Tag Archives: JAPAN

Ace’s guitar flies through space

Friend,

Maybe I should have changed the name of the page to Nom a Month.

The truth is that I’ve been occupied with real, honest-to-goodness stuff! I started reading an enormously long book called 1Q84, written by a pretty notable Japanese author named Haruki Murakami. In Japanese you pronounce it “ichi kyu hachi yon,” and it’s kind of a fun little pun because in Japanese the letter “Q” and the number 9 are both pronounced “kyu,” and a q and 9 look kinda the same and the book is sort of about an ALTERNATE 1984. But in the book’s English-translated form it doesn’t mean shit. Also I got this game for my Playstation called Rocksmith, and how it works is you hook any electric guitar up to it with a special cable, and you can learn to play songs along with it. I’m getting pretty good. Just last night I played a four-song set at the “Mouse Hole” and even performed an encore. I asked Jessy if she liked my “whip-ass bends,” but she did not seem to notice. The calluses on my left fingers are becoming formidable. I plan on using them to light strike-anywhere matches pretty soon, and once they are lit I will set fire to Jessy and ask if she likes my whip-ass bends now.

Work’s also been busy. We had exams last week, which meant I got to check and grade 320 separate English composition essays for the communication class I lead, in addition to 320 more essays that we wrote for a “presenting your opinions” review project we just finished. It was a pretty frantic time, during which I was alarmed at how not-bored I happened to be when I had work to do.

The weather is getting colder yet, with us, nearing the end of October, having finally entered the realm of temperatures that are routinely in the mid-60s during the day. Aside from a couple freakishly warm days last week, I can say that I’ve been unequivocally pleased with the general state of nature in my life lately. Sometimes we have the doors open, and the cold autumn wind rolls through, and I imagine how all those people who love summer must feel, and then I laugh a vengeful cackle as my black bones chill to their iron cores. It is my time! MY TIME

AMAZING, NOTABLE THINGS ABOUT ME AND THE THINGS I DO
– I went to the “Hard-Off” store about a week ago and got a ton of old Famicom shit for about 20 bucks, and it was the greatest day so far in my life
– On Monday I forgot to bring lunch, and when I got home I made linguini with homemade tomato sauce and a pound of burger in it and ate it with a huge chunk of crusty garlic bread like a savage and it was the greatest day so far in my life
– Got some beer the other day
– Captain America was a pretty awesome movie
– My birthday is in a couple weeks, I will officially turn 13 years old and finally outgrow this childish video game phase
– Jessy’s leaving for America pretty soon and while she is gone I will give her half of the wine bottles I open to our cat, who will not be seen with me around our friends when I act like this what is your problem
– One of my students wrote a review of Eric Clapton and called him “her god” and I thought girl you are too good for this country

MMMMM goodies

My work-snacks today have been based around three cans of clearance mandarin orange drink I got for fifty yen each at the Yoshiya store, they have little bits of orange pulp in them. Also I ate a rice ball with a slice of egg and a slice of bologna on it, and Mom always used to tell me there’d never be any market for the Eggy Meaty. Who is laughing now? It is me, I am the one laughing.

No but seriously all my time lately is being used on being at work, reading during my commute, cooking and eating supper at home, and playing guitar or some old video game with the time I have left. The last two weekends Jessy and I have packed up the picnic bag and took it down to the harbor and had a little picnic and it’s been pretty nice. It rained last Saturday and I wanted to go to Osaka and prowl around for a copy of The Goonies for Famicom but then it was raining and I was like nah I don’t wanna go to Osaka. No big adventures, no big trips, very few biting insights about Japanese culture here during my 26th month of life in Japan. Life continues.

Fondly,

You

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A parked taxi with the meter running

The last week and a half has seen me become a drifter, free of obligation or mental roadblock, free of the famous Jessica Dovey, who may or may not have been dead at any given moment in the Himalayan mountains but ended up being not dead and actually gets back home tonight. While she was gone I engaged in a variety of scandalous activities that would be forbidden if she was around, like: leaving the air conditioner on even while I slept sometimes, occasionally leaving the toilet seat up, and one time I smoked a cigarette on the balcony and did not close the door to the house. The illicit things that I did are even more scandalous. For instance, I cooked linguine noodles instead of the spaghetti ones and I drank two entire Mello Yellos on a weekend evening and stayed up well past 9 PM.

While she was gone, in typical Japanese fashion the massive social hoopla built and built for Typhoon Ma-on, which was first a Category 5 super typhoon, then slowed down, then was on a direct collision course with Kobe, then wasn’t, then hooked up back toward us, then didn’t. It ended up being about the biggest non-event in history, the non-event to end all non-events. At its most troublesome it stole away some of humanity’s precious three-dollar plastic umbrellas, and I fear we shall never see them again. I, tasked with caring for Jessy’s garden plants on our balcony, did an admirable enough job saving the tomatoes, though the useless little green beans in their tiny pods were a casualty of the wind, tossed to the ends of the earth.

As penance for my slight transgressions, I took it upon myself to finally throw away the Christmas tree she had stashed there on our balcony, dead for seven months and wrapped in a red fleece blanket, secured with shoelaces that look like the pullstrings for purple Zubaz pants. I believe that it was serving as a reminder, a grave one, to the living flora and fauna: do you see what we do to you, if you die? You will finish your days in this place covered in synthetic fibers and left to roast in the sun like a carcass for the vultures, and not even the smallest creature shall mourn you. Opening the blanket up was like unearthing a mystical coffin containing Santa Claus. Pine needles fell all over everything, and I was reminded of that magical Christmas of 2010, which we spent with a fresh tree until December 17th when we left the apartment for weeks. She had tricked me into letting her buy the Christmas tree from IKEA by pointing out that if you brought it back after Christmas with the receipt they would give you a special gift card for store credit, something she absolutely “would do.” I am an elephant, woman, and I will not forget this savage, cruel deception. This year there will be only a Christmas box, which will be a box in the corner of the room, and inside it will be other, smaller boxes, and inside them will be nothing, and it is all for you, and you will be happy to receive it.

