Monthly Archives: February 2011

Dakota!

Before I bust out the formal Japanese request, which will incorporate the word “show window,” because that is how you refer to a show window in Japanese, I consider my options regarding the thin piece of expensive plastic resting inside the case. The first option is to walk away as though I never saw this desirable item, and regret the choice for the rest of my life. The second option is the only real one, and that is to buy it immediately, because the only meaning that one can possibly assign to life in Japan is related to the purchase, consumption, and enjoyment of material goods.

Five thousand two hundred and fifty yen is not the most that I’ve ever spent on a relatively useless and mainly ornamental object, but it is certainly the most I’ve spent on a piece of plastic with no implied or provocative semi-nudity. However, unlike the lascivious indiscretions of years past, this particular thingy is absolutely one-of-a-kind, because there is only one like it! It is an animation cel from my favorite anime series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, a distinct single frame of animation! Have you seen the End of Evangelion movie? If you have, you’ve seen a real live picture of what I bought. People who make cartoons paint each frame onto a clear piece of plastic like this, then shoot them in sequence on top of backgrounds and poof magic is made. This one is from the final episode of the series, just before the crying character is liquified into glorious LCL goo. Observe!

As you, stalwort reader, have deduced, I’ve gone back to Mandarake, a geek-store I was first acquainted with last week in Fukuoka. This time I’m in Shinsaibashi, a trendy shopping district of Osaka–more specifically, I’m in “Amerikamura,” a subdivision still of Shinsaibashi. Amerikamura means essentially America Village, and there are all kinds of stores representing the Japanese projection of what American culture is like (everyone in America dresses like a hip-hop thug who accidentally signed up for a production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat).

After I buy the Evangelion cel, I wade into the section of the upper floor of this particular store devoted to hentai doujinshi, which means in English “fan-produced adult-geared magazines full of pervy drawings of your beloved anime and video game characters engaging in degrading, filth-ridden acts.” In narrow rows of bookshelves stacked from floor to ceiling with magazines in little plastic bags and multi-thousand-yen video tapes, I feel like a tiny mouse in a dark corner of the furthest recesses of the human id, where all twisted desires manifest themselves via the overeager pens of peculiar illustrators. As I am searching for a magazine that contains some characters I am familiar with being degraded just slightly enough for me to be comfortable putting it on my bookshelf, a man wearing a fanny pack scuffles past me, saying “‘scuse me!” in Japanese, then turns excitedly to look at a section I am sure he already knows is precisely there. Then he says “oh, it’s here!” and digs in, as though there is absolutely nothing strange about seeing a well-endowed female ninja drawn left looking like an Iowa State Fair corndog with a guitar stuck up her for better grip. Surely he is just browsing, like one casually browses the cereal aisle or the butter cooler in the supermarket, the Violent Hand Axe section of the local weaponry store. I don’t see what exactly he is looking at. It is perhaps for the best. The magazine I have just picked up involves a girl in a maid outfit who has been hooked up to some sort of bodily inflation device, at the seeming mercy of at least three ne’er-do-wells. The thing the guy picks up is nearby. Though I am barely aware of my surroundings I say aloud “nope not happening” and walk back to the CD section, staring at a Konami album to burn an image of Vic Viper into my brain instead of the latex-clad balloon ladies while repeating the Mr. Saturn mantra only five can ladder only five can ladder only five can ladder.

CURIOUS JAPANESE-ERY OF THE TIME
– A store in Amerikamura called “Global Junk Food,” in which we purchased a “macaroni cheddar cheese burrito” and eight tiny donuts that were actually deep-fried fun-size Snickers bars
– The Japanese television coverage of the New Zealand earthquake, which said little about the total number of actual casualties but presented us with a handy graphic reporting the status of people in New Zealand who are Japanese and whether they have been crushed or not
– A good bowl of ramen I had, called on the menu “Shiawase Ramen,” meaning “happy ramen” (it made me happy)
– My students’ final presentations, during which they need to present an imaginary “invention” that they created, and which are absolutely completely insane
– New Cup Noodle flavor PorkGinger, which is typefaced exactly like that and which, though I have not eaten it yet, I theorize tastes like pork and ginger
– My psychotic cat, who somehow gets both lazier and more spastic each day
END OF CURIOUS JAPANESE-ERY

It’s almost the end of February which means that like clockwork the weather magically does not completely suck any more. Today I was able to come to school without a scarf or mittens, and soon I won’t even need the heavy coat anymore. Though we celebrate the new year here on January first, all Japanese people know that the new year doesn’t really start until after the cherry blossoms start blooming and the new school terms kick in during April. Japan begins again, and for now I enjoy the end of the school year and an extended period of time during which I will absolutely not say “see you” to anyone.

