Monthly Archives: March 2010

Moeagare, Moeagare, Moeagare

It seems that the people of Japan are primarily disinterested in being Taros-of-all-trades, or at least you would not be far off-base for thinking so upon your first trip into one of the large hobby stores to be found around here. For the purposes of this examination, the Yuzawaya in downtown Kobe, a multi-floor gargantuan packed with all manner of crap, though multi-floor around here means far less than single-floor. Back home, people dabble, or commit casually to some time-gobbling pursuit: the knitter, the cook, the card player. In Japan, I can come away with no better observation than to say that people pick one, and commit hard. On my favorite floor there is a jigsaw puzzle section larger than a variety of restaurants I frequent. There are puzzles there, arranged by series, and not lumped in with board games: licensed character series, environment series, photos of Japanese attractions series, sorted by piece count, price, and god knows what else. There is also a section of frames, which are not frames for pictures, oh no. These are frames for puzzles only, the puzzles that you have built, applied one of a variety of clear coatings to, matted with one of the hundreds of colors of puzzle-sized papers you can buy, and presumably displayed in your house. There is everything for puzzles.

Other things there are everything for: everything. Next to the puzzle everythings: tiny trains, and the motors, axels, wheels, fake scenery, and electrics to make them work.

In the spirit of everything and Japan, I evaluated my recent mental state, and decided that because I am unable to refurbish pinball machines due to cumbersome size, non-existent availability, and impossible expense, I would build small scale-model plastic robots from boxes of injection-molded colored pieces attached to plastic skeins, which must be clipped away tenderly, sanded, assembled, tenderly inked, possibly painted or clear-coated, posed, and admired lovingly. I started this hobby like any reasonable American would, with a handful of cash, having done no research, and owning no essential supplies. I was ready. Until I opened the box and realized I had no way to separate the parts from the plastic they were attached to. But a hundred yen trip to the coin store later and I was crudely on my way!

This hobby is known colloquially as “gunpla,” a portmanteau (the Japanese love portmanteaus) of the words Gundam, which the model robots are based usually based on, and plastic, the substance from which the models are crafted. The models themselves are called Gunpla, and the act of and/or practices relating to building them is/are also called gunpla, such to the extent that one who gunplas Gunplas is a gunplaer, one who enjoys Gunpla, and gunplaing said Gunpla. I, as a first time Gunpla gunplaer, Absolutely Suck.

This is the result of two hours of work, and it looks larger than it is. It is my own, meticulously crafted, remarkably enjoyable to have built five inch tall Gundam, the HG RX-78-2 Ver.G30th, a variant of the original Mobile Suit Gundam from the anime series made in 1979-1980 (hence the 30th, for the 30th anniversary). Do you see all the little tiny pointy parts sticking out everywhere? These are the places that I failed, and there are at least three of them on every one of the hundreds of pieces that make up one of these goddamned things. This is because I was using a pair of crappy 100 yen wire cutters.

The beauty of gunpla is that the models themselves (these five inch versions, anyway) cost no more than ten or twelve bucks here in the Land of the Rising Fun, and even one like this, which I brazenly set out to complete as quickly as possible “just to see,” was a considerably decent cost-to-time-entertained value. Where the deal is sweetened is in the Hard Commitment, and what a rich canvas of options the gunplaer has to choose from. From the methods used to remove the pieces from their trays, the tools used to do this, the surfaces one works on, the incorporation of “panel lining” (where one traces in the ridges of parts using special Gundam Markers to add an offset emphasis), painting, clear coating, and who knows what else, the Fun Literally Never Stops. It actually continues forever, until it reaches the end of forever, which cannot happen.

Having seen these damned things stocked up in piles taller than even the grandest umbrellas, but not knowing exactly what they were before I took up this hobby, I now find myself with a new paradigm of Japanese Culture to explore, and explore it I shall: tomorrow I have a paid day off, and I am going to Osaka, and I am going to buy more stupid Gundams, because not doing so would be dumb.

– Frying a slab of fish with the skin on and being like oh hey that is not very gross
– Gunpla, obviously
– seeing a 2 liter bottle of Coke at the grocery store, the biggest container of soda I have seen in seven months, proudly touting +500ml! on it, 500ml larger than the normal large containers, available for exactly the same price as the small ones, and being ignored, because welcome to Japan (I bought one it barely fits in my fridge)
– Being struck with the revelation this morning that some cheese would be good on my curry, and putting seven or eight little anemic bits of shredded cheese on it, and saying oooh it’s so cheesy
– Getting my mail, looking through it and seeing a flyer with a completely naked young woman on it, a list of sex acts, prices, and times, and thinking “oh it’s just another flyer advertising sex for money”

This is the time of year for farewells, as I mentioned last week. During this time, a variety of every school’s teachers are randomly selected to be uprooted from their jobs and moved to other schools entirely. Excitingly, the person who I met first, my go-between, the one who coordinates between myself and my main school, who picked me up and drove me to the school from nowhere and helped me get my bank account and took me for a coffee, has been transferred, as has my go-between at my night school, and one of my three main teachers at my blind school! Also both of the principals at my main and night schools. Also every young, cute, or decent-at-English person I work with save for one or two lifers who have been transferred to other grades in the same school, and thus away from where I sit. This leaves me now in a somewhat bizarre position, outlasting the people who served to get me acquainted to these totally weird environments in the first place, and in some places reducing my “people I am friends with here” count to 0 (a number relatively challenging to bolster when you speak virtually no conversational Japanese and no longer have the “I’m the curious new foreigner try to talk to me” thing going anymore).

