Monthly Archives: February 2010

Unless Toyota is a figure skater, Japan doesn’t care

Japan is gripped in Olympic fever, an ailment most woefully ironic considering the medal count for the great country is (as I write this) a silver and a pair of bronzes. This fact notwithstanding, I just the other day watched a full thirty minute feature on the one Japanese male figure skater to medal, a bronze, during which they most intently covered his training and fantastic performance, making sure to include copious numbers of scenes dedicated to the man’s tear shedding. You’d swear he won not the bronze but the gold–nay, the platinum–some medal outside the reach of man, his emotional rollercoaster punctuated by strains of Canon, his ascent from this mortal plane complete. But no just the bronze. I’m happy for him. In a group that includes only two others thus far he has at least become a member of a group, which as a member of this society must feel real nice.

Aside from these medalist in-depths, and between shows focusing not on showing the medal-winning runs of other country’s athletes but the exhaustive examinations of the 5th, 8th, 20th, and 25th place performances of the Japanese, we can catch glimpses of the rabid viewing parties taking place across the nation. These events, though I have not witnessed them in person anyway, seem to consist of a school gymnasium filled with folding chairs, hundreds of avid fans pounding together plastic tubes and other mysterious noisemakers, and a crappy projector displaying a postage-sized image of the live event up in front where it can be barely seen.

The remaining hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of plucky 19-year-old poster-girl Mao Asada, who looks sort of like a frog crossed with a teen idol and who is the wish-I-was-her figure of high school girls everywhere. The media has been ruthless in drawing her into figurative battle with South Korean superstar Kim Yu-Na, the more aggressive, slightly provocative but petite wish-I-was-with-her figure of high school boys everywhere (and at least one American teacher of high schoolers). For her short program she skates around and gesticulates lasciviously to Monty Norman’s 007 Theme, which is probably the comfortable fantasy of most male ex-pats in this country. My co-workers are in the other room watching it right now. It’s like the Super Bowl, but only for three minutes, and with young girls in dresses.

As the games begin their slow draw to a close, so do the final dregs of winter, most specifically marked by today: a glorious, sunny, fresh-air 68 Fahrenheit wunderday the warmest we’ve had since before fall at least, an anomaly, in anticipation of which we yesterday opened our windows, put up the bed, and let that breeze clear the stale winter air. It’s invigorating and exciting, in that this is the first taste of the only Japanese season (they have four you know) I have yet to experience. It also heralds the firm crossing over of the halfway mark of my first year here. The seasons are not all that are beginning to change, however: so is the school year, and yesterday was the final day of classes at my main school for this term. In Japan, the school year works on a system of three terms, running roughly from April and with breaks for summer, winter, and spring. Since I started in August, at the start of the second term, that means that now, after two terms with my current crop of kidlings who will now be graduating to second year, I’ll have all new ones once spring break’s done. Conveniently that puts me in the office for the next two weeks with nothing to teach (final exam season again) and for the following two weeks with nothing to teach (spring break). I find little to dislike about this arrangement.

In product news, Fanta launched their new flavor today. It is called “Fanta もお~もお~ (Moo Moo) White” (the Moos being onomatopoeic for the noise a cow makes when it speaks Japanese, something like the English pronunciation of “Moe”) and seems to be positioning itself as kind of a rival to “Calpis Soda,” which is a carbonated version of Calpis, a popular milky-flavored sort of sweet soft drink. I stopped by the Daily Yamazaki on my way up to school and they had them, so I picked one up! Moo~Moo~ White contains calcium and is low in calories, and tastes maybe like what you’d expect? Kinda like milk, kinda sweet, almost encroaching on vanilla or banana territory. The bottle is even spotted like a cow. On TV they had some idol girl star dressed up in “gyaru” style (kind of like a overly trashy fake-tan yahoo with huge thick eye makeup and ridiculous exploded hair) who tried it and said “It’s good! Not just for gyaru, but kids will like it too!” You heard it here: you don’t need to sacrifice dignity for dubious fashion sense in order to drink cow Fanta (but nobody’s stopping you).

