Monthly Archives: January 2010

Prepare for multiball

I’m less nervous about it than I was about flying to Japan, but only a little: on Sunday morning we leave a group of fellow teachers for a five-day visit to the frosty northern region of Japan, Hokkaido. Two hours away by way of the airport that is literally minutes south of my house, Hokkaido promises everything you’d hope for from a winter getaway destination: the coldest temperatures in Japan, mountains covered in snow, offensive, pervasive wind, the chance to break all of my limbs while skiing for the first time, the privledge of paying to rent equipment that will facilitate this, and a tour around the set up for the annual Yuki Matsuri, a literal festival of snow, during which I assume there will be booths that allow you to fork over a few hundred yen to “experience the thrill of watching water freeze in a four hour traditional outdoor ceremony on your knees” or “burn your ass on this block of ice by touching the skin directly to it for as long as you can” or “see how many packets of fermented gym sock beans you can eat without experiencing violent digestive atrophy.” But really, I’m excited. I’ll just be more excited once I’m on the ground in Hokkaido, maybe sedated in a warm alcoholic stupor, and perhaps with a huge plate of crab meat and butter in front of me. And then again when I get back to Kobe, knowing I won’t need to get on another plane any time in the immediate future.

It’s worth noting that for the second time in my life (and the first time I’ve gone a whole season without watching a game at all) the Colts are going to the Super Bowl. The kickoff is at 6:18pm EST on Sunday, February 7th, meaning that the concurrent time in Japan would be Monday, February 8th, at 8:18am, or roughly the time that I catch the Hanshin local train from Sannomiya. I’m not entirely sure what to do since viewing live isn’t an option and I don’t get any sort of delayed satellite broadcast that might exist–avoid looking at my cell phone, CNN, any Internet forums, hell the entire Internet, all day, avoid talking to anyone who might have a passing interest in American football (I’m looking at you, nearly everyone I know), evade all foreigners, do not speak to anyone, do not mention the Super Bowl, sports, competition, or games in any way to anyone, and go straight home after work to somehow download a torrent of the game without actually seeing who won anywhere on the Internet or through my e-mail, IRC, or any other random website? I might have to appropriate a friend ahead of time who either will have already watched the game or who simply doesn’t give a shit (Cory) to locate a torrent for me and have the link waiting in my message box when I get home so that I might immediately download the file and watch the game. The alternative I guess is to just ruin the surprise by looking at the score after my classes, which occur for the duration of the game and end probably around the time the game will be over, pray that my team wins, and then download it leisurely at home for a magical Super Bowl party time evening anyway. The downside is that if the Saints win I’ll either have played conservatively and spent my entire day without Internet for the grand payoff of watching the Colts lose, or I’ll have ruined the result ahead of time likely resulting in me never having the desire to see the Super Bowl at all. What is a man to do?

To distract myself from these horrible impending conundrums, I spent a large portion of yesterday’s down time at work reading about pinball, an endeavor in no small part prompted by this week’s sale price on the PS3’s Zen Pinball game (only five bucks)! Steeped in lingo and rife with history and terminology the Internet pinball community and its wealth of database sites has still not ceased to impress me. I remember a handful of machines from my youth, and in most cases the places and times that I played them: A Super Mario Bros. machine by Gottlieb at a hotel arcade in Missouri, a half-functioning table set on free play in the basement of a neighbor’s house, a handful of games I’d routinely lose my spending cash on as a member of the bowling team in town, having ample time to tinker with them as I waited between or after games (Twilight Zone, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Pin-Bot, and many others cycled out bi-monthlyish). Any kid who grew up enjoying pinball will probably tell you that it’s their dream to have their very own pinball table at home, and maybe an endless bucket of quarters to fill it with.