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The only allowance for milky pork

At 9:20 in the morning we are first vertically-packed Shinkansen green beans, then kings with power outlets, grabbing free seats all opportunistic, and in my seat is where I crack the first beer of the trip, gulping it so excitedly that I swallow handfuls of air and pay for it, kanpai! As the can drains we scream across the rails of Japan through the snow. It whips in February swirls off us like cream in coffee, tumbling around above the metal strings. I exit JR Hakata station in Fukuoka after a two-hour-and-change trip from Kobe and see a man waiting to catch us just outside the gates.

I figure he is a homeless guy who speaks a little English and is going to accost us for money, based primarily on his Winnie the Pooh stocking cap and slightly haggard appearance, but mostly it is the Winnie the Pooh stocking cap. But then he asks if we are Jessica from USA and it’s either a lucky guess or he runs the hostel we’ve booked. We follow him to his car, rain turning to snow and back right on the cusp of either. I sidle into the back seat of the two-door and come to realize it has been recently upholstered at Oily Rags Car Interior and Detail. In the side pocket I spot a manual called Introduction to Islam. The man runs a recently-opened guest house near downtown, which, he tells me, was rejected from being opened thirty-two times because of a “difficult to deal with” woman from the city health department. I am instilled with confidence. He has lived in the United States he tells me, in “Hawaii,” which I have since come to understand is indeed a United State. Such love he has for English and the Home of the Brave that he tells us his name is Ken, which he chose because he was tired of his “difficult” Japanese name, Kazuo. I want to suggest he just run with Kaz, but he seems to have enough to do.

He accompanies us to a local ramen shop, which is Priority One on our to-do list, a one-item chronicle that looks something like this:

1. Eat

It’s not that we’re not interested in tourism so much as we aren’t interested in Tourism, or what the city has identified as its totally unique things that are in fact so unique as to not represent the place they are located in at all.

After we park off-street, illegally, I watch Ken scavenge for change and consider offering to pick up his meal but don’t want to insult the guy. His insistence on driving us all over tarnation borders on the fanatical as it is.

Before we enter, we are treated to the rich history of this particular ramen shop and the few that surround it, all with exactly the same name: in the harsh, vanguard days of yore there was an “worker mutiny” which resulted in a mass exodus of employees leaving, new employees joining, other stores being started, and three literally identical ramen shops within less than a city block of each other. It was, apparently, “big news in Fukuoka,” a city which is passionate about nothing if not their Hakata ramen: chewy, straight ramen noodles in an almost opaque, creamy soup called tonkotsu, made from the heavy, extended boiling of crushed pork bones and collagen all thick and delicious.

The place we go to is family-style, and we’re seated around large tables like Arthur and his knights, or perhaps the annual church soup supper, heaping bowls brought out, topped with coin-sized chopped onions and thick, rich slices of dissolving pork. If you want more noodles–and this, the locals are quick to point out, is a Fukuoka original–you just shout “kaedama” and plunk down another buck: here comes another serving of noodles for your soup. The broth is rich and flavorful, and tableside you can add sesame seeds, strong red-colored pickled ginger–benishouga–or condensed soup mix. We eat what would end up being the first of four bowls of ramen, and I am surprised that even though I’m full I find myself shouting kaedama, freshly beset with nearly an entirely new bowl, squirreling it away into expanses of my stomach I barely knew existed but would become quite familiar with by the time I departed.

Our room at the guest house is an “extra” one, meaning that this section of the guest house used to be used as a sort of spare room and is not intended to harbor guests. Tonight Ken is three over capacity, which is a statistic I derive by applying some social hacking: we have learned that one of the health violations was because guest houses in Japan require one toilet for five people so he had to install a second one. We have also learned that tonight there are thirteen people in the guest house. Out of a seeming feeling of guilt our rate is cut by 20% and we are given enough futons to smother a large dog. I find nothing wrong with the arrangement. Peculiarly enough, however, the toilet situation necessitated the removal of the men’s toilet seat due to lack of space and when asked how, presumably, a man might sit on the toilet I can only come up with the answer “he can’t” and commit myself to toilet use requiring sitting being conducted elsewhere.

