Monthly Archives: July 2010

O snail climb but slowly, slowly

In a room as large as a one-car garage I find myself one of thirty? thirty-two, all stuffed together like matchsticks, trying to sleep and I’m ready to ignite. It is 11:45 p.m. and I can’t help it so I think of fifth grade and the stories they told me of the slave ships, human trafficking, people stacked into the hull lengthwise like lumber for days and I think well, at least I’m sleeping just on tatami instead of human feces, and I could get off the floor if I had the juice about me. But it it must be a realistic enough simulation, at elevation 3600m, tough to breathe the thin air, vastly underfed, exhausted in all senses, a pair of Superman tall-building-in-a-single-bounds from the summit of The Fooj, Fuji-san, Mount Fuji, the highest place in all of Japan except must have been my head when I agreed to this trip a week ago. My toes are freezing, and I don’t take off the socks, or even touch them. I decide I won’t take them off until I get home to save us all the trouble, cause god knows what’s in there.

They are early-onset, still, my conditions: the sunburn, all the more exacting and brutal above the clouds, ignoring sunblock like a lucky D&D roll, has just begun to make itself known as the backs of my ears brush against the bag-of-Lays-sized pillow I’ve been issued. For sanitary reasons, and certainly not comfort, it has been conveniently wrapped in a handtowel, the texture of which may not be misleadingly described in promotional materials as “abrasive.” As I have been for the last dozen hours, I pull air in fruitlessly, lungshot gasping for a dying breath, my heart occasionally switching to half-time for a moment and back, tossing me into vertigo for a second and a quarter every so often. Underneath me I command roughly fifteen inches of space from side to side excluding arms. They go nowhere, unless I flip over on my side, which is arguably less comfortable than just not sleeping, a promising candidate which I elect to office. After four hours of rolling about between restless Jessy and a Japanese stranger, I leave the sleeping room with my Nintendo and sit cross-legged in the entry, surrounded at midnight by happily dozing climbers, the sounds only of drawn breath and my occasional plastic button clicks. I am the tiredest I’ve ever been, and I know I won’t be off of this rock for a while.

There is nobody to complain to, of course, out here, not that I would say anything anyway. Some of them, in eager pursuit of the best places from which to watch the legendary sunrise, have already begun their roust, assembling their obviously careful-planned gear in tandem: headlamps, thick boots and goggles, windbreaking garments, dressed for the alpine, dressed for starting their car on an Iowa winter morning, dressed completely unlike I am. I am wearing all I brought. A t-shirt under a turtleneck under a zip-up fleece with a scarf and gloves. I have jeans on and my street shoes hang in a plastic bag. The shoes already look like week-old roadkill, surface the texture of a block of grating parmesan, crusted by air, crusted by Volcanic Ash, who would have known. My hiking pack is just Jessy’s bookbag, emptied of flashcards and pictures of animals and stuffed with too few snacks and an empty plastic 1.5 liter C.C. Lemon bottle that was filled with water when the day began. These mother fuckers got campstoves and Cup Noodle, holy mary mother of god I have two beef sticks and CalorieMate. According to Wikipedia, CalorieMate comes in several forms, including Block, Jelly, and Can. I have only Block, a hundred-calorie powdery chocolate bar. I wonder for a second if I should have gone with Jelly or Can but then remember that I am a professional why-noterator: do you think you can climb the tallest mountain in Japan without purchasing anything special? Why not.

Hours later at about four in the morning comes the last push on up, stabbed by wind and leg fatigue. It feels like bounding forward in anticipation of my own death, oh please baby drive the knife on in. But I ache for it, not because of what awaits (“the end”) but because I’ve been going at it for so goddamned long, I just have to finish, get up there, and then there is no more path, just rocks and wind and people.

And oh, that sunrise. Looking down on my newest home is like looking down on bowls of cloud yogurt, reined in by mountains and all slamming up so far away that I can’t even place it all as shit that’s usually not stuff I gotta look down to see. I look up and there is nothing, no powerlines, no cicada calls, not a distant apartment building or a tree or rail line, just the sky, just up up there, and suddenly it ain’t so bad. Then some dust hits me in the eyes, probably.

Imagine watching six hours of the home shopping network, getting punched in the face when you are finished, and then being told in order to watch anything else on your TV ever again or even leave the room you have to watch two more hours of the home shopping network in reverse at 3x speed with a vicegrip clamped on your head and tightening with every minute, and that is what going back down is like.