Slightly older, a few thousand miles away from the country I’ll surely end up living in again one day, and lacking any space (or source) to facilitate the execution of this dream, the pinball machine will have to wait a few years. But I’ve enjoyed reading the Mister Pinball classified ads on the Internet. There is some sort of quaint feeling in the idea of a small group of people selling huge wooden boxes containing all kinds of wires, electric parts, contraptions, and gizmos that they have carefully tended to. I also like how they are referred to almost by name, not like “this Twilight Zone pinball machine” but more often “my Twilight Zone.” With machines having all been made of a zillion complex parts and usually limited to production runs in the mid-thousands to maybe twenty-thousand tops, there’s also a kind of excitement associated with the whole thing. No reprints, no copies, no other way to play this game but to find one of the machines, pay a (couple) thousand bucks for it, and throw it in the back of a truck to haul it home. (Optional: disassembling, tweaking, cleaning, fixing, Loving.) With only one company still in existence that actually produces new pinball machines there’s also the allure of the Bygone era, in much the same way there were the golden ages of automobiles, comic books, and video games, only Those Things Still Exist: Here’s my Twilight Zone with LED mod, new flippers, and a restored playing field (“and I even went over it with clearcoat three times for the shiny look!”). It’s a hobby for which I currently have no element required to participate (save interest and the propensity to undertake peculiarly obsessive quests for no reason), which makes the whole kick a little fruitless. What it is, like so many other fantasies, is pretty alluring up there in my mind, where it must currently stay. This (and video pinball) is enough, for now.

This isn’t meant of course to imply that I even have the time to pursue another hobby: I cook regularly, which I consider kind of a hobby even though I have to do it to survive, and once you subtract the eight hour work days and two more for commutes, factor in the nightly Curb Your Enthusiasms, doing the dishes, the already time-consuming video gaming, and ensure you’re getting to bed at a somewhat sensible time, this basically leaves the weekends. Is this the real life?! I suppose it’s better to live with Jessy and not be bored than it was to live by myself and desperately seek out something (anything) to burn my time off, which usually amounted to excessive alcohol consumption and swearing at people in online games, however glorious. Still, sometimes I tire of endless video gaming and it would be nice to have something involving to take the place of writing when I either don’t find it particularly engaging or aren’t feeling quite emotionally motivated enough to put words together. I’m only even writing this thing today out of habit: it occurred to me last week that if you add up all the Noms I’ve put on here in a few months the word count exceeds that of my half-done languishing-forever novel. If you’re crazy enough to have read most of these posts (and you aren’t related to me) could it have possibly been worthwhile to hear me blabber about myself on a weekly basis in so many words?

I remember yapping about tater tot casserole in here not too long ago, and talking about how impossible it would be to make it, and it was no sooner than last night that it finally happened. The ground beef was in the Going To Rot Soon Half Price cooler, and in the fried goods area there rested a new elusive tray filled with what I can best describe as super-miniature versions of McDonalds’ hashbrowns. Maybe the size of a USB thumb drive or a lipstick? They were ten yen a piece and we bought fifteen or so, which happened to just perfectly cover the mixture that went also just perfectly into our new Pyrex cake-pan-turned-casserole dish, which itself also fits just perfectly into our microwave that is also an oven. It is not every day in Japan that I get to eat like an American, but any one-dish meal that allows me to combine a deep-fried product with greasy ground meat and smother it in processed creamy mushroom gloop before baking gets the OK in my book. Taters-a-crispy, veggies and mushroom soup pipin’, it was an exceedingly respectable effort that might be aided in the future only by throwing some rice in there. And I think I know where I can find that around here.