In the evening we find ourselves winding through the back-streets of Tenjin, a wet, post-rain residential Japan, occasionally crossing paths with a stray biker, couple walking somewhere, or small dog being taken for a walk. The infrequent yellow streetlights eventually give way to neon reflections in spare puddles as we approach Canal City, one of Japan’s bizarre monuments to lavish excess and perpetual construction. According to the official English website,

“The concept of Canal City is ‘a city theatre’. The leading actor of this theatre called Canal City is not the buildings or its functions, but ‘people’. The visitors here may find themselves watching a show as an audience or performing as an actor. Various stories are created by people visiting here for different purposes.”

What it actually is is the largest private development in the history of Japan, costing over 1.4 billion dollars, and looking totally visually unlike anything else in Fukuoka. It is called “the city within the city,” which it is, and it is also the city within the building, as it is almost totally enclosed save for a series of connecting exterior pathways and fountains, many of which were being reconstructed and repaired at the time of our visit (as was the upper dining section called “Ramen Stadium” where you can sample ramen from eight different restaurants). At any rate it has brought massive amounts of positive cashflow and growth to the area, which is most apparent to a traveler like myself because they have a store entirely devoted to Ultraman products, and it is right across the hallway from a store devoted entirely to Pokemon products.

Canal City also boasts an art installation which is an entire wall of television screens. Allow me, again, to let the website explain:

“‘Fuku/Luck,Fuku=Luck,Matrix’ by Nam June Paik, the worldly famous genre founder of video art, is installed. The fragments of images picked by Paik, including sophisticated and vulgar images, Western and Asiatic landscape images tangle up on as many as 180 TV monitors, making an information chaos.”

Inside Canal City on Friday evening, we create this story: Once upon a time, a boy and girl from America but living in Kobe bought a Pokemon spoon and some stickers, gazed longingly at sickeningly overpriced Ultraman goods, avoided dozens of clothing stores, and ate spicy ramen at a place called Ichiran, before getting an Oreo milkshake for dessert at exotic restaurant ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’. After this they bought a small bar of soap at the FamilyMart, then went back to their guest house.

Saturday is a day of no plan except “go north,” and north is where we go, strolling through a Bic Camera shop, an extravagant underground shopping district, a tall shopping mall called TENJIN CORE, and onward past a supermarket and a bunch of nothing. The snow we see is unlike anything we’ve had in Kobe so far, huge big flakes and clusters whiting out the air but not accumulating. We grab a standard Indian lunch at a standard Indian restaurant and Jessy boldly storms out (after finishing her meal) in protest of the Japanese businessmen smoking cigarettes while she is trying to eat.

To repent for her haste, she allows me to stop into the slightly pervy and very otaku-looking store next door, called MANDARAKE, which is officially the greatest store in history and my new favorite place in Japan. On the second floor, squatting in an aisle of figurines, is a slightly portly man who seems to be examining a plastic fifteen-year-old’s breasts, preventing me from accessing the rest of the area. I go around the other side and he is still there, looking, entranced. I grab another, nearby figure and find myself drawn in as well, considering the fact that even if I stared at her plastic jubblies for an hour it would not be nearly as long as either That Guy or the person that originally designed the toy.

As we go I geek myself senseless through four floors of games, systems, manga, toys, action figures, DVDs and other crap, ultimately buying an original Donkey Kong Game & Watch from 1982 for about thirty bucks (first game to ever use a directional pad) and an animation cel from the movie Spriggan for about three bucks (a guy getting his teeth kicked out). Things sadly left un-purchased: original animation cel from an episode of Evangelion (280 dollars) and a mint condition in-the-box contest reward Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch (1300 dollars!).

Later on we trek out to the middle of nowhere to take an elevator up to the middle of nowhere: the Fukuoka Tower, a discomfortingly tall structure with a little meter inside the elevator which tells you exactly how many meters up you are. I plunk a hundred yen into a pair of the big binoculars that you can use to see far away from the upper deck, and find myself staring into an occupied apartment in the high-rise just across the way. The binoculars have already been angled into this apartment by the person that used them before me, and, I figure, perhaps the person before them, and I wonder for how many hours the binoculars have been pointed at this particular apartment. I look into the other ones that have lights on just for good measure–welcome to Japan, your mind is now ruined.

Our evening meal, almost the last of the trip, is spent at one of the many Fukuokan specialties: the yatai, a street-side food vendor bigger than what you’d call a stand and a little smaller than what you’d call a restaurant. Inside we are surrounded by plastic sheets to insulate us from the cold, and we enjoy beer and sake with a variety of other talkative locals who seem much more friendly here in close quarters. We eat ramen, gyoza, mentaiko wrapped in omelet (Fukuokan specialty, spicy fish eggs), grilled pork on sticks, and massive potato korokke, the Japanese approximation of croquette, a deep-fried ball filled with mashed potatoes and topped with ketchup. I talk to the man running the stand and compliment his cast iron saucepan: it is thirty-nine years old, he says, then wipes the side of it and displays the grease to me. I am proud of him for his pan.