A beneficial side effect of cleaning off our balcony was that I remembered I had twenty cans of V8 stashed out there from a Costco trip, so I moved them inside. I think they enjoyed being next to their vegetable brethren for a while though. It must have been more fun out there than it is in our refrigerator’s pull-out beverage drawer, where the only friends are a huge jar of pickles and a pineapple, which, according to the tag, is named “Sweetie-o.”

One thing they will not find in there is a spare bottle of today’s new taste sensation, another new limited Pepsi flavor. This summer it’s Caribbean Gold Pepsi, which is stylized on the label in a way that elicits memories, for me, of perhaps my mother’s mysterious sun-tanning lotion in the early-to mid-90s. Or perhaps some brand of VHS pornography, or maybe a kind of stereotypical name of rum? It does not seem like a typeface for the year 2011 is what I am saying. The I in Caribbean is even a palm tree. The flavor itself is purported to be “WHITE SAPOTE FLAVOR” and I had no idea what a sapote was until I looked it up online (it is a kind of fruit, I guess, “from the Caribbean”). This necessary research finds itself among comfortable previous experiences vis-a-vis the time I spent looking up the previous Pepsi flavors, chief among them Shiso Pepsi, Azuki Pepsi, Baobab Pepsi, Mont Blanc Pepsi, and now Caribbean Gold Pepsi. One thing is for sure: this shit is sweet. If you can imagine an even sweeter Pepsi, this is it! Unlike the superior (now, inevitably, discontinued) Mont Blanc, which had a delightful coffee taste, this one is just sweet. SWEET! I will never drink it again, but it’s okay I guess.

Japan switched from analog to digital television broadcasting over the weekend, and celebrated it on television by setting up tons of old TVs then showing them go to a blue error message at exactly noon on Sunday. I suppose it is kind of a hard event to publicize or cover, at least that is what you would think, though this being Japan it was accompanied by a series of bizarre stuffed mascots, tons of confetti, people dashing at the camera and yelling “uwaaaa!!!!” and other such things. Speaking of weird television I watched a segment on a variety show last night the name of which I do not know but that I’m calling “Sanctioned Sexual Harassment Mega Excite,” the concept of which is this, as I imagine it was pitched: two hideous men, both slightly fat, and one with a farmer’s tan, will put on Speedo swimsuits and go to a swimming resort, where young girls in bikinis will model for them as they make insensitive remarks. To allow the guise of information we will say this is an overview of “the popular bikinis of 2011.” The uglier of the two men will assign “point values” to the quality of the women, while measuring their curves and breast size with a giant plastic protractor. He will carry a little foam finger on the end of a stick, with which he will poke the women in the soft places until they tell them to stop, which they will not because no means yes! At the end, he will yell “DYNAMITE BODY!”

Obviously I watched the whole thing.

CURIOUS JAPANESE THINGS OF THE LATELY, AS THOUGH THOSE ARE SOMETHING DIFFERENT THAN WHAT THESE ARTICLES ROUTINELY DEAL WITH IN THE NARRATIVE ANYWAY
– My local import store, which recently received Hot & Spicy SPAM and is now selling it for 650 yen a can
– Me, for buying one at that price, which with the soaring yen value equates to buying a can of SPAM for something like eight U.S. dollars, and not regretting it even a little
– The goddamned cicadas, which produce a deafening, alarm-like scream in the wee hours of the morning, and which I can hear even while standing in my kitchen or toilet room by way of the overhead vents
– Oreo brand chocolate bar, which is the size of a Heath but instead of toffee is just Oreo and macadamia nuts
– This guy I saw yesterday, who was following his dog around, and the dog looked like he was poppin’ a squat to take a dump, and instead of waiting for him to finish then scooping it up into a bag or something the dude pulled out a paper plate and stuck it under his ass and the dog took a shit on the plate I am seriously not joking I left before I could see what he did with the plate
UGH

I went in for my annual health check yesterday, a requirement of the school system or something like that. I left work at noon to go to the clinic, where, despite being told I would not have to submit to a urine test, I was asked to submit to a urine test. Lucky for me I usually have some of that around. Anyway, the way it works is you are marched on a path around this building kind of like a cow being led to his slaughter, stopping along the way at each little station for the next part. The first station is of course the bathroom. Next to the sink there is a little rack with paper cups and markers, and you take one and write your name on it. You’re supposed to go in it up to the line, then you set it in this window, a window between the office part and the bathroom part, like a drive-thru, like going to Taco Bell, only I am the restaurant, I am cooking up what they have ordered, which is a steamy cup of my piss. They have asked for it, so here, please wait gotta get it ready, and then I set it on the little window and that completes the order.

At the last stop the doctor needs to check my heartbeat and the guy asks, can you please lift up your shirt, then I start doing it but almost as I reach for it the older lady assistant rushes out from a pocket in space time, like I have no fucking idea where she has come from, and starts jerking up on my shirt, she is literally trying to rip it off me, so politely at the same time though, apologizing as she subjects me to this sort of violation. It is a slim-fit shirt, I tell her, you can’t lift it up let me un-button it, and she does not listen, tugging it up, it is rolled back, crushing me, I am horrified oh god, let me help me. The doctor says my heart rate is high, no shit doc. “Take care of yourself,” he tells me. I cannot think about anything except the guy who put the paper plate to catch that dog’s shit, man that was so fucked up.