As I sat here typing this one of the teachers called out for “Daika-sensei.” I routinely ignored it for two reasons, the first of which being that almost nobody actually calls me by my last name, even though it is customary to address people by their last names here, here, because I’m a crazy wild-eyed foreigner and they try to do things just for me. This results in frequent awkward hybridizations of politeness and failure: most often I am addressed as “Mr. Brandon” or by some of the only half-wrong and endearing kids “Brandon-teacher” (at least they got the sensei right). At my special school, one young girl has taken to calling me Bura-pon or Don-pon which are nicknames I do not mind, but this is beyond the scope. The second reason I ignored it is that most of the time nobody actually refers to me as a teacher, either insulted that I am behaving as such or skeptical that someone so poor with the language of this country could be proficient in any language, and so they instead prefer the Mr. label from before or depending on the effort level they care to invest, Brandon-san (the errant translation of which is the American culturally-nonsensical “Mr. Brandon”). It took another couple of teachers repeating it, Daika-sensei, Daika-sensei, before I could even openly elucidate that I believed they were referring to me, ignoring for a moment there is no other “Daika” in the office and that daika is not(?) a frequently used word in Japanese.

Surely, part of the confusion comes because what with the lack of ending consonants that aren’t N in the Japanese language I have had to abbreviate my family name from its “er” ending to just an “a.” Where it gets more exciting is on my inkan, my personal seal with which I sign documents in Japan: most people just have katakana representations of their names but mine’s full on kanji, those good old Chinese characters: “Dai” meaning big, and “Ka” meaning deer. Yes the legendary big deer, the deer of lore, the American English Mr. Brandon teacher. They just had a FAX to give me me. Daika-sensei. My alter-ego. For a second I felt almost like a real person!

Just now one of the students entered the teacher’s room and called for my attention. I turned around to see what was the matter and was met with “Hello Brandon!” I returned the greeting, “Hi!” She milled about for a second or two, and then, having turned her back and begun her walk out the door, she shouted “I’M FINE THANK YOU!!” Had she said it to me, or at me at least, I’m not sure I would have had a response. “That’s good” or “you’re welcome?” Neither seems to suffice. “Gravy salad reads hyper clothes beast” probably would have been just as good.

Only 5 can ladder

Having now mostly fully recovered from my snowbound cavalcade of injury-ridden assclownery in the frosty northern regions of Japan a couple of weeks ago, life has essentially returned to normal back here in Kobe. Yesterday having been the day that signals the monthly launch of the board of education’s salvo of yen into my bank account makes this return to normalcy all the sweeter: the travel damage is done and now I’m able to tackle a few lingering projects.

The first one required only a little green and thus was finished last week during “Foundation Day,” (yet) another national no-work holiday. I got the impression that it was roughly correlary to our 4th of July back in the states, only nobody does anything special. I copied a few hundred gigabytes of data and reinstalled Windows 7 on my laptop and set up an XMBC media library so we can watch all our crazy shows and movies on our big TV with ease. It was a far less exciting process than it sounds, if that is actually possible.

The others are more open ended: finding a couple of frames for our bitchin’ new 1930s-era reproduction Sapporo beer posters, finally tracking down a decent new coat (just in time for spring), and, in consideration of somewhat upcoming school closing ceremonies/graduations, attempting to buy a nicely fitted black Japanese suit that doesn’t hang off me like a bedsheet in clothesline land. I think the weekend will accommodate these endeavors nicely.

We become more adept at the bizarre on a daily basis here, Jessy and I. Just last week we managed to successfully get me in and out of the eye doctor (no appointment, in and out in thirty minutes, 900 yen for the check-up and ten bucks a pair), I’ve managed to make my way quickly around town checking for an out-of-stock PS3 game and then order it on and pay for it at the convenience store the same night, and we are becoming surprisingly capable at identifying satisfactory restaurants and deciphering their cryptic and wondrous menus.