They all say they will do their best and they know they have to do it but here’s how it sounds to me: You’re fired! but here’s a job where you don’t know anyone and which will require you to change your life and routine entirely now pack your shit you have a week left bye! The rest of you: you could be next! One guy was there for twelve years now oops, time to go. The wheels of Japanese bureaucracy grind ever onward, leaving exactly what was expected in their wake. “These blind adherences to procedure and policy are often neither beneficial nor effective, but by doing things this way will we be doing them the same ways we’ve been doing them for years dammit and by god we are going to continue not doing anything to change that!” I am stricken again with one of those inconvenient observations of discord, where the seams peel back and you see underneath for a moment, with the ironic contradictions between ideal and policy: the harmonious Japanese Wa, the peaceful unchanging balance, the togetherness of the workforce, upset by things like the transfers, the unbalance. The expressed desire to integrate with cultures and harmonize, offset with the negative perception of the Inquisitive American vs the gaman spirit: do not ask questions, just accept your situation. Let’s live peacefully, all by ourselves, with everyone!

Note to self and concerned know-it-alls: I am not an angry person, I am not undergoing culture shock, I am trying not to stereotype, I am not “finally seeing Japan for what it really is,” I am not jaded or bitter or disenchanted, my “fantasy” was not “better than my reality,” this is not “the first step,” and I make no presumptions about being any sort of cultural anthropologist, nationalistic apologist, blind Japanophile, deaf Americanist, or curator of the world’s great unjustices. I am just a guy who is happy with his life, and a little irritated about certain things that happen in it as a “member” of the Japanese work force. Other things that irritate me: American Idol, umeboshi candy, and iCarly. Time for some fried chicken with mayonnaise on it!

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The art of how to waste space

In the men’s room I am caught between times, the same way one identifies a new wing added to an old building: on this side, Luxurious 1980s Wood Paneling, the prestigiously ornate fixtures and whatsits typical of the times of the economic miracle, gorgeous, decadent. It is Beverly Hills Cop II, cocaine, Pac-Man, Scarface, big digital watches, aviator sunglasses, gold necklaces, Miami Vice, a bottle of single-barrel scotch on the desk. On the other side of the bathroom, splitting it in two, a garish blue dividing wall for the western style toilet. It is cut with swoops, has a big circle bored into it somewhere along the top. It is Zubaz pants, the Olympic Dream Team, an arcade full of Mortal Kombats, Boyz II Men, Planet Hollywood, high-top Reeboks, comic books, Zima. I can almost note the exact line dividing the room, when the years changed mid-design, mid-construction?

This is Rokko Island (unrelated to the animated wallaby or adult film actor). In a way it is the younger, less popular, abandoned amusement park to Port Island, the other large artificial island in Kobe. Whereas Port Island features an airport, huge expanses of housing, a big driving school, an excitingly modern rail service, an IKEA, and some supermarkets (but feels strangely sparse), Rokko feels smaller and more commercial, yet somehow even emptier. It elicits a feeling of cultural fusion/confusion, like a European paradise necessarily still in Japan, just south of the mainland for all the businessmen here with their familes for two years who can’t be troubled to assimilate. There are no less than three stores where one can acquire imported foodstuffs, and walking into one wing of the River Mall is like entering what seems like a half-deserted glory-days JCPenney’s but is still alarmingly in operational status: designed to be the central hub of all human entertainment and serving now as the equivalent of a suburban stripmall. A gust pushes past us through the door and blows a stack of flyers off an information counter manned by nobody. On the top floor resides a tenant the developers obviously had in mind during construction: a massive hundred-yen store with boxes of fresh-off-the-boat plastic brooms lining the walkways.

It is a strange place, the central area of this island, serviced by the dinky four-car Rokko Liner, an automatic rail line that elicits the familiar sensation of being about to be flung around a corner on a wooden roller coaster. All of the areas are in some way interconnected, so that you can essentially wander through the various buildings and covered malls without ever actually stepping foot outside. The courtyard, a confusing concrete-and-wood construct of winding little moats, peculiarly placed walkways, abstract metal statues and currently barren flowerbeds serves as a backdrop to what I understand is one of the only Subway restaurants in Hyogo prefecture. And what a Subway it is, too, still cozily adorned with brand signage of the original Subway’s incarnation: the oval, arrowed logo with heavy block font on a sun-faded yellow awning gave it away as soon as I glanced that direction from the confusing block spiral staircase taking us down.

Entertainingly, the only lunchmeat-based sandwiches that they offer are the Subway Club (ham, turkey, roast beef), and a derivation thereof (just roast beef). The meats themselves are just of the anemic Japanese variety though, with the Club sporting tiny cracker sized bites of beef, a single piece of roast turkey, and two stacked slices of ham. I watched them making it for the kid in front of me and wisely changed my mind from Club to Something Else. The other choices are of varied types: a Korean-style beef and peppers filling, one with oven-roasted chicken, a shrimp and avocado. Everything is just a little off though: they toast your bread before putting anything on it instead of to melt the cheese (which does not come standard and instead costs extra), all the amounts of everything are small (two pickles, two slices of black olive), and no drink refills allowed on your 300 yen large-sized cup (the sign even says, in English: “No Refills! so please fill it up as much as possible!”) We waited for ten minutes to order as the two sandwich artists struggled through their massive backlog of four people, carefully adding one ingredient, then the next. In an exciting reminder of Our Heritage, however, the Subway both distributes and accepts the long-since-eliminated Sub Club reward card. I clutched it tightly to my breast, and caught a whiff of America. The sandwich was all I had hoped it would be, specifically: meat, sauces, and vegetables surrounded by bread.

Almost as though to section off the inhabitable parts of the island from the rest, the rich, developed center is set apart from the rest by thick shrubs and a walking path, cleverly hiding the enormous factories and distribution centers from eyeshot. Behind them is the alarmingly difficult to find Price Club, a smallish store (touted to be “Massive” on the company’s own website) offering foreign import-style shopping for those too cheap to go to Amagasaki and hit the Costco. A few cans of genuine high-fructose corn syrup Cherry Coke and Dr. Pepper, along with some packages of frozen American-style Farmville franks found their way into my basket at prices I refuse to disclose. I laughed uproariously at some of the other exotic goods: 490 yen frozen black bean burrito, 2500 yen exciting American laundry detergent, Mac and Cheese (320 yen, but only 275 if you are a Price Club member). For prices in the 4500-7000 yen range, coupled with a good few days/weeks of advance notice, you could even order a rare bird called a “turkey,” though I’m not sure I’d have any fucking clue what exactly to do with it when it arrived, since ovens here are generally of the toaster variety and smaller than any bird I’ve ever eaten for Thanksgiving.