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Jessica Dovey, Jessica, Dovey, MLK jr

So much has happened since last we spoke! Where do I even begin? Perhaps with last night’s meal at a place called Kura Sushi, which is a conveyor belt sushi restaurant that is literally operated almost entirely by robots which pack the rice, ferry the food to you, and even pour your drinks.

DO ANDROIDS BREAM OF ECLECTIC FISH

Perhaps the New York Times did a better job just a few months ago explaining what makes Kura a neat place than I will. But for those of you who are reading my articles on devices unable to process hyperlinks (like paper), I shall explain! You sit down at a booth with a conveyor belt on one side. It repeatedly shuttles plates of sushi past you, and if you want one, you take it! Every plate is 100 yen. We had stuff like tuna, grilled shrimp with cheese, salmon, salad rolls, eel, shrimp tempura(!), and there’re even things like potato cheese gratin dishes, ice cream desserts, french fries, hamburger sushis, and onion rings.

If there’s something you want that you haven’t seen, you tap it in on a touch screen, and in a few minutes it is ferried to you exclusively on a separate, second conveyor belt, atop a cute little train that alerts you when it has arrived. When you’ve finished a plate, you drop it into a little dispenser under the conveyor booth, where it is automatically scanned by a mysterious sensor that detects a pickup on the bottom of the plate. The plate is added to a running total on your touch screen! Even the beer is served by a robot. You put in 450 yen and stick a mug underneath a nozzle on the machine, then hit a button. It tilts and fills the glass, then at the end even shoots some in at a high speed to leave you a little head. It fills it to the absolute top of the glass. When you’re done with your meal you hit another button which displays the total plates you’ve eaten, and summons a lady to come over and write the number on your ticket, which you bring to the register to pay. (We managed 45 plates between the seven of us, for an absurd six and a half bucks a head.)

Kura Sushi is the pinnacle of Japanese achievement. If you needed any further proof, for every fifth empty plate you drop into the hopper, a tiny video animation plays out on your screen, which you will randomly either WIN or LOSE, like a lottery scratch card. If you lose, oh well. But if you win, a large capsule machine mounted atop the conveyor belts screams a ding at you and kicks out a plastic ball with a tiny prize in it (we won two mini-magnet clips last night). Is Kura Sushi the greatest place on earth? Duh.


(Original picture of Kura Sushi and cute Japanese kid by some person on the Internet named yamakazz, not me, because I do not regularly dine with children.)

IN OTHER, NON-FOOD, JESSICA DOVEY NEWS

When she is not busy eating at robot-operated sushi restaurants, my companion Jessica Dovey now moonlights as a massive internet celebrity. Jessica Dovey, Jessica Dovey, just to piggyback off the inevitable Google search results for Jessica Dovey. What happened was, she wrote a little line about her feelings on this whole Osama bin Laden thing on her Facebook, then followed it up with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote. And her friends reposted it, and those friends reposted that, and Penn, of Penn and Teller, reposted that, only somewhere along the way in the Internets the whole thing got made out to be a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, when only part of it was, and then we got her on Twitter and we had her say “hey, I wrote that,” and there it goes.

She has had articles about it and interviews with her in such media outlets as: CBS News, USA Today, BBC Radio, The Atlantic, kottke.org, and a million blogs. I figure probably three million people have read her quote and/or her name, which is about three million more than will ever have any idea who I am. I am… okay with this. Does any of this all sound weird? It is. It is also a situation almost impossible to explain elegantly, so riddled with odd paradigms of language mutation and memetic spread from person to person. The Kids Today like to say something like this is “going viral,” but to me that sort of sounds like a buzzword infection, and I’d rather not refer to diseases when it comes to people sharing things they like. “Hey dude, Jessica Dovey is going viral!” “Is she gonna be okay”

The true gem in all of this hullabaloo, however, is obviously JessicaDovey.com, which some random purchased bought and registered, and which now displays, in giant, ominous font, the phrase “MARTIN LUTHER KING JR VS OSAMA BIN LADEN VS JESSICA DOVEY.” This elicits the thought of a battle royale grudge match, keep it clean let’s come out boxing, during the course of which these three terrors will fight a battle of spoken ideals, and come out as best pals.

BEIN’ A GEEK IN AKIHABARA

We used the “Golden Week” holidays this year, which are a period of a few holidays that happen to fall together next to each other in May, to take a little trip to Tokyo and enjoy city life to the max. Some people dig going to temples and shrines and mountains and castles and seeing “Traditional Japan,” but I’ve already kinda done that. I have seen the best temple and the best shrines and climbed the most famous mountain and been in the greatest castle. So I dig kickin’ through the busy parts of the biggest cities and being surrounded by more people than I’ll ever have occasion to after I leave.

The busiest, dorkiest place in the world is probably the section of Tokyo known as Akihabara, where I stopped off briefly when I first came to Japan but returned to this week with two years of haggard grizzle and experience: not fearing the odd constructs of the culture allowed me to really dig in this time. I purchased six Seimitsu arcade buttons from a tiny store on a side alley as narrow as a bathroom stall so that I can modify the new fighting stick I bought recently. We went through anime stores and manga stores and game stores and smoky arcades, drank Dr. Pepper from vending machines, saw maids handing out flyers, and dodged the flannel masses in thick glasses with fanny packs. From other cultures and other countries they are yet my brethren, and as we rifle through shelves of discount, outdated gaming hardware there is an unspoken connection: we were probably both the same, once.

