most of the things that I miss (and I use the term miss loosely, only to mean things that I can no longer engage in on a level that I am used to) are commercial. Activities like
– reading the ingredient lists on packages,
– fully understanding the numerous “point card” shopper reward systems and how I might best take advantage of them,
– possessing full awareness of restaurant menus and the items contained in the offered dishes,
– and best utilizing the quirky and numerous technology based conveniences fully (including but not limited to cell phone GPS, cell phone e-book reader, cell phone wireless train ticket payment system, cell phone music player, and other various things having to do with my cell phone).

None of these are deal-breakers. Despite our modern conveniences, we live a relatively minimalistic life here, and are afforded great conveniences by being in the middle of a large, bustling city with an entrenched English-speaking community of like-minded peers.

There is one thing that I wish was a little more simple though:

– placing reservations/pre-orders for anticipated products, most specifically the upcoming mega-behemoth Final Fantasy XIII Lightning-edition PlayStation 3 system bundle.

To the uninitiated, who I would anticipate are in no position to know of or read this website, and probably should not for any reason, every few years a new video game in the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest series comes out here and the country is driven to a grinding productivity halt as enormous masses of people line up orderly and courteously for dozens of miles (ok not exactly) to get their hands on the juicy new title the moment it comes out. The newest one is the Thirteenth Installment in the Final Fantasy series, which I have been playing since the First Installment as a little tyke back in the early 90s on my big fat Nintendo. The makers of this game have seen it fit to create a special version of the PlayStation 3 system in honor of this bizarre milestone, and sell it together with a copy of said game. Having watched this madness from the outside through magazines and the Internet my entire life, and currently owning no PS3, I have decided that participation is the only choice!

If I already had a PS3 system and just wanted the game, I could be clinically retarded in a variety of ways and still manage to get one, probably. There are signs and advertisements all over the electronics stores, game shops, and even a variety of convenience stores, at which I could probably merely stumble to the counter, slap a ¥10,000 note on the tray, and say “Fainaru Fantajii SAATIIN GET ONEGAI SHIMAAAAAAS” (though such actions would likely cause my own body to self-destruct).

But I don’t, and so the only problem is figuring out how exactly one participates in the process of commercially declaring one’s intention to reserve not a copy of the game so popular that you can buy it at your local 7-11, but a Special Limited Edition System Bundle which is not pictured in any of the massive identical posters that hang from any number of surfaces and which I learned of due to my enthusiasm for specialist video game media. Jessy and I gave it a sporting conversational try (or should I say she tried, while I stood anxiously behind her trying to understand what was being said, biting my fingers and bobbing up and down), but had no luck until recently, when we discovered a new laminated placard in the RESERVATION KIOSK bearing a picture of the bundle and saying something like (we think) “orders for this item start on November 5th.” We got ourselves a membership card and I put the day on my calendar. The cashier said don’t worry, you will be able to get one, but I don’t trust him. I hear they are selling quickly, and I will be Damned if some punk gets one and I don’t (also I will murder him and take it).

So I guess I’ll just show up on the 5th and gesture wildly? These are situations in which a greater command of the language might be fortunate. Things like my actual job, paying bills, buying groceries? No problem! Popular but peculiar cultural pastimes: a bit more difficult. I figure, if I can get my students to bark with “woof woof” at each other like American dogs, I can figure out how to exchange money for this particular good. A suspenseful conflict awaits, avid readers!

Since I am already thinking about video games, perhaps it would be prudent to remark on the amount of free time I now have to play them. Let me just say that I took my fifteen-minutes-on-foot commute to work in Pittsburgh for granted. A fifty- to sixty-minute walk/train commute to work each way isn’t bad (and I can even get in a little time on the handheld games while I ride), but waking up early in the morning and going to bed early in the evening is certainly a bit of an antithesis of the way I had gotten used to living my life over the last three years, a life composed largely of strolling in for my ten hour workday at noon, staying up far too late with whatever happened to be distracting me, and sleeping in to my heart’s content, with Friday off and the weekends free. Now I have this thing called a live-in significant other (though the apartment is in her name, so does that mean I am the live-in?), a forty-hour five-day workweek, supper for two to cook (or otherwise acquire) every night, and one television (which needs to be either used at the same time or traded off). For some reason this combination of elements has resulted in my personal perception of having far less available “now I can be lazy” time than I am used to, and has led me to understand maybe why the handheld games are more popular in this country than the big TV ones: you gotta be home to play those, and your family in your tiny one-TV apartment wants to do something other than watch you shoot guys and level up (I have been watching Jessy level up her Lost Odyssey characters for over thirty hours in the last few weeks now, and it is a Disheartening other side of the coin).