Everything on Rokko seems to be catered for (or at least navigable by) the English Speaking transplant, with most restaurants offering translated menus, many stores bearing English product descriptions, and everywhere a variety of people who will gladly participate in conversations with you in which you speak your limited Japanese and they speak their limited English like some sort of perverse but intriguing Tower of Babel scenario, both of you speaking something entirely different but still coming away with some sort of meaning. On Rokko Island, somewhat annoyingly, you will even predominantly find shitty western-style capsule machines of the red metal type, bearing instead of awesome Evangelion robots or snap-together half-clothed kinky ninja assassins a variety of cheap stickers, confusing rubber goos, or flimsy plastic rings. In a peculiar twist we also found the only stand-alone gumball machine I have seen in this country, operating solely on 10-yen coins, which virtually no other non-drink vending machine will accept.

By the time we emerged from our day of exploration we were just ready to “get back home,” to the island we could see from this one but would still have to take three more trains to reach. From the comfort of our apartment we celebrated the onset of spring by grilling, which is to say we wrapped chicken and fish with vegetables and olive oil in aluminum foil, then stuck it in our fish tray and lit the burner. For the bargain rate of 78,000 yen we could have purchased a full-sized culture-defying gas grill at Price Club. I figure we could hook the heating unit’s gas line up to it and have steaks in the living room, but for now the fish tray will do all we require.

The weekend being one of those cherished three-dayers, sporter of a national holiday compensatory Monday off, we also took the opportunity to Try Again with Kyoto on a gorgeous sunny day. If our directionless Kyoto trip of two weeks ago was essentially an example of oblivious ignorance, this weekend’s excursion would be more akin to willfully uninformed. This time, iPhone maps in hand, we had a plan, not involving any specific destinations, but based mostly on what we wanted to come home with: some monk’s scribbling in our temple book, a variety of incense, a good meal in the tummy, etcetera. With alarming ease we managed to find the watch shops we were seeking last time, in which I strangely simultaneously expectedly yet ironically decidedly decided that nothing I saw was really that appealing, and purchased nothing.

This task aside, however, we managed to lose ourselves in a most handy way, first selecting the temple on the map closest to us, and then going into it. It happened to be called Chion-in, and has something to do with Buddha. After we went up to the top of it we got some ice cream from a vending machine. As I finished it, a middle-aged woman carried another one up to me while I sat on the bench. “I bought the wrong one,” she told us, “I don’t like this one, you like it? You can eat it?” I took it and we gave it to a kid behind us. I am not sure the parents were thrilled, which I say only in retrospect: the child bounced excitedly away after finishing the ice pop, with parents in hot pursuit and not so much as a “thank you for hyperizing our three-year-old!”

From here we continued our wandering through interconnected areas, so very Rokko-esque, first through a neighboring park where we saw our first cherry blossoms of the year, and then through some of the main shopping streets all set up for the tourists and bearing thousands of varieties of goods, snacks, non-Japanese things, very Japanese things, and other crap. We bought the incense, as planned, and an eight-pack of fresh, hot, tofu donuts, which we had seen last time but asked a bystanderly policeman about this time, just to be sure. In one of the more humorous moments of the weekend, he casually consulted with his partner, and then, smiling, but refusing to crack any jokes or laugh until we were out of range, called in a serious request on his walkie-talkie system. “Uh… excuse me but… Tofu donuts… do you know where they are?” Meanwhile, Jessy and I bore no such reverence for our irreverent request, and laughed openly at the peculiarity of our situation:

Breaker 1-9 Breaker 1-9 I got a gal here says she’s looking for some Tofu Donuts, says they may be hot and delicious over

We found them, with his verbal assistance, as we would have anyway had we just continued on our way. They were hot and delicious! And for the more curious among you, not actualy made out of solid blocks of tofu or anything, but merely incorporating said substance within the batter that composes them. (The finished product is light, airy, and somewhat flavorless if not a little greasy-tasting. I say they would benefit from some powdered sugar, but what wouldn’t, anyway.)

For our evening meal we took it upon ourselves to visit a Thai restaurant we had passed on our first trip to Kyoto (the trip when we were forced to buy gelatinous fish-cubes at a shitty rip-off restaurant). It was the first Pad Thai I had eaten at an actual Thai restaurant since before I actually started cooking it on my own, and I analyzed its taste carefully for future attempts before hogging it own with discouraging abandon. Jessy ordered ice cream for desert, which was naturally purple and tasted like sweet potatoes.

Still on the topic of food, and to resolve some Pregnant Chads leftover from last week’s correspondence, I must mention one of the things that I so anxiously awaited as I composed before my thoughts on the then-upcoming Friday: Steak. Yes, steak, the meat of a cow cooked on a hot grill. As it turns out, we most certainly did eat steak, at a little place called Kochan’s, which was selected for us by the people we attended with, and which was pretty satisfactory. From what I understand it is popular among foreigners in Kobe because there is an English menu, an alarmingly easy gateway to more money that a rather bizarre majority of restaurateurs here choose not to pass through. The hundred grams of choice wagyu was accompanied with some carrots, daikon, some sashimi-style appetizer meats, the traditional miso soup, garlic fried rice, and some other stuff. The steak was pretty tasty! Even now I am preoccupied with thoughts of it like some early 14th century lover who has promised to return to me one day.

The other Friday thing, the Yakuza 3, has annoyingly Not Happened, which is a damned shame since I had that big fat three-day weekend that I could have used part of to totally play the shit out of it. As it turns out, sometimes the import shop that I use to import U.S. games to this country is just all like “whups not gonna get there very fast” and there is nothing I can do about it because they quote something absurd like “please allow up to three weeks for your package to arrive.” So here I am still waiting. In the mean time I have downloaded a tiny little game for my Wii called Cave Story, in which you control a tiny little guy and shoot weapons at tiny little creatures while you go through tiny little caves. It is a port of a game by the same name that was originally released for free for PCs somewhere around four years ago, coded by one mysterious Japanese man who had refused to release a picture of himself but gladly divulged the following information: Is 5’5″, 126 pounds, coded the game for five years all by himself, rides a bicycle to work, has kids, and will not make any more games. The Wii version has upgraded graphics (which look pretty nice), and “upgraded” music (which sucks). Thankfully you can play with the old music or graphics. Anyway, I anticipate this will occupy my gaming time for the next few days until Yakuza arrives, at which point I will unceremoniously jettison all other real-world responsibilities in favor of punching virtual heads in like slightly deflated basketballs.