The rest of our journey took us to the top of a building in Shibuya where we drank white wine criminally underdressed, to a basement foreigner hangout called the Pink Cow(?) where we dined on enormous burritos and looked at expat creeps, to Shinjuku for fresh hot udon and izakaya beer, tall buildings, the Tokyo Tower, Asakusa and shrines swarming with tourists, and to a variety of places in between. It is a city I could never see entirely even if I had lived there all my life, which resonates with me in an interesting way–how would life be spread out in all directions forever? Ultimately we must choose a place, I suppose.

THE SCHOOL CELEBRATES CULTURE WITH FRIED FOOD AND SHORT SKIRTS

Hundreds of my students are hanging out the windows as swarms of humanity mill about in the school courtyard, chowing down on cheap teenager-made food and listening to music and dances performed earnestly by Other Students. One all-girl band just busted out a not-half-bad rendition of “I Love You Baby” to the cheers of the student body and their parents and community members, which took place after the dance club, clad in not-just-a-little-suggestive black skirts and purple backless lace-up tops, performed a significantly inappropriate series of gyrations to a Lady Gaga song.

This Is FES, the banners say, where FES means festival, most specifically the school’s yearly bunkasai, a festival of culture. This means performances for two days by every club and group we have here. The brass band busted out forty-five minutes of tunes, some conducted by club members, culminating in an enjoyable Disney medley, while the drama club today put on a full production of “DEATHNOTE,” which is a popular anime-manga-movie franchise here that I have never seen. The choir performed to a house so packed that the old ladies had to fan themselves with their programs.

What this all means for me is that for two weekend days, Saturday and Sunday, I am here at school, at work, during a time traditionally reserved for Not Work. In addition it means I am accosted by students begging me to buy their wares, foods, snacks, pose for cell-phone pictures, and visit the rooms where their club activities are on display. Actually, despite the whole shebang requiring me to wake up at 7 am both days of my weekend and proceed to work as though it’s just another weekday, it’s actually pretty entertaining, and definitely a uniquely Japanese school-spectacle, since these kids have stuff to show off that are the fruits of actual (significant) over-practice, unlike the half-assery often on display back in the US of A.

As compensation I get Monday off, and another Monday next month. That’s fine I guess! As the resident foreigner the day off cannot come too soon–it is easy to understate how exhausting it can become merely being Looked At by every kid you have ever taught, their friends, siblings, parents, grandparents, community members, and their pets. Suffice it to say that after today I will be ready to get all the eyes off me by heading home and setting my hands to work cooking up some steak burritos with the meat I’ve had marinating all day, and sinking these teeth into it, and chilling down with a couple beers while absolutely nobody watches me.

Perhaps this is the counterpart to celebrity: it can get a little tiring knowing how many people are always preoccupied with you instead of themselves. Maybe I’ll ask Jessica Dovey how it feels.

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Sensible workplace procedures

On my desk there has been placed an attendance sheet on which I need to put a stamp indicating my “okayness” with the fact that I took a sick day at the beginning of last month, as though I somehow had no choice whether or not to be sick and as though I actually have some choice about whether or not to stamp it. This is essentially the punch clock if you will, that I stamp every week when I come to work at my night school. I am to use my personal inkan to put the little kanji for my name right there.
But I am not paying attention enough, and I stamp it in the wrong box. I am in Japan, so I already know that by putting it in the wrong box I have ruined the entire form, which has already arcanely needed and received stamps from people situated all over the goddamned building. So in an effort to please the secretary, to make her comfortable, to say “no look, I just made a mistake, it’s no big deal, you absolutely don’t need to throw away the entire sheet” I put a little whiteout over the place where I wasn’t supposed to have stamped. Naturally, it is the first thing she notices when she comes back to get the sheet, which I expected. “This is no good, she says,” and I tell her “I made a mistake, right there,” and she says “is that so,” and I say “yep that’s so,” and with a sigh she says “well maybe we’ll just have to do this whole sheet over one more time” and as she walks away I say “is that so” and she says “yep that’s so,” and then she leaves.

When she brings the new sheet back, the act of stamping which is obviously too complex for my foreign brain, despite the fact that I have carried out this exact process with no problems the last eighteen months I’ve done it and was able to communicate with her in her native language, she circles the squares I need to stamp with enormous, exaggerated pencil marks, and tells me kindly to stamp in the circles. The sad reality of the situation is that because of the vagaries of the Japanese language, even when I proceed to tell her “I understand (what to do)” she can interpret it merely as “I understand (your directions)” and so my being talked down to is without possible retort. My stamps are of course the first things that are to be put on the paper–even before the simple numerical date at the top–and surely this way if I just screw it up again well then at least she hasn’t bothered everyone else first.

This is one example of the nonsensical bureaucratic bullshit and of course, in my case, passive-aggressive belittlement that brings many types of formal business to a screeching halt in Japan and drives people so fucking insane that they leap from buildings a thousand a day. Sometimes it makes me wonder how they could have ever been allowed to be creative enough to invent gyoza, video games, ramen, animation, and comic books. Oh wait they didn’t invent any of that stuff.