When we pull into our home train station I convince Jessy that she should run ahead to the grocery store and buy us some fucking hamburgers cause we are going to have a feast tonight. While I am alone I start the shower and take my socks off. Underneath is where I’ve been and what it’s done to me, and next to my square tub I scrub the mountain down the drain.

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Man cannot have a pure mind who refuse gyoza

This will not be the first time in my life that I am separated from everyone I know–quite contrary! It is nearly an annual occurrence, and perhaps unchange would be more notable. To that end, for several of our closer friends, time in Japan is up at the end of July. I have consciously chosen not to fully analyze exactly how many Good Men And Women we’re losing to time’s weathering, but the count is at least everyone we usually hang out with, and at most all those plus fringe components of the various social circles. Mostly it’s people who have decided for one reason or another to leave the teaching program, some after a year, some because they’ve been here for a few already and have just had enough, some because they’ve been here a lot longer than that and it’s just time to go.

The upside, if there can possibly be one, is that we’re soon to be barraged by the new recruits, some of who may be cool people. The downside is that those new recruits are not yet our friends, and I really hate having to make friends! Another, smallish upside is that we are getting a bunch of everyone’s shit that they don’t want anymore (maybe a downside depending on exactly how much we take).

As a result of this madness I took it upon myself to financially bolster some pals of mine by buying their old breadmaker at a bargain rate. If I thought using the microwave in Japanese was a task, hoo baby. Actually, with only a little bit of guesswork we ended up pumping out a quite competent loaf the evening we got it, and Jessy took the experiment a little further the next day with a loaf a bit more dense. It’s really a pretty clever gadget! It even has what literally translates as “automatic yeast launch,” which drops your active dry yeast from a little blast pocket on an outer lid at the correct post-mixing time. There is also an auto-launch tray for raisins and nuts, which I have considered filling with cheese and herbs or pieces of frozen banana, just to see what happens. The only drawback of the breadmaker, which would have now already paid for itself if bread was twenty-five dollars a loaf, is its massive size. It’s too large to fit on the shelf where we keep our toaster oven and rice cooker, and so it has been relegated to pantry status, bottom shelf. It’s not that we don’t love you, breadmaker, it’s just that you are too big for Japan.

Curious Japanese derps of the week
– Being strangely intruded on by a slightly Asian-looking person handing out flyers on the bridge the other day switching to completely fluent English, cause she was an American from Seattle advertising their Christian gospel concert, which I absolutely did not attend even though I totally said I’d tell some people I know, which I didn’t
– New promotional video game tie-in beverage “Dragon Quest Syrupy Slime,” which I didn’t figure would actually be syrupy, but is
– A Foreign Buyer’s Club catalog given to me by a co-worker, from which I could order some of my favorite American foods: Kix cereal (one box, $11.00), Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli (one can, $4.00), Velveeta Shells and Cheese (one box, $6.00), and Beef Noodle Hamburger Helper (one box, $6.50)

– My delicious two-person evening self-prepared meal of twenty-four crispy, hot gyoza with a couple bowls of cold dashi-accompanied soumen noodles, total cost less than a can of Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli
– The rice ball that I bought for today, which I thought said mayonnaise and chicken, but actually seems to say mayonnaise and “shi-chikin,” which, now that I think about it, this being Japan, probably means “sea chicken,” which, now that I think about it, this being Japan, probably of course means it’s canned tuna in there
– It hasn’t stopped being rainy for like five fucking days and the only good thing you’d think is that hey at least it cools off the temperature outside since summer is so hot but no, all it does is make it more humid
That’s it for Curious Japanese derps of the week

I’m playing this video game lately called Dragon Quest IX and it’s all I can think about. I am sitting here at work twiddling my thumbs knowing that the game is right here on my Nintendo DS and I could be playing it if I didn’t happen to be working (irony: I am not working). It came out in Japan exactly a year ago and now that it is finally in English I feel both up to speed and out of touch with the game culture here. There is a mode in the game where if your system wirelessly sees anyone else who has set their Dragon Quest IX to be in “tag” mode you can get some treasure maps and stuff. But is there even anyone in Japan still playing a year later? I’m going to set off on an adventure to find out some time I think. Maybe trek over to Osaka and wander around large groups of the local youth. The benefit of me finding some people would be some virtual treasure maps and maybe an exciting N-Sider article. The drawback is that no matter what happens I am still a huge nerd.