– Today’s bento, named “Deluxe Middle (some 10-stroke kanji I don’t know) Bento,” containing rice with sesame seeds, half of a potato croquette, a small portion of yakisoba noodles, a weird pickled ginger thing, four large sweet breaded fried chicken nuggets, and three meatballs with ketchup, clocking in at 1,178 calories and 46.2 grams of fat, or 48 calories and .4 grams of fat less than last week’s Wednesday bento, making it basically health food
– The lead news story on NHK last night, which detailed the agonizing near-deaths of a train full of people who were harmlessly stranded for two hours in the train while it sat in the station, the doors powerless and unable to be opened due to some sort of bizarre electrical failure, with live by-the-minute updates on whether or not the people were out of the train
– A gashapon machine I routinely pass on the way to work, which is toilet and poop themed, and from which you can receive such toy prizes as: a shiny gold Japanese toilet, a sparkly western style toilet (versions with and without washlet bidet available) and literal coils of polished human feces, conveniently outfitted with straps so you can proudly carry them around attached to your cell phone
– A pizza delivery order form which arrived in our mailbox, from which you can order a pizza which I believe is called “Challenge Meats” and which contains four separate kinds of meat on the four quarters of the pizza, and which costs for a large size roughly twenty bucks more than any reasonable person would pay for a large pizza
– One TV station’s obsession with American music artist Lady Gaga, who devoted a ten-minute segment to the reactions of newscasters who watched her roll around on the floor in a Wonder Woman outfit, and then use soda cans as hair curlers (the reactions mostly involved the phrase “eeeeehhh?!” uttered with various emphases and for varying durations)
– The rarity and luxury item expense of Hyper-seasonal Decadent Super-amazing Confoundingly Delicious asparagus, which you can now pre-order baskets of via a special form in our grocery store for around twenty-five to thirty dollars

The upcoming weekend promises to be the first of a few consecutive busy ones, they being packed with (sequentially) a farewell party for our school’s principal, a farewell party for a departing long-time resident of the foreigner community, a cherry blossom viewing (saying farewell to winter in favor of spring), a pub quiz night (saying farewell to the opponents who will be reduced to whimpering masses at the hands of my team’s hulkingly comprehensive trivia knowledge), and a farewell party for my continued sobriety. In many ways, a lot of the daily life here tends to revolve around the idea of saying farewell to things, mainly things that you either wanted or at least found pleasing, in favor of things that take their places. Recently the Japanese have been forced to say farewell to the Hawaiian burger at McDonald’s, the icy coldness of winter, the availability of massive nabe sections at the grocery store, and Avatar in 3D.

At all three of my schools I am now no longer the newest employee by virtue of saying farewell to several teachers, who are, in Japan, sort of bizarre trading cards, bartered between schools every few years just because, a fact that makes me a little uncomfortable until I realize I will perhaps be continually regarded as the new guy by the old guard until I myself say farewell. In many ways saying farewell is so common place that it is barely dwelled upon. I prefer this approach, as with so many things: the stresses of outwardly recognizing that something is leaving you are far more troublesome than a shared understanding of this fact: without saying farewell, of course we can meet again, right?

In a variety of ways, this sort of sentiment reminds me a shade of my feelings about Rokko: the acknowledgment of a zeitgeist long since experienced but not entirely forgotten, carved into the images we prefer: the cocaine cowboys, the cool 80s business acumen, Karl Malone, New Kids on the Block. Here is the anachronism, the luxury and the frivolity, fading away without ever needing to say farewell, just that you remember it, and of course we can meet again, right?

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Spread with butter and topped with good, rich, broiled eels

My bag packed with four identical plush keychains modeled in the image of a bafflingly popular cute bear named Rilakkuma (an exciting Japanese portmanteau of the word relax and kuma, meaning respectively “to chill out” and “a bear”), I consider whether the few bucks I popped into the UFO machine to win them Just Because I Could were worth it. For me, anyway, UFO machines are so often more about the thrill of the hunt, the flirtations with success, than the stupid prize. The result hinges on an almost intangible moment somewhere between commitment and the evaluation of perception, a sliding scale of success that starts at 100%, plummets, and then inverts the longer you’re confident that you at least haven’t lost. For me the prizes are merely a token of my having outwitted a rigged game in the name of humanity: for you I shall capture it all.

Did you know that the company that created Rilakkuma, San-X, holds its employees under obligation to create at least one “cute character” per month? Also, Rilakkuma once lied to its friends, Kiiroitori and Korilakkuma (a tiny white bear and chicken), by telling him that his ears were made out of castella, a scrumptious pancake-like snack popular at fairs and carnivals. After Rilakkuma told this lie, the white bear and chicken proceeded to bite his ears. Some friends!

Disregarding the equally cute but slightly more anachronistic chibi-style super-deformed Ultraman plushie that I had already won, these four Rilakkumas were my only wins of the night at the acknowledgably bizarre ROUND1 amusement complex, a giant 12-ish floor building crammed to the sills with token-wagering machines, UFO catchers, virtual drumming games (like the one I played a while back at that arcade called COO or GOO or whatever), virtual weird tapping games where you tap buttons in some sort of mysterious rhythm, jumbo-sized Tetris with joysticks the size of small children, a tank battle game where little Taro and Hiroshi get their photos taken and proceed to blast the virtual shit out of virtual each other, and a game that simulates the act of “up-ending the tea table.” To play this game, you either tap on a plastic table in front of you (to represent your anger), pound heavily on the plastic table (to represent your violent anger), or flip the entire thing up in the air from the bottom (to represent fuck this i’m outta here).