Where is the time? How am I supposed to stay up late when I wake up at six, and how am I supposed to get up early to play before work when I wake up at six? More importantly, should it always be my goal to somehow find more time to play video games, when there are other things that I like doing too?

I think maybe that black cat has the answers, which is why I’m thinking that one of these days I’m going to sneak that can of tuna I got at the Daiso with me to school, then crack it open for him on my way home, and ask him what he thinks, how he is able to live such a totally chill kinda life. I know that a lot of people here frown on eating in public, but I saw an old man slurping some oden out front of the toy store today, and cats are just cats, and this tuna was already here, wakarimasen, sumimasen, I don’t speaking any Japanese sorry bye.

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Up and autumn

It’s feeling a lot like fall in Japan, which apparently means it’s time to roll out the seasonal goodies: rich cocoa flavored Pocky and chocolate-covered almonds, big signs proclaiming something I can’t read (but mostly they are fall-colored), FALL SALES!! (save 5% on this sandwich), Mushrooms In Stuff, and, at my school anyway, the cool winter uniforms and the quaint predisposition to chopping off the branches on all the schoolyard trees so there aren’t any leaves that need to be cleaned up? (An article I read a while back about some other town doing this same thing leads me to believe it’s not just isolated thinking, bizarre as it may be.) The street vendors are out selling their roasted chestnuts and I don’t in the slightest object to the aromas, all sugary on the crispy breeze as the hellfires of summer Japan finally seem to slink primarily away for the rest of the year.

What it also means is midterms for the kids, who I now routinely see cramming information into their gooey liquid centers while huddled about in any number of hallways or nooks, being explicitly forbidden to enter the teachers’ office lest they catch a glimpse of that forbidden fruit in the form of the fabled answer key. I personally have participated by way of lending my million-dollar pronunciation skills to audio recordings of strange dialogues in which I, Hiroshi, help a lost tourist find his way to a local shrine, and tell one man via telephone that I am interested in throwing a party for his brother, but could move it to Saturday if Friday is not good. These incidents eerily echo events that routinely occur in my normal daily life and the lives of many native English speakers that I know.

To follow up on something I referenced last time: we did indeed hold our “community dinner,” and after a variety of errors and frantic adaptation, I prepared platters of three specifically nontraditional sushi rolls. The first of these was the Hamburger Roll, with cheese sandwiched in-between pieces of meat, and surrounded with Mac-esque thousand island dressing, lettuce, pickles, and sesame seeds. Locating thousand island dressing was easier than I had planned, due to the peculiar propensity of producers to put in numerical form “1000 Island Dressing” on the bottles all squished in there between kanji I can’t read. The pickles, strangely, proved elusive. Though the standard Japanese box lunch will often contain a wide variety of pickled items so strange as to be confounding (try playing “Is This Fish Or Not” and enjoy being wrong), the familiar old “pickle,” in the form of one pickled cucumber, is difficult to find. Eventually I did, near the scant offerings of canned vegetables and the considerable offerings of canned fish (one of which I inexplicably purchased): a tiny, solitary jar of baby sweets for the bargain price of what I could buy a jar much larger for back in the States.

The other rolls proved easier, as I had already obtained the tricky necessities for each one: the parmesan cheese for a sauteed crab/mushroom/parm roll, and the peanut butter in a modern-day retelling of the legend of the ants on their log–banana, raisins, and peanut butter all squished inside a roll and slightly frozen.