Tonight I am going to infringe trademark/copyright on yet another intellectual property, and this week the lucky star is Pac-Man. His likeness, and those of the dots, power pellets, and one of the ghosts (I’ll just pretend it’s Clyde) have been appropriated for use in my crudely drawn instruction sheet for “PAC-MAZE,” a game where we draw a maze on the board and then make a blindfolded student guide Pac-Man by using a marker through the maze according to the shouted directions of his fellow students. This game teaches UP, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, STOP, and AND. It is my first last class, which is to say it is the first class that I am having with a group of students that will be seeing me for the last time. This being the night school and they being my fourth-year kids, they will do this up and then go off and graduate. I have considered how it will go, what I can tell them, but I am sure any sort of subtle emotional impact will be lost in translation. Like so many other goodbyes (my last day of summer camp, leaving my family, quitting my jobs, moving out of every apartment, all the Final Classes I’ve Ever Had), I imagine the shared echo of sentiment will suffice: Despite not knowing each other as well as we might like, we’ve had an alright time together, haven’t we.

A substitute for chocolate

On Sunday, in Kyoto, surrounded by thousands of young people dressed in ceremonial kimono/yukata/whatever all wielding large longbows taller by a matter of feet than I am, I was stricken with how strangely accepting I was of the entire situation. On either side enormous temples older than at least any building I’ve ever lived in, people scrambling towards the fence to catch a glimpse of just exactly what is being done up there. They tell me that this kind of archery is a rigorous endeavor, that many many days of training are required merely to master the form. Before you ever pick up a bow (or for that matter an arrow, your breastplate, or even a glove), you must first work your way up, gaining one piece, then the next, then the next, until finally you get to shoot.

I am sure in theory and in tradition this is a brilliant idea, but all personal ignorance acknowledged, the people we watched take their shots really really sucked. A few volleys from a row of six at a time, manual scoreboard marking X and O for miss and hit. We weren’t sure at first if X just meant they had shot, because it took a while before I saw an O pop up there. Were they professional archers? Hobbyists? Was this related to some sort of coming-of-age ceremony during which everyone must shoot? As far as why this whole event was taking place and what its significance happens to be, I couldn’t tell you and we never really found out. One of my pals said “there is an archery contest in Kyoto on Sunday,” and that was pretty much the only reason I needed to hop a train and whittle away the day on street food and the smells of whatever wood it was them bows and arrows were made of. The thing most striking really was how reasonable this whole process seemed to me: in my previous life I was put somewhat On Notice if my favorite bar was more crowded than usual or if something as unexpected as an annual street party transpired. But no, amidst Great Culture, at threat of impalement, witness to giddy youth posing for hordes of wide-angle zoom lenses, with a stick of fried chicken in my hand, I merely noted that this was different from Kobe. I fear my stability-abandoning approach during the run-up to leave Pittsburgh and my total sensory assault upon arrival in Japan may have ruined my ability to be surprised, overwhelmed, or in awe at anything ever again.

Speaking of which, let me tell you about this totally amazing completely outstandingly altogether incredible new soft drink that I am surprised, overwhelmed, and in awe at that just came out. It is called CHOCOLATE SPARKLING, to borrow the all-caps typeface from the bottle, and as it says below that, it is a “new combination of soda & chocolate flavor.” What it mostly tastes like though is a light, crispy, Yoo-hoo, the perfect blend of fizzy soda and that faint recollection of chocolate phosphates down at the drug store fountain. Bottled by Suntory, who already did humanity a favor by releasing the supreme Final Fantasy XIII Elixir last month, and who currently manufactures the preemininent whiskey of my downfall, Suntory Old, these guys are quickly shooting up the Brandon ladder. Anyway I don’t know what the point of this is I just really like to drink it.