On the upper floors are the real draws: a wall of the only dart boards that I or anyone else I am acquainted with seem to know exist in the city of Kobe, a side-room full of pool tables, and upper floors dedicated solely to bowling. ROUND1’s slogan, printed in massive, hundreds-upon-hundreds point font on an enormous vinyl banner hung to the side of the building and viewable from the train, reads:

Do you like bowling?
Let’s play bowling.
Breaking down the pins
and get hot communication.

As it turns out, I do like bowling. But this night was unfortunately not the night that I would play bowling or breaking down the pins or get hot communication. The wait time for bowling was thirty to forty minutes. So our ragtag crew played pool instead. Between shots I took a moment to watch a nicely dressed group of four seeming co-workers (two men, two women, all in suits) rowdily storm up to one of the dart boards to play. Apparently unfamiliar with the rules to this non-bowling game, each one of them threw one dart before running up, removing it, and pressing the button to advance to the next player, counting the two darts that they did not throw as total misses. It was difficult to watch.

On the ground level of this self-proclaimed Amusement Park is a McDonald’s restaurant. I ate there once before when I had first moved here (two McPorks and a medium Coke, I recall!) but could have had no concept of the brutal amusement-based amusements which rested a mere twelve stories above.

Later in the week, the glories of stripes and solids still fresh in my mind, I took it upon myself to ensure future amusement of the visual type by stealing borrowing indefinitely from a massive group of hundreds of decentralized pseudo-acquaintances the entire original run of landmark anime series Mobile Suit Gundam, which, by virtue of being the first Japanese animated program to discard the trappings of the Super Robot and instead focus on “real robots,” mobile suits piloted in actual wartime environments by humans, integrated and entwined itself completely with modern Japanese culture. As part of our nightly commercial-free hour of anime, a block of programming I would be proud to witness on any modern television network, it now finds itself both appreciated and enjoyed alongside (currently) Code Geass, a modern alternate-future wartime mecha anime, and Furi Kuri, a six episode OVA that is virtually impossible to describe (mysterious girl uses electric guitar to beat local boy Takkun into submission while he sprouts strange robotic aliens from his head?).

Already I’ve mentally assumed the role of Director of Programming, living out the repressed network executive fantasies of my youth by concertedly seeking out new and exciting shows that not only appropriately fill any voids created by the ending of various series, but seem like candidates worthy of inclusion (and enjoyable mutually by Jessy and myself). After Furi Kuri wraps up I’m going to replace it with another short series, maybe thirteen episodes, and am currently going back and forth between Elfen Lied (teenage girl with horns telekinetically wreaks murderous vengeance upon human racists) and Oh! Edo Rocket (firework maker in Edo period of Japanese history attempts to build massive rocket to carry people to the moon). The Internet’s the limit!

For a moment on Sunday, as I considered the various shows that I might integrate into the lineup, my thoughts drifted to my ever-so-beloved series Neon Genesis Evangelion, and I couldn’t help but notice that while Yoko, of Gurren Lagann fame, found herself immortalized in plasticine atop our TV stand, no representatives of Tokyo-3 were so fortunate. Enter indiscretion #2, lovingly modeled by figure makers Yamato after an original image by Shunya Yamashita:

It was the last one on, which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t have purchased it anyway, only that the condition hastened the process: ordering online and issued a payment number via e-mail not long after, I hoofed it downstairs to the FamilyMart and used their “FamiPort” terminal to print off an order slip, which I paid for with cash at the register. Literally 36 hours later the figure had arrived at our house, which seems to be alarmingly typical of the Japanese postal service and private couriers, in my experiences with purchasing online goods. I was able to rationalize this purchase by telling myself that it is an interestingly designed figure, that she is costumed differently than in the show and looks more adult and modern, that it is okay to own a nice piece of memorabilia as a reminder of my time spent inundated in outdated fanpage series analyses, in senior cyberpunk thesis rewatches, of seeing the second movie shortly after moving to Japan. But I was not necessarily the one that needed convincing.

I didn’t tell Jessy we would soon be welcoming a new harlot to the family until after I had wooed her favor with a White Day meal calculated to win her affections (bowtie pasta with sauteed crab meat and mushrooms in truffle cream sauce, steamed carrots and broccoli, garlic toast, raspberry torte), and I think the situation was left better for it. “Oh god it’s not Shinji is it?” was a comforting initial question from her about the purchase before I told her what exactly it was. It wasn’t Shinji, at least, though I displayed a bit of trepidation before actually giving her a link to the photographs. However, now that it is said and done, it is worth noting that one scantly-clad toy begets another, and as far as I am concerned the roads to moral oblivion are now paved.

Speaking of Jessy (but only so I can talk about food again), last weekend while I was living it up at ROUND1 and getting drunk on malt beverage, she was day-trippin’ around Shikoku with some of her teachers from work. Visiting many of the same places that her and I did back during Silver Week, they sampled a variety of udon, those delicious noodles so famous in these parts by virtue of being “sanuki” udon in those parts: slightly chewy and ever-so-delicious. Being the prophetic future-teller that she is, she figured I’d appreciate her bringing some back for us, and did she ever: we now have boxes of fresh udon that will deliver no fewer than eight two-person meals, and all the tasty dashi stock and spicy seasoning we need to go with it. On Monday we stopped by Daiei and grabbed a variety of tempura-fried objects with which to inaugurate our first batch: shrimp, strange vegetable clusters, and even green beans. Hot, flavorful, and happily slurped the udon likely found themselves on cloud nine at our table, dispatched with care. On Friday I plan to go home from work early and merely soak myself in a tub full of hot dashi stock, the closest I will likely ever come to becoming udon myself.