This banana roll was apparently the far and away hit among the visitors to our apartment, even though every piece of every roll was gone by the time the herd left my house–I will take their second- and third-hand word for it: I was either too drunk or too distracted to actually try any of them outside of the mistakes I made during preparation. At any rate I have no desire to smell as much nori (translator’s note: seaweed) wrapping as I did in the timespan of the few hours it took me to prepare sushi rolls for twenty-two twenty-somethings.

But all this is rather boring in the scheme of things, when considering the following: we were the recipients of a grandmother-sent enormous box of macaroni and cheese dinners the other day, something like a dozen, which was such a comforting sight that we immediately prepared a box of spirals having just finished eating supper no less than a couple of hours prior. Some particular commendation is in order when considering the massive expenses one must incur to send such cheap goods such a long way–tangibly grateful, we will savor every noodle with the American appreciation of expensive imported two-dollar ramen packets, rare Kewpie mayo, and now-unavoidable Pocky, from the other side of the coin.

Daily life ebbs strangely from level to chaotic–I’m past the point of being able to say that things will “eventually settle down,” because this is my three months so far, and I’ve never not had much to do. I even find myself occasionally joyful at missing the fast train and being stuck on the slower, local one: here are a few more minutes to play a game on my DS. Sometimes I’ll even get off at the stop and just sit on a chair like I’m waiting for another train, but I totally am not, and just need to kill another evil video shrimp or two.

There are elements of the flitting simplicity of this life that I have come to love, even as I see the ever-creeping threats of continual business or permanence changing them just like the season: enough forks and spoons to get by, but more show up somehow, always, with furniture, real lighters instead of stove-fired chopsticks for candles, more paper goods, with stockpiled food, with a paycheck and electronics and little toys and tangible knowledge and Internet access and saran wrap and cleaning supplies and extra towels and a case of canned coffee. The tiny array of elements that had to be so artfully managed upon arrival pulse outside the borders of their numbers to ones that only make sense to me as “enough not to worry about them” anymore. It’s a blessing and a curse, as micromanagement has always been rather tiresome, but keeps one’s mind off the lazy time-sucks of the world in favor of the more difficult and rewarding ones–in a world without conveniences we would all surely seek to damn our chores, but in one with too many the allures to be gobbled up by them persist in strange ways! I continually seek to stave off these laze-bringing impulses by committing myself to certain enjoyable and fulfilling pursuits: the preparation of homecooked meals, the writing in this very Nomaday, the rare contributions to the video game website, concerted efforts in lesson conception, occasional cultural pilgrimages, fighting the peculiar desire to go the same, functional way home or to work every day or to buy the same thing from the konbini. They work, but some of them only in so much as that they make me a trifle uncomfortable, which I suppose is what I am usually after, as a means to new comforts, anyway. Still on the list: get some more Japanese clothes, buy some kind of musical instrument, study this language regularly, make udon from scratch, etc.

And despite the come and go and to and fro, or maybe because of it, yet and yet, life seems happier, at least, with so many of the desires of even a year-ish ago mainly realized: it’s not hard to remember what things were like last October as separately we decided to put together applications and put things into storage, to see if we might move to a new apartment or a new country. Ironically the one that seemed so much easier back then is difficult to imagine anymore, as the place we now live relentlessly marches towards becoming our home.

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Sake it to me

Thanks to the overnight sleeper-bus “Southern Cross,” we arrive here in Hiroshima at an unprecedented hour: 7:00 a.m. or thereabouts, standing at the base of what they call quite descriptively “the Atomic Bomb Dome.”  Not too far from the hypocenter of the blast, this place has been meticulously preserved to remain precisely as it was left on the day of the bombing, and I can’t imagine too concretely that it doesn’t.  Over there’s the target, the T-shaped bridge used as a sight-up by the pilots from the air.  There’s barely anyone around this early, not even the swarms of American cruise-line tourists have arrived yet.  We joke about how many of them will pose in front of this thing with a thumbs-up–check it out, look where I am!!

While we wait for the museum proper to open we chomp on donburi at nearby order-from-a-ticket-machine 24-hour establishment Nakae, where at 8:15, to commemorate the exact moment that the thing exploded, I eat gyudon in a modern building in an area that even an educated bystander would be unable to recognize as one where anything out of the ordinary happened. In the museum they talk about how people were instantly vaporized, run demo reels of atomic bomb tests, show scale models of the blast range before and after. You can even touch certain artifacts recovered from the debris (you can touch these, they are safe), convenient Japanese/English placards read.