I would say that perhaps it is just the time of year for weird soft drinks in Japan, but that would be a blatant lie, since there are new weird everythings coming out all the time. The current emphasis on chocolate products is however most assuredly due to the impending Valentine’s Day, which in Japan is a holiday where women give men chocolate (and men apparently give women only hollow thank-yous and domestic violence). No fancy gifts, candies, flowers, or dinner dates, but chocolate, apparently, and from co-workers. They even call the chocolate that women give “obligation chocolate” and men regard the number of chocolates received as a private amount. This from Wikipedia of course, and unable to be verified in my Real Life until mid-February. I hope that everyone feels really obligated to give me chocolate because I want some chocolates to put in my face. The stores here have undergone their transformations already, and as early as a couple of weeks ago, with even our kinda rinky-dink local Daiei-branded Gourmet City supermarket (affectionately referred to as Gourmet Shitty or, by me, “The Shit” due to its katakana spelling Shi-ti) now harboring a large glass display stuffed to the hilt with chocolate assortments, the unwanted reject Christmas Boots for kids tucked away on the discount rack and marked down drastically. Nestle has also gotten their KitKat expectedly in on the excitement, with a new Raspberry and Passion Fruit dark chocolate variety that I just bought today and haven’t sampled yet. It doesn’t stop there though–my fridge currently harbors an also as-of-yet unopened two-pack of new Chocolate Brewery chocolate beer from those blessed bastards over at Sapporo. The package claims it’s an exciting collaboration between Sapporo and Royce chocolate, which is goddamned delicious (I actually got one from a female coworker yesterday but did not consider the fact that it might be preemptive Valentine chocolate). Still having not tasted said beer, I am tempted to grab another pack or two just cause it will supposedly be put out of production by the 23rd, and as with all good seasonal products in Japan will immediately disappear for all time.

To continue this consumerist charade for a while longer, it would be prudent for me to call attention to the other new seasonal craze sweeping the nation: the McDonald’s “Big America” burgers, to be released sequentially and each based upon some place in the USA. The only one out so far is the Texas Burger, which has dijon mustard, relish, french fried onions, barbecue sauce, cheese, the quarter-pound burger patty, and bacon (all four of the burgers apparently will have bacon, a ploy for my attention certainly). It’s surprisingly tasty, and will surely be gone forever before I can have another one.

Still tangentially on the topic of food, I must point out that the downside to working primarily at a school which is a ten-minute walk away from the nearest restaurant is that I frequently have to bring instant noodles, convenience store entrees, or leftovers to work for lunch. Though usually delicious the selection becomes stale occasionally and I am left longing something very different and very bad for my health. The upshot to my rarely being able to fill my meals with fast-food options however is that I don’t really miss them and I almost always end up cooking supper at home. The last several days I’ve finally gathered enough knowledge (and ingredients) to start making my very own Pad Thai (entirely from base ingredients instead of with that neon red “Pad Thai Sauce” goop so available in the states). Thai food is less popular here than you might expect, which leads to the somewhat humorous case of being rarely able to find anything more than a tiny four-ounce bottle of nam plaa (Thai fish sauce) in a country which is absolutely drowning in fish, sauces, and fish sauces. Yet I’ve found it, tucked away in the “ethnic foods” section of my grocery store, just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from the peanut butter and Spam. The other critical ingredient, tamarind (in this case, a concentrated paste form), not available at the supermarkets I frequent, was located almost at random by Jessy in a novelty jellies and jams section of the local Daimaru department store. She presented it to me one evening after I met her at the Mister Donut and I proceeded to yelp like a schoolgirl, surely alarming all the actual schoolgirls in Mister Donut.

Also having found a suitable rice noodle stand-in (longer and thinner than traditional Pad Thai noodles but with the same firm texture), I have since set out for and arrived in the realm of experimentation city, making a concerted effort not to use any specific measurements and instead to allow the respective strengths of each ingredient guide my flavoring decisions. The first batch, prepared while I was still somewhat confused with the purpose of the tamarind, ended up exceedingly edible but too tangy, not quite fishy enough, and lacking sweetness, while last night’s batch got alarmingly closer to my favorite Iowan Thai restaurant’s recipe with the addition of a heavier amount of sugar, the elimination of lime juice, more crushed peanuts, and fish sauce both before and after the noodles went into the pan. If I could find a firmer tofu to use I’d be in an even better spot, but as is it has been a scrumptious learning period to say the least. Into my new Japanese-dwelling repertoire it will go with my nabes, yakiudon, karaage, fried rice, curry, Japan-burgers, bizarre makizushi rolls, and thirty different kinds of donburi.