Also on Friday are the coming-to-pass of two blue color-coded Personal category events I have had on my Google calendar for the last few weeks:

Yakuza 3

The first, Steak, is self-explanatory: the meat of a cow (steak), lovingly cooked with fire (grilled) and then savored by way of consumption. I think this is it guys, the big kahuna, my first restaurant wagyu. Presumably it will be of higher quality and preparation than my own birthday-time supermarket aquired and self-cooked home efforts, not any sort of Special feat but certainly one worthy of merit. I can already taste the salty steak seasonings, the pepper, the lightest bit of caramelization and char where the meat meets that grill, smell the Smoke Of The Ages wafting through the air.

Yakuza 3 is less self-explanatory, but that is where I come in. You may be familiar with the Yakuza, a term commonly and somewhat errantly Americanized as “the Japanese Mafia,” due to a variety of media avenues promoting their efforts: Fukasaku Kinji’s five-film series Battles Without Honor and Humanity is still probably the most famous Yakuza representation in the movie realm, while Takeshi “Beat” Kitano did stuff like Sonatine and Brother more recently. Notoriously in Kobe anyway, the Yakuza are known for having actually mobilized their structure so hastily as to provide assistance and supplies to citizens in the wake of the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake in 1995, before even the city’s official support system was able to fully activate.

In the realm of video games, however, there is in modern times really only one Yakuza, the (ironically) English-release title of the even less-English-sounding-than-Yakuza “Ryu ga Gotoku” (Like a Dragon) series of games. This one’s the third one in the series, now playable on our fancy PS3. In this game, I will take control of a Yakuza dude, and do things certainly including the following: beat up jerks who think they can take me but can’t, run around a convincingly realistic rendering of the red-light district of Tokyo Shinjuku solving mysteries, stop into a variety of places like convenience stores, karaoke bars, arcades, pool halls, onsen/table-tennis parlors, and batting cages and do the things one expects to do in them, accrue vast sums of virtual yen, hone my skills as a noted and feared ass-kicker, take trendy young women on dates, create new weapons with which to more convincingly kick ass, and catch big tuna with my fishing rod.

Being now less removed from the life of a Japanese citizen than I was as an American one, but still firmly removed from the life of a steely-faced Yakuza with a heart of gold, the game (which arrives on Friday) pulls double-duty wish fulfillment for me. Not only is it seemingly an entertaining video game in which I get to do all the stuff above, but it also concerns itself most specifically with Japanese culture and settings (even if they are based around the dramatized life of a Yakuza), which I am now somewhat familiar with via actual contact in the physical realm. Just as playing an open-world video game where I am allowed to enter Wal-Mart and buy bags full of Sam’s Choice cookies might now seem a trifle less interesting, being able to enter a Lawson and walk away with arms full of C.C. Lemon and Suntory Premium Malts holds an immediate and peculiar attraction relevant to my daily life. On top of that I get to experience these aspects of the culture from the comfort of my living room as an ass-kicker known for kicking ass, which is something that I like to kick. I am excited for this game.

– Realizing I would like some Miracle Whip for a sandwich, then remembering lunchmeat for sandwiches basically does not exist in Japan
– Catching a re-run of a show I saw last Wednesday about a young boy who is afraid to climb onto his dad’s boat for a party because he is afraid of being on the bridge over the water, and identifying it as a rerun after only seeing it for ten seconds
– Rilakkuma
– From the convenience store clerk I have purchased meals from on a regular basis for months now, “are chopsticks alright?” No, I eat with my fingers and my own personal ivory fork
– Today’s 480 yen bento, emblazoned with kana translating to “Mighty Volume,” purchased from said clerk, which includes a hamburger patty, potato salad, fried chicken, rice, mayo, a fried curry potato croquette, and a little bottle of sauce labelled merely “sauce,” and which I selected partially because of the name but mostly because it looked delicious. Also it has 46.6 grams of fat and 1,226 calories

Today it is St. Patrick’s day, notable primarily because for the first St. Patrick’s Day that I can recall I am actually wearing green, not just a dress shirt striped in green but a green sweater as well, and even green socks. I feel a little more green actually than I am admittedly comfortable being, especially among the prevailing seas of blacks and whites. To be honest, my wardrobe situation would be greatly simplified if I merely Turned Japanese in this regard; owning a handful of identical white shirts, black socks, a suit or three in slightly differing styles, and a variety of ties would ensure I never needed to think about how to dress or devote myself towards getting a particular article washed for a certain day. You’re on notice, wardrobe-variety-ballyhooers, for the stress of color-coordinating will eventually be just too much for me to deal with anymore.

If these Nomadays only make it sound like my life revolves around arcades, anime, Jessy, alcohol, slutty toys, video games, and food, it’s because often times those are exactly the things it revolves around (or rather, they are the things that revolve around me?). These are the stories of a teacher whose schools are on spring break, and which exclude the other, larger part of my life: sit at a desk for forty hours a week and find something, anything, to do. Case in point: this entry is the longest Nomaday to date! (Grandma, I hope you bought lots of paper for your print-outs.)

The symbol of his liberty

Last weekend we found ourselves in Kyoto again, with the best of intentions and none of the planning. Having taken the just-shy-of-an-hour train ride there a few times to date, but always accompanying someone more familiar with the city than we are, I was used to being happily drug around from point a to point b. Flying solo, or at least duo if you include my joyfully oblivious to niggling travel affairs like “directions” or “goals” partner, is a bit of a different story. The Macguffin of the trip was that we were out to go to the watch shop, a place we had been past accidentally before but conveniently did not look up on the Internet before leaving, didn’t recall the location of, and couldn’t remember the name of. After leaving Kyoto station, boarding a bus, getting trapped in the back, and then being verbally and physically assaulted by Jessy to get off the bus at a particular stop, I accidentally dropped six hundred and forty yen into the machine as my fare, nearly three times the amount, and then was informed (by said Jessy) that we had gotten off at the wrong stop. Did I mention it was cold, raining, and neither of us had thought we ought to bring an umbrella? Brilliance in action. We are seasoned adventurers.

Jessy seemed to recall a few things about the shop, the most meaty of them being not that it was next to a temple (in Kyoto, a useless piece of information), but that there was a temple nearby, which is like saying you’re looking for that one convenience store, you know, the one by one of those train stations, you know, with the stuff. Less promising was our vague recollection that “we came from that way” and in distant third that at one point during the day we first visited the store we took a bus that may or may not have dropped us off somewhere around here on the map, from where we may have walked north and turned left (or right).