But we too, are bastards, here under false pretenses: though we are intrigued by the dome, the visiting of the memorials and the museum, the park, the paper cranes–and perhaps because of them–we really want to drink.  You see, though we may have come for the depression, we stay to also blow it to oblivion with lots of sake at the annual Hiroshima Sake Matsuri, a ridiculous extravaganza of which this is the 20th, and admission to which costs about fifteen bucks and gets us each a tiny sake cup.  From here the massive hordes walk around a tremendously crowded park-turned-fair, with occasionally placed booths separated by regions of Japan (Shikoku, Kinki, Chubu, etc).  At each one you hold your cup out and have it filled by an attendee with Some Kind Of Sake.  Apparently there exists some sort of method to determine which of the literally several hundreds you have already tried.  It seems a feat so counter-intuitive in its implementation that it must simply exist as some sort of elaborate Japanese joke–after eight or twelve or fifteen gulps of sake you cannot remember (or care) which ones you’ve tried, or how many, or from where, and to attempt to chart your progress would be an endeavor most meaningless.  I imagine fair organizers laughing heartily as they black-magic-marker off certain wines from the entrance list, organized by call letters and code names most menacing:  “Yamanake-san! H-32 is all gone!  Sure it is!  AHAHAHA!!!!” while the solemnly OCD checklist makers weep silently in the corner, then stop caring cause they are all so blitzed they don’t even know what checklists are anymore.

At and around the vicinity of this fair, we eat steak on a stick, deep-fried battered chicken meat with skin still attached all hot and bubbly, a tray of yakisoba, an ice cream bar, and maybe some other stuff?  I drink lots of sake.  As I wait near the exit for Jessy, I witness one stumbly-Joe drop his tiny sake cup and immediately stagger backwards, stepping right on it, while his friends try to hold him up.  One younger woman bends over to pick up the two halves of the neatly destroyed cup and I wonder maybe if the souvenirs from past Sake Matsuris are perhaps more quaint if they are left on a shelf busted in half: here’s the one from the year I drank a lot of sake, and here’s the one from the year I drank really a lot of sake, and here is the one that etc. etc. etc.

Deftly navigating the trains half-catatonic back to the city proper among hordes of like-minded individuals is a feat justly rewarded by our viewing of music-oriented stage production Blast!, which is performed by a cadre of talent including a way-back trumpet-playing acquaintance of Jessy’s. Meeting up with him outside the venue afterwards has to rank up there with the experiences I’ve had most resembling those I would have if I were in some way notable or famous, as simply Looking American while hanging around talking to him ensures I am accosted by swarms of schoolkids, elderly music enthusiasts, and passers-by tugging on my jacket to say “burasuto!” or hold up their program and a pen for an autograph. No, no, I’m nobody, do I even resemble anyone you’ve seen before? I should have signed their programs anyway, if only for the amusement. “American guy,” the most famous and rare of the Blast! entourage!

I have considered including a feature in upcoming Nom installments in which I recap notable tweets of the last week or so. It occurs to me that I often merely throw up a quick picture or tweet of items and events that maybe are worth writing about, but are relegated to a recent-few notification list on my sidebar or a fleeting stint as a Facebook status. I have been informed that however revelatory, my grandmother is now reading my Internets by way of a family member who creates printouts of this text and delivers them in person. (Hello from Kobe, Grandma!) She probably misses a good amount of the short Twittery updates, as do more infrequent readers or fly-by-night Google searchers inexplicably pointed in my direction.

I assure the rest of my readers that this knowledge will not do a disservice to my speech or content. I think Grandma is familiar with colorful language, even in black and white!