Monday, having arrived at school early and frittered away my time idly with the computer, confident that my New Year’s Resolution lesson would go today just as it had with the other classes I had used it on, I was informed that actually the week before while I was at my other school they switched the schedule’s days because of last week’s holiday and they played the taped lesson that I made to my Monday classes. This meant that the lessons I was about to go teach (three hours of them in a row, with my principal and vice-principal popping in and out to observe me for evaluations) were no good, they had just had them last week. I found this out approximately three minutes before my classes, and after saying I didn’t know what I was going to do to my co-teacher, found myself beginning in front of them like auto-pilot, doing the greetings, working my way towards an impending cliff. To stall for time, I had all the students arrange their desks into groups. I thought of high school Spanish class, my second-language education ten years ago just like these poor suckers, of my activities, of my penpal for some reason. I gave them some blank paper, told them about penpals, decided we’d write penpals. To… each other? No that’s not very exciting. To famous people! Yes that’s right. Oh and you can also write to characters. Oh and mascots. Yes. And you have to pretend you are also a famous person or character or mascot and talk about yourself in the letter. I saw it put itself together before my eyes like some sort of robotic parasite.

As I thumbed through the letters later in the day, after my comparatively non-notable special lesson for all 320 first year kids, I saw one letter from Luigi to Mario asking why Mario is Mr. Nintendo, why he has to be “the eternal second” and if he likes living in mushroom town. Later there was a letter from Mrs. Obama to Snoopy. At or around that point I started to actually believe that I was here because the people who hired me knew I could do this, that they saw through my nervous “I can do this” forced-confidence interview into the actual reality of the situation, which was that I could and I just didn’t know I could, even if the only instance I have as an example is that I managed to think on my feet and amuse the little bastards for twenty-five minutes without totally losing my mind. When it’s all over though, my occupation here, my life in Japan, regardless of how many kids know a handful of words or how comfortable they got with a foreigner or what sort of actual benefit this program has on the education of these people or however much I meant to even just one of them I will selfishly hang onto this moment: given the chance to prove to myself that I earned this job I did it, and I have a letter from Pikachu to Johnny Depp to prove it.

The enemy of love

My first high school lesson after returning from winter break damned near nineteen days later. It is to a room which is occupied by two people, one of them myself. The other person is one of my coteachers, a wise, English-grasping fellow who, like many of my superiors here, curiously laughs at only the least funny of my jokes (excepting one man who laughs at literally everything I say in either language).

The lesson is for him and his video camera, which will record my performance and stilted fake interaction with a class that does not exist. In my absence on the following day, due to some creative catch-up scheduling, they will play this video tape to my students, who will behave as though I am in the room giving them directions. I trust any holes will be filled by the instructors who occupy the corporeal realm, scrambling as they shall to bolster my image with reality and substance. I imagine a preschool teacher recording a simliar tape, wherein she begs and pleads with empty space to please, take your nap, don’t do that with your crayons, can you tell me what your opinion is about the color green. The first three or four times I did this, the sham entertained me. I handed stacks of papers off screen with the location of the playback TV in mind so that it would appear I was actually passing physical matter from the video realm to my teachers. I gestured to empty desks in the audience and waited for class reactions and responses to my Good Morning Everyones and How Are You Todays. At 1 degree Celcius in my Japanese high school, where the inside temperature is at least at parity and occasionally lower than the outside temperature in winter due to the curious decision to leave all the windows open, the charade becomes more transparent. After nineteen days away from class, it’s hard to teach one to a room full of empty chairs.