But really the watch shop was just an idea, like the monkey farms or the salt mines of Kessel–a place you might end up if you were concertedly trying to get there. What happened instead was a day embodying the phrase “milling about.” This lead us into and out of a store that specialized in peculiar rhythm instruments including but not limited to the steel drum and assortments of things that looked like combs. It brought us up a street where three Japanese boys with fine English asked if they could take my picture for their photography class, and then proceeded to put strange instruments just under my chin and near my face. It led us down rows of UFO catchers so rigged for the huge masses of people that surely use them that they were entirely unwinnable, and it brought us to a fine stationary and incense store that smelled so good so as to convince me that I needed to buy an incense holder and an assortment of incense immediately because our house should smell like this too. I did not buy the incense.

The greatest place was ostensibly a cafe, though their claims to fame surely seemed to be the parfaits and ice cream sundaes. The menu contains something like two-hundred-and-eleven varieties of them, and I made the most reasonable selection: a chocolate and vanilla affair with fruit-filled yogurt, bananas, apple, kiwi, a cherry, and the obvious inclusion: slices of a panko-breaded deep-fried pork cutlet drizzled with tonkatsu sauce. I only made this choice because the other sundae I was looking at contained instead of the pork a number of fried chicken nuggets, and I had just consumed some chicken earlier in the day. We never even got close to where the watch shop was (we looked it up once we got back home). We did, however, eat ice cream with fried pork in it. As unintended destinations go I found it most fortuitous.

At home we put beef on skewers and fire grilled them in our tiny fish tray while watching some kind of TV show where a man with a sweatsuit and an erection pulls some sort of netting over his wife’s face ignoring her cries of stop! no! to the disgust/amusement of two guests in his house. I think it was a comedy show? People were laughing.

My face looked sort of like the word “derp” would look, if it were a face.

– The back of my package of grape gummy candies says “GOOD ME!” and then in Japanese “Pure gummy project begin!” After that there is a promotion for “Pure gummy fansite renewal”
– On television in the break room, a how-to cooking show during which the lady puts in a casserole dish, with a handy procedural diagram: cabbage, then meat, then cheese, then cabbage, then meat, then cheese, then cabbage. Then she microwaves it
– One of the people I eat with remarking as I finished the last bit of my rice at lunch “you eat up beautifully”

Though I am only permitted to go once a week, I have begun to take a particular and new enjoyment from teaching at my school for blind students, most specifically in that recently I have been tasked with more frequent requests to go do stuff with the little kids. Last week we had an argument over whose string was longer, and it totally was mine, because I am awesome. Then we ate Peko-chan cake with some old people who visited, and my little Yuna-chan totally ignored the old people to bring me my cake first. And then the kids invited me to their sushi party next week. There will be tuna and ham, which is fucking boss, because I love tuna and ham. Also one of them gave me a roll of clear tape as a present and said it was for “when you break things.” It is this kind of compelling interaction that makes me sometimes wish I worked there more than once a week. Though I don’t know that I could handle the tiny Mike n’ Ike sized opaque fishies in my seaweed and octopus salad and 5.3% fatty milk for lunch at an increased rate of delivery.

Tasked to write some kind of essay for the occasional English newsletter/journal of my high school, I came up with something about how the seasons are changing and so is everything, as you switch grades, graduate, make new friends, and (to quote my students) so on. I mentioned that many people regret not enjoying their time in high school more, and so they should give it their all, and enjoy!! I did this because most of them seem to like it here, and saying “high school is a big farce, most of your classmates are dipshits, get the hell out and go to college as fast as your tiny legs can carry you” might stir the seeds of unrest (if any of them actually read it, which they don’t(?)).

Still, there was a special innocence and an availability of time which existed for me at that magnificent juncture, before the obligations of real life crept in but after the ability to reason at a useful level really found its footing. I’m not sure I fully believed it as it happened, but surely high school is the time for video games and instant ramen, or would be if these poor bastards weren’t at school every day playing the same flute scales or practicing their batting stance. I note the special taste of a certain strangeness in that I, as a American high-schooler grinding away on my Super NES and Playstation every day, occasionally wished for nothing more than a sample of what Japanese teenage life was like, and they, being now my second-year high school students, absorbed in clubs and homework, were six years old at the time.

Have I mentioned lately that I love the goddamned toy store? Any toy store is okay really. Sofmap is more of an electronics store that also has an enormous section for figures and gashapon, several rows of new and used video games for everything back to the Playstation, and other crap. Joshin’s all new stuff and a few old games but has neat stuff like novelty clocks and kid toys (walls of LEGO, Pokemon figures, Ultramans). Yamada has a little bit of everything but also a big models section. I just want to buy it all. Sometimes I just wander about and look around, marveling at the fact that such wonders exist. Last time I went to Sofmap I bought some Space Invaders magnets for our fridge for a coin a piece from the vending machine while Jessy ran into the crazy hentai porn area (sectioned off with a little curtain) and scuffled out mortified two minutes later. One day I’m gonna go into Sofmap and come out with another ten thousand yen lewd figure from some anime or video game. I have to avoid Yodobashi Camera in Osaka because it has a floor the size of an entire normal store that is virtually all toys. I love toys, and the goddamned toy store. I am six years old.

Today in an effort to make my lifestyle just the tiniest bit healthier, I decided to substitute my usual two big cans of night school Fanta for a bottle of Natchan apple juice and some green tea. They say the green tea is really good for people to drink! The deal with green tea here is that it is essentially more popular than water, and a lot of restaurants just give it to you by default. I have never had a problem with this and have actually quite grown to enjoy it, but because it is so popular there are literally something like sixty different kinds at the konbini. Short bottles, tall bottles, lighter colors, darker colors, some saying no calories, no caffeine, blah blah blah. The best part is that because green tea is such a WE JAPANESE kind of drink, all the bottles are imperceptibly written with a million kanji that I don’t know and can’t read to get some sort of clue as to what kind I actually am drinking or which kind I like. Every time I buy it, it tastes different, looks different, and costs a different price!