What could possibly be the reason that instead of just saying “oh there was a mistake no big deal” they must re-fill the entire form? Are there trust issues with the higher-ups, and their higher-ups, and theirs? This is, after all, the country that has hired and pays a man to stand in front of my train station escalator which is being repaired and will be walled off for a month. His job is just to stand there, every morning, making it insultingly clear that yes, if the barriers didn’t tip you off, the escalator is closed. A scenario echoes through my head about what life must be like in buildings unlike mine, those technologically advanced enough to include hot water at the bathroom sink: a small speaker system echoes, forever, “remember, hot water is hot, and is not cold water, honorable person who is using the hot water, and remember to scrub your hands please.”

Are they afraid I somehow grossly, sloppily applied whiteout to the sheet and that by doing so I may have somehow scribbled in some sort of inaccurate information, despite there obviously being none? (The field I “corrected” was a field that I could in no way alter to my benefit.) Are they afraid that by whiting out my mistake I have somehow HIDDEN THE TRUTH and ruined the accuracy of the sheet, which contains no time verifications, dates, or other sorts of markings, and instead of my signature bears merely an ink image from a wooden stamp any fucker can buy at the dollar store?

The real forgery is about to come, as she wastes ten minutes preparing a replacement sheet that will be a beautiful lie and look identical to the first one, except the number 7 will be written on plain paper instead of on top of white out. Why even issue white out pens? Sometimes I really just don’t know about this place. But then I have a delicious plate of tempura and beat my Japanese wife for not cutting my sausages into the shape of an octopus for my lunch box and all is well again. No but really I like living here

SOME NON-CYNICAL STUFF THAT WAS GOOD ABOUT JAPAN THIS WEEK THAT I COULD NOT HAVE POSSIBLY EXPERIENCED ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD
– Bought a CD
– Got a couple books in the mail
– Left work two hours early yesterday
UH

I’ve been playing a game on my PSP called Xenogears and in like four days I have managed to put about three hours on it. Back in the day I was so fanatic about games I’d have put three hours on it before I even opened the package. Do you know what this means? Me either but it cannot be good.

Classes are over for the semester which means I’ve got about six weeks to regain my workplace sanity and buck up for the new class of incomers in mid-April. A year-end party with my co-workers on the eleventh might be a good start, because there will be lots to drink. Yet, try as I might, I am beginning to feel more and more like I cannot fill my happiness-holes with nostalgic Japanese toys and games and will instead need to look into myself for the seeds of mental comfort ooh look it is a Final Fantasy VIII sticker book.

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Gecko and Fox

With five hours left to go on my 4,923 mile trip across the Atlantic and other occasionally rocky-looking landmasses, the dryness of the air scratches at my prefrontal cortex like fine-grit sandpaper, with every breath: I am reamer, rout, roto-rooter, it says, and your body, the minefield, is this week’s episode of New Yankee Workshop. I have already watched three movies, gotten three hours of sleep, eaten my meal, done some reading, and drank two beers. There is nothing left for me on this aircraft, absolutely fucking not. In the agony of dryness I cover my face with a blanket, try to create humid air. I consider wetting my fingers with water and stuffing them up my nose, then refrain for unknown reasons. I look out at the wing, and am so tired that I watch it wobble in the air, unusually convinced that by looking at it, I am causing it to bear a greater load, which will cause it to break, plunging us into the icy depths.

Stomach increasingly fucked from the headache’s pain, I convince myself I am about to die, and adopt a new philosophy of life for the year 2011: Impermanence, love, and melodrama in reverse order, while I’m still in my 20s and everything’s beautiful. I write it down and it reads true to itself if not a little stupid, so I change it to “choose life” and realize that sounds like an anti-abortion ad and also the tagline from Trainspotting. I further revise my revised philosophy: just love and impermanence, but not impermanent love, and not necessarily the love of impermanence. I guess what I’m trying to say is that most innovatively I find myself in conflict with the desire for permanence and impermanence in material ways, which perhaps brings about the true mantra: only love! But John Lennon already kinda said that. Underarching really seriously true mantra: Know thyself.

(Complication: making thyself a person worth knowing, myself)

New year’s resolution, 2011: achieve utter and total harmony, through love and knowing thyself

In noise-cancellers courtesy of lucky random upgrade to Economy Premium I feel behind glass, a Hermes object looked at but never disturbed, then flick the noise-canceller switch on and off to hear the difference. During a scene in Wall Street, one of the featured on-demand in-flight movies, in which characters at one point converse aboard a plane, I switch the cancelling off only to discover that the actual ambient noise of the aircraft I am on is quieter than the airplane noise coming from the movie, and I commit ritual seppuku.

The second in-flight meal is a treat, a real joy: a warm, soft, foil-wrapped foccacia sandwich with roasted tomatoes, pesto, and stringy, stretchy mozzarella cheese, which for my dollar they can put on fucking anything and I’ll eat it. Side dishes: fruit cup, yogurt cup, cup of coffee.

Walking into my apartment is like walking into a room carpeted, wallpapered, and filled entirely with JELL-O brand pudding snack, a rich, lush, velvety wave of relief and comfort washing over me as completely as spray tan. My cat indifferently greets me at the door, then resumes being totally insane, while the delightful Kaori, who has been using our apartment as a palace of twisted immorality for the last two weeks, informs me that she has already run the bath for me, because she saw that I said I wanted one on my Facebook. This is further evidence that we truly lived in a connected world, but also that Kaori is obviously too good a person to be staying in our apartment. That night I cooked a box of Deluxe Four Cheese Macaroni and Cheese that I brought home in a box with a ton of other unhealthy American delights, then slept the best five hours of my life before waking up fully rested at four A.M. thanks to the jet lag. Remedy? Eating all the leftover mac and chee and playing video game pinball until it was time to go to work. Downside: I’m sitting at my desk with seven hours to go and I’ve already been awake for six hours. Upside: it’s Friday, and Monday’s a national holiday.