This weekend we are taking part in some sort of community luncheon/dinner, which I believe operates thusly: all participants prepare some portion of what could be considered a meal, and leave it stable in their apartment while they meet up with everyone else. From here, the swarm moves from place to place, cutely complimenting each abode while munching on the food they prepared. I am not one to take such a challenge lightly, and will be straining my culinary skills of experimentation to the breaking point by preparing a variety of totally bizarre sushi rolls. I see this meet-and-greet as a perfect opportunity to experiment on my own secret project in the form of a long-planned and carefully guarded sushi-roll secret recipe. To execute it carefully would be to ascend to the highest echelons of supreme notoriety, while to let the information fall into the wrong hands could be disastrous. The only question is where am I going to find American-style processed cheese in Kobe? I might need to do some exploring.

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As American as rotten breakfast soybeans

This is my second Japanese sports day, but surely my first “traditional” one, which is to say, the sports day which is a product of an entire body of students at one of the most prestigious high schools in the prefecture:

J-pop blaring, multi-dozen hundred meter relays, shirtless boys holding each other up like men riding on horseback lunging for each other’s hats, groups of students charging to grab tug-of-war sticks and pull them back to their own sides, a ten-minute club march with every person clad in full kendo/swimming/mountain climbing/tennis playing gear, a fully coordinated short-skirt dance-team cheering to the High School Musical theme song and spelling the name of my school with their pompoms while the gymnastics team tumbles to-and-fro.  Ceremony, oh god the ceremony, opening, closing, awards… but barely a time mentioned, and less made of the competition than of the teamwork: together you are everything.  There is barely condition for what to make of the individual.  Would the boundaries that maintain our physical shapes break down and render us goo were we to disband?  It is hard to say, but I am erring on the side of “probably, I guess.”  The sights and sound dash asunder any concept of togetherness or unity I ever could have conceived of as a member of American public high school.

I ran in the 100m relay with a “teacher’s team” made up of those of us who still feel spry enough in our age to sprint around a track for the amusement of a thousand teenagers.  All I remember of my half-track jaunt was taking off with the baton, hoping I didn’t fall down, watching my shoes stomp off the ground as I rounded the outside of the track, and the doppler effect of young girls screaming eeeeyaaaAAAAaaa!!!, then handing the baton off again.  Today my legs hurt, but the (male) gym teacher has now gone from a predominant casual indifference at my presence to a recent summons of one of my English-speaking co-teachers so that she could translate his remarks about me: I am so cool, so handsome, and how do they handle the conventions of Jr., Sr., the third, the fourth, etc. in American naming procedures?

My cafeterian lunchtime chopstick proficiency literally shames some of the people I eat with, who occasionally make self-deprecating remarks about their failures with them when it comes to more wet bowls of donburi.  Someone said their mother used to tell them they weren’t Japanese enough cause they’d reach for a spoon (this clashes expectedly with the stereotypical genki gaijin dipshit advice doled out to everyone who is about to move to Japan with a prior support network: “better eat every single grain of rice or they’ll think you’re just another rude American!!!”).  As it turns out, many people from Japan are actually people and not merely just a peculiar object of broad foreign projection.  Yes, some of them walk while drinking and eat while walking or forget to leave the train when it’s gone out of service or pay with the wrong coin cause those fives and fifties can be iffy sometimes.

Independently I might turn to goo, but as a part of society, I am everything.

(Menial daily-lifery recent developments and valuable first-time-resident advice: we went to a store called Nitori (ニトリ) and bought a TV stand (delivered to our door two days later for 900 yen), a washing machine shelving unit, a coat rack, a kitchen rug, a small bedside table, a garbage can, a stewpot, a spaghetti jar, and new pot holders.  It cost like 8000 yen?  Do not go to IKEA.  It is utterly idiotic and the goods are cheaply made and overpriced.  Go to Nitori.  If you don’t, basically you are a jackass.)

Also:

– The TV from Hard-Off that I bought a couple weeks ago is still awesome and used goods in this country are officially amazing,
– Japanese 360 controllers work on American systems
– I made Mabo Tofu but really thick and spicy and chunky and put it on rice and called it Mabodon and it was some delicious stuff to chomp on
– There is an enormous Category 5 “Super Typhoon” headed right for us to make landfall in the next day or two

Sometimes around dinner time, or during strange unrelated parts of my life, I remember what Triscuits taste like, and realize that despite this country’s culinary delights, you can’t ignore the fact that there ain’t a fucking Triscuit around.

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