Perhaps to rectify this karmic imbalance, I will be delivering a fifty-minute lesson to the entire class of first year students on Monday. Normal lessons for me consist of twenty kids, and so to grasp the scale of this one all you need to do is multiply by sixteen, the number of sections I teach in a week. That’s 320 sixteen-year-olds in the gymnasium, for one good-old-fashioned The Bigwigs Are Watching hoedown. I don’t think collectively that 320 people have ever been cumulatively interested in anything I have had to say. In this instance, they will at least be prohibited from leaving, which I suppose is for the best. I intend to play the largest game of rows and columns that has ever occured at this institution, and will mercilessly drill them on obscure American pop cultural trivia that even I need to consult Wikipedia to verify. It will be a crowning moment for me. I will force them to pose for a picture, which I will take with my cell phone.

Our school’s English journal is issued roughly twice a month, and always features solicited work by the students of my classes. In these scenarios I exact revenge on the students as though they were the poetry and short fiction editors of my past life, heartlessly rejecting work for even the tinest fluctuations in such random elements as my current temperance, what I would like to eat today, how many things I’ve read about this subject before, whether or not my name is used in the paper, if the paper is or is not about snacks, the presence or absence of cute doodles, and other such things. The journals are usually prefaced with either a foreword by my teacher or myself. In the instance that my writing appears, the powers that be have taken to adding a distinctly manga-inspired shoulders-up sketch next to my name that sort of resembles what I perceive to be the teenaged Japanese eye’s ideal fantasy of my appearance, with a long lithe neck, wild messy hair, a pointy bishounen nose, and a shirt scandalously unbuttoned at the top. I have not yet been able to determine if this was sketched by one of my students or not, though I have my suspicions that it was since I started receiving copies of the school’s drawing club newsletter on my desk shortly after it began appearing. Either that or my school has access to a vast amount of clip art that contains illustrations of vaguely western twenty-somethings with big noses who are disarmingly pretty. I will have to get a picture on this thing soon so you can see it. I showed it to a coworker at one of my other schools, who told her friend in Japanese that it made me look like one of the Fancy Boys who work at the host bars downtown, all dolled up in suits and bright hair and handing out flyers to young women in the hopes that they might come in and shower them with yen and limbs. I think they were a bit amused (embarassed?) that I actually understood what they said. I began miming as though I was distributing flyers, just to ease the situation.

After this we turned our discussion to tonight’s school mochi-making ceremony, which I know of only through erratic legend and the things people have told me, often delivered so casually and calmly by my coworkers as to suggest that there is merely nothing out of the ordinary with the idea of putting a bunch of cooked rice in a big bowl and beating on it with “Big Hammer” until it is left a squishy gooey paste. Mochi is made! Someone else told me I will need to “cover my jacket with something when the beatings happen because the splatter,” which has left me a little nervous.

I had threatened it in this journal before, though somewhat unaware of who exactly was at the hands of these bold statements, and now the gruesome realities have come to pass: Jessica and I are now the proud(?) owners of a 7700 yen hunk of PVC plastic, lovingly sculpted and painted by Japanese pervs (or the machinery they designed) somewhere in this great land. A shining representation of modern, cool, scantily-clad Japanese otakudom, she is maybe eight inches tall, and impossibly posed with a sniper rifle bigger than she is. Dressed totally appropriately for war and target shooting, Yoko (from the Japanese anime series Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann) enjoys finding time to shoot at evil from afar while taking care not to rip her pink latex stockings or in some way mess up her impeccable hair. As a conversation piece she has already offered her cost in amusement value: I relish the varied opinions of our friends and acquaintances as they feast their eyes on it. It may well be the most we’ve paid for something that does so little, functionally, though what it does as a matter of merely being present is altogether interesting to me. Offset on the other side of the television by the tiny wizard Vivi and his cute pet Chocobo she commands even more bizarre attention. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I at least think she is definitely making my big huge plasma television look attractive, and to that end I believe it’s a good idea to have it by the set: I’m usually looking in that direction anyway, and if I pay 7700 for something that is only useful when being looked at, I am going to look at it as much as I possibly can.