In the station the next morning we stock up on omiyage which is Japanese for “gross snacks for your coworkers meant to reflect the fact that you are thinking of them and of work even while you are enjoying your personal life.” The ones we bought are a sort of cake with a kind of cream filling inside. I have my theories about what it’s made of exactly, but it would not be an errant guess to figure it is some sort of fermented bean paste, perhaps mixed with sugar and something rotting. I assume (rightly) that because I find them semi-repulsive, my coworkers will love them.

Ultimately it’s all just a bunch of stuff to buy, new places to buy it, and for different prices–but in changing our environment if only a little superficially I feel new, unaware, in my exploration a new city. Even if we discover things we already know, the experience of striking out rings true, and I find the mundanity of comfortable life eroded slightly. How strange that the comfortable life is now a city in Japan, with all its alleys and vending machines, convenience store nudie mags and gashapon stores, plastic-wrapped rice balls and old men carrying Nintendo DSes and cans of coffee. On the Shinkansen home I feel reinvigorated, immersed in modern Japanese society, wondering what’s next. On Monday I board the same old train to work, vertically-packed green bean with five more weekdays to go.

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Pizza Weiner

Apartment smells like lemongrass and an Indian knick-knack store, some Japanese jazz pianist tickling recorded ivories as I struggle against a bottle of wine corked harder than Life Goes On. Kiki wanders the place unaware of his impending playdate with visiting cat Momo, who ultimately will not return anything considered affection but will happily play with his toys. On the stove simmers a curry, newest iteration of a recipe I’ve been working on the last few days, originally a variant on Palak Paneer Tikka, heavy with softened onions and some grated ginger for a base, but evolved now into something almost Cambodian, heavy with amok spices, coconut milk the primary liquid, a few tablespoons of tomato paste held over, Japanese cottage cheese giving it a little more thickness.

These are the best parts about living in a place which is mine: I can cook whatever I want, I can keep the whisky next to the potatoes, I can light cheap, dirty incense, and my Wii remotes always have charged batteries. In my closet there are unfinished plastic robot models, still waiting in the boxes, next to a dozen tiny jars of paint, used exclusively to articulate bloody armor holes and shot eyes on an Eva-01.

After we and our friends finish eating I find the night capped off with a little two-player Battletoads, endlessly retrying the third level, the speeder bike stage, you know the one. Later, there is a resounding victory for Russia against China in some NES Ice Hockey, and then a quick couple minutes each of Mega Man X2 and Star Fox, with a Twinbee 3 chaser.

Having ruminated on the topic for a few days now, I can safely compose and present to you this informative chart about coconut milk:

Things That are Really Great About Coconut Milk
1. Good in curry
2. Fun to open with the pointy part of the bottle opener like those big cans of Hi-C that we used to get where you put the vent hole on one side
3. Exotic?

The best part of the Super Bowl on Monday was that I got to watch it this year, albeit on a recorded time-delayed stream that sometimes dipped down to fifteen frames a second, making it feel a little like watching football on a slide projector that a child was advancing after eating a variety of sweets. The Pittsburghers did Not Win the game, largely by fault of their own and not necessarily due to the fortitude of the opposition. But I did my part, by consuming four cans of Asahi Super Dry and conjuring up arcane, infernal curses against the televised men, curses unlike any of those some of the surrounding Japanese surely had ever theorized were even grammatically possible. At one point The Black Eyed Peas performed some musical numbers, and then Slash rose up through a trap door in the stage, and then Usher descended from the heavens as though a spirit, and then with fully two minutes left to go in the game, the entire recording ended, having automatically stopped after pulling four hours of video. Our host graciously spoiled the game for himself by pulling up some highlights on the Internet and showing the last drive to us–another man had recorded parts of his own recording off the television, then posted this recording on YouTube. It was, I believe, the closest I got to approximating how it might have looked to witness the disappointment on shaky feet in a Pittsburgh bar, though the destructive oblivion I’d have medicated myself into some years ago was absent.