But what about America? I will remember it as two things. The first is as a blitzkrieg of wild, excessive consumption the likes of which are unfathomable in Japan, eating more food items than exist meals in the day, spending meager amounts of money for hulking, unfinishable plates of food, and drinking to excess at a rate such that the number of beers total is a variable Bt and the number of showers total is a variable St and the variable Bt fits in the equation Bt > (St * 2) and is a valid expression.

The second thing I will remember it as is a re-centering trip, an inspiring, internally touchy-feeling reconnection with the things I never realized I loved about the place I’m from and a wake-up call regarding the Japan I call home. What makes me American is that I’m from America. Japan doesn’t want me to be Japanese, because I can’t be and I’ll never be. The shame of being myself had started to creep up on me so slowly in Japan I had barely noticed, and today I stood up straight and walked to work with a different awareness. Before, I had found myself acutely obsessed with the duality of my presence here: believing I was both an exotic object of desire or a reviled, repeatedly sounding klaxon I mentally positioned myself as an object that all persons had an opinion of. Lost in the sea of anonymity that besets those citizens of the United States I was able to experience what someone might interpret as “a lack of self-consciousness,” and, having returned to Japan, I find it a thrill to apply it in a society where I can still feel unique without even needing to dress myself in freakish black eye makeup.

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Butterburgers, gas station burritos, and 33 pounds of dog food

The most peculiar thing is that I now feel like an outsider who is inside, or perhaps someone who was always here but isn’t any longer. In Japan I am acutely foreign, both invisible (like Internet advertisements to a seasoned browser) and visible (bright, flashing Internet advertisements), depending on the interpreter. This duality has become part of my consciousness in Japan, making me always aware that to everyone I am at least someone or no one. In America it is different, because I am neither someone nor no one but Everyone. There is no duality that comes from being different, to be ignored or stared at but at least one or the other–there is just existence, part of All People.

Yet, still in command of the I’m In Japan mentality, I find myself mostly oblivious to their presence around me, conditioned as I am to mainly ignore what I recognize as the same (most people). The problem is that I am also conditioned to recognize what is different, which for the last year and a half has been “foreign people,” and by foreign of course I ironically mean “not Japanese.” To suddenly become aware of all the conversations those around me are having is like someone flipped on the switch that opens Pandora’s Box, forcefed me the apple of the tree of sin’s origins: can these people really be comfortable with knowing that everyone around them is hearing what they’re saying to each other? Then, two realizations: 1. I just asked that out loud to my sister, completely forgetting that suddenly everyone around me can understand me too, and 2. to someone for whom the regularity of constant bombardment of exterior conversation is not remarkable, it is unlikely to be even slightly of note that someone around them is speaking to someone else.

I’m lonely but not alone, I’m everyone and nobody: nothing on my face says I’ve been an outsider for this long, or that I’m still just temporary. I get a thrill out of speaking in a cool, casual way to gas station attendants and the guy who gets the game out of the rack at Target, catch myself speaking way more politely to anyone than I ever would have thought to before, and find myself for what is likely the first time in my life genuinely unconcerned about what anyone thinks about the things I say, do, or how I look. Peculiarly enough it’s only since I have lived in a place where I am forced to acknowledge that I am the Other that I am capable of believing I’m nothing. Is the suppression of self-consciousness what self-confidence really is?

In other news: huge burritos, frozen pizza, steak, cottage cheese, Thai Kitchen, Jimmy John’s, American football, and other such delights, hung from low branches like ornaments, and I am the cat.

I woke up at 2:30 this morning.

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As stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after

I went to Ikea last Saturday and though we intended to get a lazy morning breakfast in their restaurant section we were indeed too late to break fast. So for some reason instead of getting the meatball plate I chose the daily special, curry rice with a pork katsu. It was in retrospect a bizarre and uninspired decision, because who goes to Ikea’s restaurant for breakfast, and who goes there and in the absence of breakfast chooses the meal equivalent of “spaghetti with sauce?” The only things more common on the dinner table than curry rice in Japan are either seaweed or stuff with their eyes still in them, perhaps covered in some sort of vinegar (the curry rice was, expectedly, of a middling to low quality).

Speaking of frightful things, today I actually expressed some excitement to a coworker about making mochi again on January 12th at my night school. Last year’s mochi-making day was the coldest evening I have ever experienced in this country, the weight of which was tempered only by the deliciousness of hot chicken soup with beaten, gooey rice wads in it. You may recall this particular event being mentioned to me last year by way of my now dearly-departed principal, who cryptically warned me about it with just a single line: “Cover your jacket with something when the beatings happen because the splatter.” (This phrase has since become a sort of personal life mantra, applicable in nearly all situations.) I anxiously await the return of Big Hammer, and all the stretchy rice-based delights that will come with it.

As an aside, I think those guys who were turning Japanese could not possibly have had the brash outspokenness necessary to record an electronic pop song declaring it so if they actually were turning Japanese. (I really think so)

I’m already starting to feel separation anxiety a bit, still two weeks out from when I’ll be boarding a series of public transit devices to fly away from the place I’ve called home for the last sixteen months. I’ll only be gone for three weeks, generously, but look what I’ll miss: Christmas cake, Kentucky Fried Chicken, drinking myself stupid, nabe party? Receiving bad-luck fortune at Ikuta Shrine, NHK’s year-end celebrity-filled singing competition, silly grab bags full of random goods, Paul McCartney’s Christmas crime against humanity being piped through all PA systems in every store in the country nonstop for days.