From here the road is a bit hazy. If more figures arrive others will have to go back to their boxes in the storage room, where they cannot be looked at. If too many arrive we will be forced to confront the logistical issues involved with shipping dozens of fragile, expensive, bulky items back to the States some day. In the Internet era, anything that we absolutely must have can be gotten while we reside either here or there: perhaps Yoko will keep ahold of her prominent position, so stable in high-heeled platform shoes, until the day we have places to put these things that don’t mandate an eventual journey by air or sea.

As I near the six-month mark in this country even the weird stuff is less surprising. Another English teacher like me said the other day that when she went to Thailand for vacation she could hardly believe the portion sizes. After keeping up my home front with meat that’s an outstanding deal at $4.49 a pound and a fridge the size of some American toilet paper jumbo packs, I am inclined to believe her. It’s gonna be weird to one day go back to a world where gallons of milk can be sold because people actually have the space to keep them, or where chicken breast is more expensive than chicken legs because it’s valuable for people to have chicken without the skin still on it. Via the magic of nearby Amagasaki’s Costco store, I’ve though managed to get an occasional taste of home. On the bottom shelf of our cabinet sits a nine pound box of Quaker Oats for Jessy’s breakfasts, and next to that (but below the two jugs of Prego so large they need to be turned sideways and coerced into the fridge once opened) rests an unopened 12-pack of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, which I have not seen for sale in this country anywhere outside of Costco. I bought it almost on impulse, in an effort to appease the machinations of my sentimental mind: without it, how will we cook tater tot casserole? What I failed to fully accept was the fact that there are no tater tots, ground beef is so expensive that tater tot casserole would be a luxury, and our oven is a microwave. Like my videotaped image, the soup now persists, waiting for the day that it will be useful.

Like snowmen

The longer it goes, and the more that accumulates on that rolling stone, ironically gathering an incredible amount of moss, the strangely less there is to say, if only because of quantity’s cruel weight.

On Christmas night I stopped for a moment behind some 30 watt bulbs and a music equalizer on TV to casually assess my life in the present.  Situation: lit like pre-tornado weekend afternoon, Suntory Old in hand, top-heavy highball, four new pals cursing The Lord with Wii controllers in hand.  In front, on the floor, makeshift dining with pillow seats, and much ado about something.  Sweet Thai noodles with pork, frosting fortified Christmas Cake, and two varieties of chicken, dry-rub drummies delivered by a friend across the way, and my own fried niblets half cornstarch half flour.  Around the tables a motley crew, one army gal, Canadians, a fellow from Wales(!), my Pennsylvanian lady, ho ho ho Melly Christmas.  On floor seven everything’s weirder than I expect, which is exactly as I have come to expect.

On the subsequent day, break-addled and slightly stir crazy, we visit another teacher’s place for Boxing Day, a holiday I have never celebrated.  Between Costco tortilla chips and tallboy Chu-hi I find myself drunkenly playing a card-based storytelling game about the adventures of the mutant Lobdale, a sailor, and repeatedly forget essential details mentioned only moments before my lapses in memory.  As a writer I fail colossally, as an inebriated buffoon I succeed massively, and these successes are in recent times frequent and executed in totality.  Were I still in grad school, such alcoholian indiscretions would be adjudicated by peers: Listen, brother: you write therefore you drink, and it seems your glass needs topping off.  In this venue I only shame myself, but these idle hands need things to do, and the acts and motions of raising and lowering glasses to my mouth ensure I am both busy doing something important, and that my lips are so preoccupied that I needn’t use them to communicate cause who knows what the fuck I’d be saying without it.