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By means of steam one can go from California to Japan in eighteen days

Firmly into the first week of summer’s taskless days of work, tonight is exam night at school, which sets my schedule for me. You have undoubtedly read it here before, whether you remember it or not: sit at the desk for a long time. Take a couple five minute breaks to go read something to the class, then come back, then sit around for a little while, then go home. Today I have written this, eaten a half a sandwich and a small hamburger, drank a Blizzard-L soda, and started reading Jurassic Park. My row is the one with the air conditioner, and I’m almost cold! When I get home tonight, I’m cooking some chicken and buttered peppery corn. Life is good, cause I say it is. Even though outside it feels like you are covered with a wet towel in the jungle.

Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if it is time to retire the curious Japanese shit of the week section of my weekly entries here and replace it with a “things which probably used to seem weird but that I can no longer differentiate as such” section. For example:

-Right now there is a man squatting down on the ground in front of the office refrigerator–in much the same way a resident of this country would squat to take a dump in an old-fashioned toilet–drinking milk tea straight out of the carton. This is basically fine with me.
-Last week I ate a “choco cookie” ice cream sundae at an ice cream cafe, and it contained yogurt and corn flakes.
-Later in the week I went to a “darts bar” (this is a bar based on the gimmick of playing darts) to play darts, and the bar had a cover charge for staying there past 9 PM, which they did not mention until we were paying our bill as we left (the cover charge included a free dish of crackers and nuts).
-Just the other night, I watched part of a show on TV where a group of eight people stayed at a restaurant for over fourteen hours, with the goal of guessing which 10 of the 86 items on the menu were the restaurant’s top sellers, and in order to file an item as a guess, they had to first order and eat it.
-About an hour ago, I was cut off on my walking path to work by a remarkably sized turtle, on whose shell was painted in white the telephone number of some salesman.

Does this kind of shit happen back home? I feel like it may, in some sort of waking hallucinated nightmare, but I can barely even goddamned remember anymore. I know the TV was a lot less consistently entertaining, and I don’t remember any turtles.

I wonder occasionally what my Pittsburgh life would have been like if we actually lived in a place like Kobe, with essentially limitless entertainment, drinking, and dining options–a place where our late-night post-bar food choices may have rested outside the realm of “Laffy Taffys from the Uni-Mart.” Every time I try to let it play out all I can see is destruction: handfuls of breaded, spicy chicken, video games, mayhem, cheap liquor, public intoxication. Basically the same as Pittsburgh. But it wouldn’t have been exactly the same.

In fact, life here in Japan was really different and strange until it just wasn’t as different and strange, which is becoming a bit strange itself. This all manifests itself in a variety of ways. About five months ago I finally got the most efficient route home from work down. That cut what I used to perceive as a 50 or 60 minute trip from office chair to apartment couch down to precisely 38 minutes, if I seriously haul it through the station to the gates for my island. It seems fine to me that I now can estimate my trip times to the minute, and do not in the slightest ever consider the fact that the trains might be late, because they aren’t. I now pay phone bills with my fiberoptic rolled into the current plan for maximum savings. I am okay with the fact that I pay my bills by taking them to the convenience store. I renew my transportation passes without incident, with cash, by sliding upwards of three hundred dollars at a time into a vending machine. Again, this is no problem.

We schedule packages for redelivery by phone, and order pizzas, books, playing cards, and trinkets over the Internet. Often times the men bring the things we’ve bought to the door, and we pay them for them right there. We juggle point cards like professionals, transfer money home at the best exchange rates through bank transfers on the ATM, and even know the best routes to a variety of restaurants we have learned to call our favorites, depending on the desired cuisine. I can pinpoint the locations of at least eight video game stores within easy walking distance of Sannomiya station. I can cook gyoza like Emeril Lagasse, and I don’t even need to say BAM while I do it. I own and carry more things that are electronic and magnetic than things that aren’t.

And still there are some things: what is this random mysterious package of pickled food items for and in what meal context am I supposed to use it? How do I reserve a bowling lane at the Round 1 game center? How and why are FUNKY MONKEY BABYS still performing the same song on TV that they were last August? Why are there so many Pachinko parlors? What the hell is the deal with this variety show talent person who dresses like a school girl with her eyebrows shaved off and replaced with huge ridiculous fake ones, and is she actually a man cause I think she might be?

It’s true.

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