Of course making a list of all the stuff that I already miss and will get to enjoy will take much longer. I am kind of excited about the following things, excluding family, the obvious but not-entertaining bullet-point: Buying a carton of milk which is a full gallon and wondering how anyone could ever fit that inside of a refrigerator. Enormous, affordable pizza with thick buttery crust and lots of cheese and absolutely no mayonnaise. Strolling through a Target store and being all like “whoa” at the Blu-rays priced under sixty dollars. Shootin’ guns! Television, signs, and conversations in my native language, football and people who know that football isn’t soccer, Taco John’s, Subway, Arby’s, Chik-fil-a, Thai Kitchen, Cocost, Hickory Park, steaks from a grill that have names other than “cut steak”, cheap beer, cheap fruit, cheap everything. Finally, seeing some men my age dressed worse than I am, and also snow. I trust I will get to revel in the carefree and brazen excesses of most of, if not all of, these things.

But what about the weird stuff? Will it be difficult to get used to the fact that I can’t get very good food at a convenience store, or that trains can’t zip me around wherever I need to go, or that I can’t just walk somewhere with five hundred dollars worth of cash in my pocket and feel safe about it? Will I god forbid have to drive a car (on the right side of the road)? Will I cope with eating every meal with a fork? Yeah probably.

I got a haircut the other day at “BILLY” which is a hair salon I’ve been to twice now that allows racism to work in my favor: specifically, though a cut for any old Japanese person is about 4500 yen, a cut for a “foreigner” is only 3000. The place is run by a guy and his wife, who both speak English and worked (I believe) in London for a time. That thirty dollars gets me a pretty meticulous and careful cut, a shampoo and conditioning with minor scalp massage, a blowdry, and even a little dab of product all up in there, about forty-five minutes of attention. The place is named after their one-time pet dog, BILLY, who is taxidermied and watches over you as you are trimmed. On one side of the place is a weight bench covered with magazines; I like the guy’s commitment to simultaneously working out and staying informed about what Ms. Kardashian is up to.

I can’t quite figure out why it’s cheaper for me to get my haircut there unless they see it as kind of an occasional and random way to keep their English sharp by having a chance to practice with real foreign people–it’s the only thing I can think since the foreigner discount isn’t really posted anywhere in the store and they give it to you without your asking. Now, if I go to my Real Japanese Place, a kind of trendier but franchised salon called END, I can get the works for only about 2500 and they spend maybe an hour on me (you even get a hot towel on your face while they wash your hair, a more vigorous scalp/head massage, a free drink while you wait, and a piece of candy and grateful bow as you leave). The rub with that whole thing of course is that I have to speak Japanese, which gets pretty pathetic for both me and my stylist pretty quickly. Making an appointment can also be… troublesome. This time I just got my hair cut as short as possible to prolong the amount of time before I’d need to get a cut again. I’m happy with it, though after my first day back in the real world I received the following occasionally confusing comments:

– Is that from hazing or something (guy at Japanese class)
– Miss Misumi says a handsome guy is a handsome guy either way (teacher at school)
– You are same, same (a student pointing to his friend, head totally shaved)
– It’s like a David Beckham haircut (Jessy, akin to maybe someone saying “it’s like a Ronald Reagan haircut”)
– Your new hairstyle is very nice (a third-year kid, followed by the class erupting in unbridled, monkey-like shrieks and laughter)

At any rate I feel colder, though it is a fact that the weather itself is cooling off. And I think I actually caught a bit of a cold last afternoon, though I can’t attribute it specifically to the hair. Copious amounts of chewable vitamin C seem to have mostly helped me bounce back after only a day or so though (thanks for sending it Mom!).

Oh I almost forgot about the CURIOUS JAPANESE THINGS OF THE WEE k
– Ringer Hut, a restaurant where you can order champon, a kind of chewy noodle dish with thick soup, offering either standard size, 1.5x size, or double size, all of which are the same price (and I only ordered 1.5x because in a totally un-American moment I thought “I know it’s free to get more but I don’t know if I can eat all that”)
– Monster Hunter Portable 3, probably this year’s biggest non-Pokemon game, for the PSP, which comes out today and which many of my students (and several of my teachers) have been talking about for the last two months, and which I can’t play cause I am sure there is a Butt Load of Japanese, not that I’d have any goddamned time for it anyway
– Red Ginger soda from Suntory, which is totally bright pink in color, and adorned with a black and pink wrapper that looks like some sort of lascivious corset, and which I bought without really considering how girly it looked because I like ginger ale and I like red, and which tastes exactly like regular ginger ale, a fact I only discovered by shamefully drinking it at work like a total woman
– Went to the music store to find Square Enix’s Christmas album and got sidetracked looking at the Jazz, which is conveniently separated into “Jazz” and “J-Jazz” sections to totally confuse me when I can’t find any Japanese artists in the Jazz section
– Mos Burger’s Mos Burger, which is a burger with a slice of tomato and this special red sauce that is kinda like a big dollop of meat sauce with cream cheese in it and Jesus Christ would probably come back from the dead to eat one jeepers is it ever fucking delicious I want one now immediately I will buy one after work.
THAT’S QUITE ENOUGH isn’t it

On my train ride home from night school last week I had a beer and sat in the front seat of the Port Liner with the big front window, and there was one of those huge manga magazines that someone had left there. So a little tipsy I made the decision to pick it up and as I flipped through it looking at the bikini models in the front and the colored-paper comics in the back while the lights of the city shot past me I realized for a second that nobody who saw me reading the comics could possibly know I didn’t understand the things that were happening in them. They might have even thought I bought the book myself, who knows! I felt like a real cock of the walk, which was also part of the illusion. For ten minutes I could pretend to read manga while looking at the pictures like anyone else, and nobody was the worse off for it, like I got to operate myself from outside, a simulation, a battery of tests. I have come to realize that for an often-inhibited and occasionally inexplicably-depressed sociopath such as myself, this is why alcohol works: not to alter the world around you, but to alter you around the world.