The next day, a forgottenly agreed-upon amble to Osaka to visit a Warhammer 40K miniature gaming shop turns into Jessy and me and our tall 7-years-in-Japan South African buddy strolling through Den Den, then clearing board space in Iconoclast, the name of the cold, tiny sidestreet shop we’re visiting. 16-45 year old otaku moving handpainted pieces across the tables and shooting photon cannons fill my afternoon, with early evening occupied by a trip to Yodobashi Camera, a hulking behemoth of a store so large that the stories people tell about it are meaningless: one floor of thirteen is as large as a great plains Iowan Walmart and devoted only to toys. Two massive aisles are merely cars, which excludes the trains and airplanes, the handful of aisles for just kid toys, and the entire section for hobby figures, statues, and rows of gashapon. Half the floor is video games and I can’t bring myself to even go in, lest I am unable to handle it.

At night, turned on to a ramen shop not so far from where I live here in Kobe, we dine on Tomato ramen and fresh gyoza with chili oil. It is the best I have eaten in this country, and comes with unlimited free kimchi.  In the ramen shop, I meet people.  Everywhere I go I meet people I’ve met, who exist as players in my life almost solely because of and in spite of the process of Meeting.  Some people I routinely meet I’ve met surely over five times by now, and our conversations mainly revolve around this fact.  If we decide to ask each other Sorry I’m really bad with names What’s Your Name Again the entire relationship restarts so that the next time a month and a half passes and then we see each other we can pretend like we know each other even though it’s only a vagary, the hint and notion of kinship: something you had remembered from your childhood that returns in the smell of a department store plushie or out back on an apartment fire escape.  Good to see you again!  I prefer not asking for names anymore, then we can play the game of who forgets the other person’s name the most.  I like recognizing the instances in our conversations where we might need to use the names, then seeing how each of us subverts it.  Anyway, the ramen was really tasty.

On December 31st, I found myself tucked into the pulsing life of Sannomiya like one of forty-thousand toothpicks in a diner dispenser being endlessly rolled around.  By a half-hour before the end of the year there were people in every direction I could angle my head excepting street and sky, and making it out of the confines of humanity to snag street-fried whatever became difficult enough that I remained content with what I’d managed to secure prior.  With no ritzy Times Square ball-drop or TV broadcast to denote the shedding of this husk the actual ringing in of the New Year had largely to do with the accuracy of one’s watch or the cellular telephone provider one had selected.  At or around the minute though the wave of unconcerned shouting reached us and passed over us triumphantly: we’ve made it guys, and the decade of early confusions, the full 200X on Madden video game covers, the two-thousand-and-X pronunciations evaporated in favor of that clean Twenty Ten, the new tens, the Model-T, the sinking of the Titanic, Franz Ferdinand, and ROBOTS IN SPACE. 

At Ikuta Shrine they banged on Taiko, and we tossed five yen into a pit in hopes that our wishes for this year are realized.  Later for two hundred we shook wooden boxes to reveal wooden sticks which revealed our fortune papers which revealed our forecasts for this upcoming year.  The joke was on them, because I couldn’t read the kanji.  Someone told me it at least Wasn’t Great, and so I tied it to the fence below the tree, which I guess is what you’re supposed to do when you can’t tie it to the tree, which is where you’re supposed to tie it if it’s bad.  The bad luck stays there for all of the year.  I feel really sorry for that fence, because now it is totally screwed.

The dragging on of break bringing similar curses as being overworked made me aware of how related lives are when they’re filled with mostly nothing: just existing becomes tiresome, as the endless scrutiny of the events which dictate one’s course or reflect one’s experiences.  Great Minutia, my steady salvation.  May I always be aware of the way the rings on the train rock back and forth like swings, the way I have to turn the key the opposite way to the lock the door as I did in Pittsburgh, the Calorie-mate wrapper that’s been on top of the Kosoku-Nagata station’s vending machine for four months.

Monday in Japan is Coming-of-age day, another holiday from work, which is basically the equivalent of a hot-blooded American’s 21st birthday night, only for every newly-20-year-old-with-drinking-rights in the country.  I think if we had that in the States, Tuesday would be national I’m-calling-in-sick-to-work-and/or-skipping-classes day.