OTHER, LESS FOCAL THINGS OF NOTE
– One of today’s convenience store lunch items, purchased for 210 yen, titled merely “Rappers” and taking a form somewhat like that of a burrito, only inside is a “Pizza Weiner”


– Favorite local breadery named DONQ, which I am sure I have mentioned in here before but just felt like pointing out again because it’s called DONQ
– Lost 800 yen the other day attempting to win a cute-ified stuffed version of an Evangelion character out of a crane machine at Namco Land, firmly cementing my crane game skills as having officially atrophied forever, never to return
– Spent an hour watching the annual school Karuta card game contest, during which the students need to listen to the teachers say one of one hundred famous poems and then reach for a card that contains the final lines of the famous poem (which they have memorized), and also during which I was privy to the twistedly enjoyable screams of agony and pain emanating from my three hundred and twenty first year high schoolers beaten to the cards by fractions of a second
ENOUGH I GUESS

I took it upon myself this weekend to talk Jessy into watching our first Bollywood movie together, mainly because I had located a real whopper: the most expensive Indian movie ever made, clocking in at around $36 million, this one, titled Endhiran, features the second-most famous Asian actor (after Jackie Chan) and the almost inconcievably beautiful Aishwarya Rai, both of which change costumes at least three times in each outlandish song-and-dance sequence. The greatest parts of this movie, aside from the plot itself–which revolves around a scientist who invents a super-robot who begins to develop emotions and attempts to seduce his girlfriend–certainly arrive near the end of the film, when the robot and his dozens of clones begin to gratuitously destroy everything. Even better? Halfway through the THREE HOUR picture we get a single scene of the robot walking slow-motion toward the camera, having just decided like any man that he is going after Ms. Rai, lifting his arms up as if to say “so what” and then a huge, comically-styled INTERMISSION bumper on the side of the screen.

I have since proceeded to download three other Bollywood movies to fill this new void in my life. I trust that a silly Indian man–with a full head of hair so thick it could be sold as a two-man toupee–and a variety of attractive women warbling like injured felines will do the trick.

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Good luck team with the sporting match

Instead of watching the Super Bowl last night, on Sunday, which most people do but would have been impossible for me unless I had the ability to jump through time to today, record it, and bring it back to the past, I spent the evening at a little restaurant on an upper floor of a featureless building downtown, flanked by Jessy and six friends, dining on 150-yen skewers of roasted lamb, cooked by a man in the hallway operating a grill, and rolled in spices, washed down with hot Chinese wine, sugar, and pickled plum. Somewhat similarly to a dining experience I had just a week ago–though not anatomically similarly–during which we dined on the horumon of pig (offal, for us English speakers, consisting of raw, cold liver, grilled stomach, jaw, heart, cartilage, head, and others), I shovel heap after heap of rice into my mouth, coated with the spicy juices of the lamb chunks, collagen and muscle melting away like thicker, richer roast beef, and wonder how the night could get any better. The answer of course is: if the Super Bowl was on a television next to me.

Have you heard of the Super Bowl? Men in various kinds of gear strategize on how to attack with and defend from the advances of a pointy brown oval, while millions gather to witness this event on television as though a rabid massing of tribesmen.

Me being in Japan means of course that essentially concurrent with the composition of these words plays out the very game of which I speak: Japan is fourteen hours ahead of east coast time, which means that about when whoever is kicking off kicks off, I’ll be talking to Japanese teenagers about their final composition project, for which they need to invent and advertise some imaginary product in English (my demonstration was an impassioned treatise for “Super Moon Boots,” which allow you to jump 50 meters in the air but offer no solution for landing from a height of 50 meters). To be sure, the stakes here are not quite as high as those for Mr. Roethlisberger and Mr. Rodgers. The point is that I don’t want to know what is happening in the foot-ball game, so I have to stay away from interfaces that might allow me somehow to defy my true wishes and contact the outside world: my phone, Facebook, Google Reader, e-mail–all are beasty creatures which want to spoil the game for me like Snape Kills Dumbledore: “Pittsburgh 24 Green Bay 13!” (my official prediction, to be mocked later).

I’m meeting someone and going somewhere to see the event itself tonight, via tape-delay at 7:00, recorded and preserved like a time capsule, Super Bowl Sunday mysteriously transmogrified into Super Bowl Monday. Watching a recording of an event that I believe to be occurring presently promises to be a sublime experience, akin to looking at old pictures of your parents aware that you are now older than they were in the photographs, drinking a beer before work at 7:30 in the morning, or watching your students try to grasp the mysteries of the Slinky, a toy they have never before played with. At best, whatever the situation, I will find myself magically returned to Pittsburgh, surrounded by psychosis and rabid fans. At worst, it will be what I expect.

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