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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?

ON SUNDAY SOME MEN ARE BRINGING A BOOK SHELF TO OUR APARTMENT THAT WE BOUGHT ON A WEBSITE
It’s true.
HOW ABOUT THAT

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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.

IT’S TIME FOR THIS WEEK’S WEIRD JAPANESE STUFF OH MY LORDIE
– 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
THAT’S IT FOR TODAY GOOD JOB PARAPPA YOU CAN GO ON TO THE NEXT STAGE NOW YAHOO ALRIGHT.

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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We are feeling a little culturally fatigued

6:55 AM, Our Apartment, Port Island, Kobe, Japan

It’s been one week, and in that time, despite accomplishing a relatively great deal, we have accomplished markedly little to aid us in our daily life. Part of the peculiar reason for that is that most common household tools, freely available and affordable in the U.S., are ridiculously, prohibitively expensive here, with bizarre exceptions.

Want a clothes washer? A baseline model, low-end, will run you roughly 29,000 yen here (just move the comma to the right to approximate a dollar value (in this case, about $290)). Pretty affordable! (Not that we’d know how to use it or get it to our house to begin with yet.) If you want a clothes dryer, however, an object which virtually nobody in Japan owns and which the local Wal-Mart-like store (Izumiya) carries only one model of, be prepared to pay upwards of 62,000 yen. So we’ll dry our clothes on the deck! Sounds fun and totally Japanese! I don’t need no clothes-shrinking dryer! At the “accessory shop” in Sannomiya (Tokyu Hands), you can pay 2,000-4,000 for a ready-to-blow-away plastic clothes-drying rack, or (I kid you not) 18,000 for a metal one that feels like a twelve-dollar K-mart special. On the other hand, my brand-new cell phone, the Toshiba Biblio, with e-mail capabilities, a 5 megapixel camera, an e-book reader, a TV antenna that picks up broadcast TV for free, and a host of other idiotic goodies, costs a grand total (including the price of the phone over a two-year contract, I paid nothing up front) of roughly $40 a month.

An air-conditioner (commonly called air-con)? No houses in Japan have central air or heating, so they all need to use wall-mounted AC units that sit up near the ceiling and attach onto metal bolts. The cost for the most basic air-con at Izumiya, now, in the middle of summer so hot that we were out in Kobe yesterday for three hours and felt like dying? 79,000 yen (that is seven hundred and ninety dollars). If you want one that also heats in the winter, add another 30,000-40,000 yen. Feel like going the cheap route and stocking your place with tiny electric fans? The one our apartment came with, weighing somewhere around three pounds and having a diameter of roughly 14″, retails for 3,990 yen. A miniature desk fan the size of a CD case literally costs 1,490 yen.

We paid 1,000 each for a tiny non-stick pot and pan, and had to pass on an iron and rice cooker (cheapest models 4,000 yen each). Even the new and enormous IKEA store here on Port Island has adopted the Japanese Way: identical stand-up torchierre-style floor lamp, which I purchased one of in Pittsburgh for $9.90, retails for a confusing 2,490 yen.

I can’t fully determine if these prices are just because we live in a relatively large city, or if things would be cheaper in a semi-urban setting, but all that this means is that until Friday (glorious payday) we’ve decided to reserve the meager amounts of money we have so that we can take the trains to work, and also so we can eat. In the mean time, Jessy is literally washing our essential clothing items in the rather spacious sink with dish soap, so that we can hang them up on our kitchen storage rack to dry (we’d hang them outside, but our deck is covered with months of uninhabited-apartment pigeon shit. (I got a deck brush, but owning no bucket with which to transport water to said deck, might prove limitedly useful.)

Did I mention the trash system? First of all there are basically no trash cans anywhere so prepare to hang on to your junk if you’re just out and about. At one of my schools, in order to throw away a plastic soda bottle, you must tear off the plastic label (they are perforated for this purpose) and put it in one can, remove the lid and put it in another can, then crush the bottle and put it in a third can. On our island, we are restricted less (only three separations, for recyclable containers, burnables, and non-burnables), but we own no trash cans (tiny, bathroom sized cans were 1,490), and everything must be placed in specially labelled trash bags (available in packs of five at your local Toho supermarket).

At our orientation, they called this level of cultural fatigue (often confusingly referred to as “culture shock” despite it being not at all a sudden process) “Stage 2,” wherein the new arrivals stop noticing the quaint similarities and exciting differences in culture and begin to focus only on the negative elements. I am willing to bet that a couple months down the line, when I have a TV again, when I can Wash My Clothes, when I can know that I will be able to sleep tonight without waking up sore-throated in a puddle of my own sweat, when we have more in our kitchen than two bowls, a pot and pan, and silverware (and a tiny bag of 400 yen cereal), when I have Internet access at home and can learn a damned thing about anything (I’m typing this in Notepad on a Sunday morning at home)–maybe then I’ll move on to “Stage 3” and finally begin to feel comfortable in my day-to-day life. Until then, god dammit.

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