To bring up the rear, our deft mastery and striking precision with the numerous varieties of prize-awarding arcade games has yielded a bounty of cheap crap recently, including Jessy’s 400-yen crown achievement of a Gurren Lagann Yoko (you may remember her from a previous journal about our figure by the TV). This one is a bit more diminutive and is dressed like so many objects of otaku-envy as a maid holding a tray with a plate of donuts (the plate and two tiny plastic donuts are actually individual pieces that you place yourself). The getup makes our big Yoko’s wardrobe choice look exceedingly suited for violent intergalactic combat by comparison, though at least maid Yoko isn’t carrying around a massive gun. (There are other subdivisions of anime fandom devoted solely to maids with guns, but I digress.) One of my wins was a more modest prize, a somewhat-cool Evangelion print in the cheapest frame known to man, but I won it on my first try and with perfect placement of the little automated pincher. I was riding so high that I almost plunked a credit into the machine next to it, which had instead of Evangelion prints a variety of adult DVDs featuring women of this country in various states of undress on the cover, but Jessy seemed non-committal on the pursuit and our bags were getting full of crap already (I’ll be back! maybe).

The real score of the night was this little guy, a 6 centimeter tall stuffed feller known as Mr. Saturn (or Dosai-san in Japan), a cult-popular character from the cult-popular (in the U.S.) game series known there as EarthBound, and here as “Mother.” To be specific, this toy is Mother 3 branded, and is virtually the only piece of licensed merchandise related to this game that has been made available. Humorously you can’t even buy them, only get them in game center prize machines, and this one took me eight tries on the “Barbercut” machine, in which prizes hang from the ceiling on little strings and you get one chance to expertly slide over and then push forward from the back a little pincher with a tiny mechanical razor blade inside that snaps shut and clips the string, dropping your goody down into the pocket below. In my case it didn’t clip the string until try eight, but so determined I was that I’d probably just have kept at it until I won. The interesting part comes in some cursory research about the little Banpresto-manufactured wonder: them U.S. fans are hungry for some weird stuffed Japanese keitai Mr. Saturns and have been bidding upwards of $30 each for the ones that are available on eBay. I think a pilgrimage to Namco Land with a baggie full of 100-yen coins might be in order this week, and then I can master the weird process of mailing out lots of squishy toys under the Japan Post network’s small packet program for discount rates.

We also are keeping routinely busy, caught up on a mostly weekly basis with drunken Sannomiyan endeavors involving other teachers and their accomplices, one of which placed us in a delicious Italian restaurant last week called something like Atlanta Atlanta or Allegra Allegra or Oregano Oregano or some other two-identical-word title that I can’t remember on account of cheap local spirits (the spicy mushroom/sausage/broccoli pasta was so good that when I first started thinking about how profoundly scrumptious it was I looked down and had eaten it all). Yesterday we celebrated Pancake Day with a fellow who yearly celebrates this day, as do apparently many people from his European area of origin, and the exotic festival was marked by cooking pancakes, and eating them. It was a good holiday. What’s tomorrow? A tofu-diving contest in a cave made of ice? A potluck dinner based solely on pork products and byproducts? A gymnastics competition conducted on moving trains? Who goddamned knows.

One of the better parts of being where we are is that there are often excuses and reasons to do things that we would have no excuses or reasons for in different circumstances. In our case, the prevailing excuse has become “because here we are,” and no excuse is necessary. Many of the non-existential stresses and hairy menial annoyances of prior times have become life footnotes and it is refreshing and liberating like a carbonated William Lloyd Garrison.

Sometimes I sit up late at night after Jessy’s gone to bed and just listen to the sounds of our apartment–the little standup fan outside powering our AC unit’s heat function, the whirring of the electric heater’s oscillation in the other room. I take in the peculiarities of comedians on TV Asahi speaking endearing Osaka dialect and trying to complete obstacle courses or move a ping-pong ball from one side of the room to the other with only the heat from a hair dryer. In the microwave there’s a 99 yen frozen packet of Spaghetti Neaporitan, the Japanese ketchup-based take on pasta, and to my side a bottle of C.C. Lemon soda and my cell phone with a tiny kewpie doll dressed like an ear of corn hanging off it. Once I pass one or two in the morning it’s like I’m so far ahead that I start crossing back into home territory, the daylight hours of America, nine, ten, eleven a.m. and even the weird things that surround me feel more and more like it all used to.