So today I just said fuck it and picked one at random (one of them on sale, a Suntory kind cause hey guys I like you). It’s pretty good. I figure I’ll try them until I find one I don’t like, and then I’ll stop getting ones that look like that. This one is 100% something, and thanks to a couple furigana I have determined it is apparently called iyemon cha, which the Internet says is a kind of occasionally roasted green tea blended with a little matcha (a younger, richer type of powdered green tea). From now, I plan on consuming a typical modern Japanese diet of which green tea is a component, and after enough huge bowls of rice, deep fried meats, chicken with the skin still on, mayonnaise, richly marbled beef, and creamy Hokkaido butter, I fully expect to be the spitting image of health.

You cannot get more time

The third-years have graduated, classes are out, the weather’s getting nice, we have tons of movies to watch and games to play at home, and all this comfort is resulting in very uneventful but persistently enjoyable relaxed existence. Sometimes I ache for adventures, for excitement, for something new, and then I open a C.C. Lemon, pick up a Wii controller, and throw banana peels at turtles in go-karts. Sometimes I feel like making an ass of myself and I often do this as a community activity (where other people, aching for adventure, come to my house and drink in a totally adventurous way, then throw banana peels at turtles in go-karts). Last week I went to an enkai with my co-workers, drank lots of hot sake, ate a plate of raw fish, ate a cooked fish in a white goop, ate some white goop made of pureed fish, ate a baked fish with its head still on, and ate some more raw fish (this time on rice). Afterwards I stumbled into an arcade with some weird name (COO? GOO? I forget) and beat on a drumming game for an hour. This may seem adventuresome, but has shockingly become relatively normal to me.

In fact, it’s been such an uneventful week that the most immediate highlight of note is that today I took four hulking baggies of change into Sannomiya and deposited them at the ATM, repeatedly meeting the maximum of 100 coins per transaction. I’ve been meaning to get around to it for some time, but have never had the ambition for it since the bags were fucking heavy. Excitingly, change is simply more valuable here than in the states. The largest coin we have back there is a quarter, and the smallest bill they have here is basically ten dollars. So, although Weighty Indeed, the bags were dense with rich value. When the dust had settled I was 44,589 yen richer (at current exchange rates, a little over five hundred bucks). Surely the largest cold hard coin exchange I’ve ever taken part in, and a little bit of a rush, too: I felt kind of like some sort of felon hanging around the same ATM for a half an hour, continuously pulling sacks of coins out of my bag. I caught a reflection of the security guard in the shiny metal of the machine and wondered what he could peg me for. “Depositing too many coins” or “banking with us” didn’t seem like they would be good enough reasons for him to confront the weird foreigner though.

As I pumped fistful after fistful of money into the damned machine, it occured to me that there was probably a “normal human” way to deposit 1900 coins into your bank account, like taking them to the bank. But at the bank I can’t talk to anyone very well, and I wouldn’t have gotten to listen to the cool machine count all my money. In the future… I might investigate the normal human way.

So what do I do with 44,589 now-useful yen? I could buy every toy from a wall of gashapon machines and pelt small children and yipping dogs with them on my way to work, attempt to clear out all the prizes from a UFO machine at Namco Land, purchase a second Playstation 3 and another DS just for fun, go eat Kobe beef for supper every night this week, fill my entire bathroom with cans of beer (seriously considering it), take up smoking at a pack a day for the next five months, download every NES game on Wii’s Virtual Console, or actually do something useful like pay off my old credit card. (not stupid enough to do this)

Decisions decisions.

– McDonald’s new “Big Hawaiian” burger contains no pineapple, and is not that big
– Kosoku-Nagata station’s Mister Donut has been closed for remodelling for two weeks, but in the ten seconds a day I walk past it there is always some person looking confusedly at the “closed for remodelling” sign
– Last night saw a variety show with a lady dressed up like corn, staring silentlyinto the camera for nearly ten seconds
– At the game store, violent “Z” rated games placed on top shelf up high out of reach of little kids, borderline porn game deluxe box sets and booby manga covered with scantily-glad secretary babes conveniently located at three-to-thirteen eye level just a hop skip and jump away (I investigated for the safety of the children)
– Now that the Olympics are over, news and variety shows are back to talking about Toyota, women in snowy onsens, deadly 50 centimeter tsunamis, a house fire, Domo-kun, and trivia shows
– High school graduation, the most boring formal ceremony I’ve yet witnessed, followed by each class performing a bizarre impromptu pop-song sing-along and presentation of huge stuffed animals and cake to homeroom teachers
– My first Mos Rice Burger, a burger made from ground pork, topped with onions and surrounded with packed lightly toasted rice patties instead of a bun (also totally awesome Japanese shit of the week)
– Short mop-top child dashes in front of Jessy and I on our way home from the grocery store, turns to face us, says “blablabbalbalbla,” runs away, then runs back in front of us and asks in English “do you speak English,” to which Jessy responds in Japanese “yes, I speak English, do you?” and receives no answer

The other day I was running a little late and I saw this mother and the little girl I always walk by on the way to school. I usually cross them up in the residence area just before the big stairs up to my school, walking side by side. After Christmas vacation the little girl even said good morning to me cause I see them so often and it had been so long. I still cross them most days, always about the same spot. I figure I take the same train every day, they leave the house at the same time every day, it makes sense. I see all the same routines: the shaggy haired guy in the suit usually in front of the cake shop, the two old men on the bridge drinking their coffee and chatting, the same lady walking her dog, 8:31, 8:35, 8:39. This time since I was about four minutes behind I saw the mother and the girl a little before usual, further from the school and closer to what I now know is their intended goal, the little girl meeting up with another girl in front of Nagata shrine, presumably to go off to school on their own. I felt like some sort of weird spectator, but so interested: here’s a story I’ve seen the same part of for months, and now there’s a little bit more, if only so small, because I was four minutes behind. Another week, another day in the life.