The mountain always leads

Face up in three inches of fresh powder, ice melting on my wide eyes and frozen nostrils, I become conscious of the fact that I’m just taking it in, relishing in the experience of being so laid out that I can barely comprehend where I was a dozen seconds before. There is a special pleasure in being splayed like a bomb’s components, one glove six feet away, a pole peeking out like the mountain’s broken bone, one ski still stuck on my foot and another hiding away. Look how nice I ate it, planks down backwards, feet overhead bicycle kick, remember what it feels like to get electrocuted? But here I am, every flake a saline drop from a bottle I left in the car overnight, and I think This is the Glory of Niseko, that numbed by the cold and excruciating pain, I consider the fact that I’m conscious and here’s the way the world turns, pushed along on the wind.

How many departures from real life involve physical pain? Here, Japan has comically appointed me as an ambassador from a place I hardly deserve to be from to visit a place I barely belong, in the northern reaches of a country that only made up my dreams from the age of fourteen to eighteen, ass-kicked on the slopes, and it’s all so clear. Of course the flight is Xanax-addled, because do I really expect to be comfortable with this activity I’ve shockingly been participating in for nearly a decade now? With the pills I accept the fact that my consciousness is only what it is, and being sort-of-asleep is fine even if I miss the drink cart and grab an apple juice when I come to. Welcome to Hokkaido, barely as cold as half of what you’ve experienced, and twice as bad as anything you can still recall, dear self, and prepare for war: the planks are coming, and down peaks you assuredly will slide, first-timer, and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

The day after I’m buried things improve with the tightening of my forward-facing leg muscles: a maximum slope angle of nineteen degrees tries my patience but gives way to an average around half, and some indulgent hot-dogging, beginners my slalom poles and snowboarders moving targets like Frogger trucks. With each suit-up clarity is refined: these pockets have zippers, these bindings attach to control the ankles, these pants have two sections to prevent snow’s entry, this resolve is what you make it. Gazing down from what just as well is the top of the world into hell’s frosty abyss, I swallow my tongue and careen down at at fifty-five thousand miles per hour, pirouette all fucked into the Black Swan Face Plant and feel more invigorated than a fresh 7up. By the time my lift pass expires I’m ready to be done forever, a glass of whiskey and soda alternated between table and mouth to give way to the hotel bar’s Street Fighter Zero 2 and holy shit if I could have angled these skis like the forward down down-forward+punch.

By the final day here of course I’m out again for some forsaken reason, resolved against abuse but propelled defying reason, bruises still fresh plummy and my back all spazzed out like before, zipping down a horrifying but non-threatening off-map course to the side of the bunny slopes, over parking-lot caliber nature ramps and between trees, every word from my mouth Fuck Oh Shit or Yeah, an inner monologue externalized to the disdain of my personal awareness. As I coast out of the wanna-be forest past my lesson-taking ground-magnet brethren I exhale the biggest sigh of exhilaration since Altoids and slide to an angled stop as cool as fucking Akuma, two fireballs, no lessons, have a bottle of this.

In Sapporo for the festival I view sculptures made from ice and snow, and they aren’t really as great as they would have been the day before I left.

The worthy moments are those of unabashed indulgence: all-I-can-consume periods of grilled lamb and draft beer, fresh hairy crab boiled and cut just for me and served by adorable kimono-wearing twenty-somethings, warm hotel rooms. In and out of consciousness, beaten to a pulp before this train ride back to the airport I ask myself if what I’ve done was worth it, and consider the chips with which I bargain: money, time, composure, comfort, safety.

What isn’t worth the things you have gathered for the sole purpose of their elimination?