Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Christmas Fair!



I'd just like to take this opportunity to wish everyone out there a Merry Christmas, and especially to all those expatriates and those who are separated from their loved ones. And to those of you in Japan, Happy Emperor's Birthday. It may not be the most festive of holidays, but it's still worth a mid-week day off. Department store sales aside, how about a little Western-style Christmas cheer?



Christmas Egg Nog

"If Ian can make it, then it must be easy!"

You will need:

- 4 egg yolks
- 5 oz of sweetened condensed milk
- 1 tablespoon white sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 4.5 cups milk
- 4 egg whites
- Nutmeg

Beat egg yolks until smooth. Stir in condensed milk, sugar, vanilla, milk, and stir well. Beat the egg whites until stiff (or as stiff as you can by hand) and add to mixture. Serve cold, garnished with a pinch of nutmeg to taste (and rum, if desired). Makes about 1.5 quarts.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Beware the Green-Eyed Monster!



This may be the most amazing thing I have ever seen. I found it at the stationary shop in Eclan buried behind a display of small gift envelopes. The box was covered in dust and quite faded. Japanese people take Othello pretty seriously, and Toyokazu smoked me without even trying. I'm just happy to have the calender.

Fun Fact for the Day: Othello was invented in the city of Mito, in Ibaraki, Japan.

Learn Japanese with Ian!
osero/ribasi =Othello/Reversi (as it is sometimes called. Personally, I found the former to be much more dignified)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Charisma Man Walks Among Us

click for larger image


I briefly mentioned Charisma Man in an earlier post after Tom introduced me to its greatness, but found it far too brilliant to lay buried in an entry with a half dozen other links no one would bother to click on. The comic ran from about 1998 to 2005 in an old gaijin mag called The Alien (which later became Japanzine), and I'm currently on the lookout for a reasonably priced copy of the out-of-print collected series. (If any gaijin out there can help me on this quest, I'd be much obliged.)

Charisma Man is the epitome of the arrogant, self-interested, ill-qualified English teaching gaijin who flees a humdrum existence in his native country to seek fortune, respect, and lots of hot sex. Upon reaching Japan, he is transformed into a muscular hunk of pure confidence who draws scores of hot females to his side until he encounters his arch-nemesis: Western Woman.

What captured my attention most about this strip is this idea of a misfit gaijin not being able to make it in his home country, and coming to Japan as an easy way to gain power and popularity. Just like Superman on Earth, the most ordinary of Western attributes become extraordinary feats here in Japan. Guys who worked deadbeat jobs back in the West discover that their ability to speak one of the most in-demand languages in the world instantly qualifies them for a high-paying teaching position that demands instant respect from the Japanese people. Those misfits from the Western dating scene can come here and—with the help of a little confidence—win instant attention from females of all ages, sizes, and levels of English ability. The capacity to consume more than three glasses of beer, reach tall items on shelves, accomplish the simplest of home-repair tasks, wield a phallus longer than four inches, and instantly answer colloquial English questions impress people like magic. And even the simplest of Japanese language skill or chopstick handling will never fail to impress a crowd.

But this existence is all a facade. However much his newfound powers boost his ego to superhuman proportions, Western Woman proves that Charisma Man's popularity is all a sham by knocking him back to his true geek status. I see plenty of guys here using their gaijin status just to win girls, but the Charisma Man phenomenon goes deeper than that. Success in Japan for all but the truly qualified is just a lot of smoke and mirrors; most gaijin aren't doing anything that any number of Westerners couldn't do as good or better than themselves (in the classroom or the bedroom). Without real talent you are nothing; and all the colloquial-English in the world won't deliver you real success. Maybe every gaijin needs a Western Woman to hold up the mirror and show him his true form.

Still, for those who can't stand the reality of that mirror, Japan makes a great hiding place. Why face the humiliation of your pathetically-low Western job qualifications when you can make a real salary, sleep with dozens of women, and be worshiped as an eigo no sensei instead?

For more Charisma Man strips, click here or here. This article is also informative reading.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shameless Bennington Self-Promotion

I recently had an urge to update my contact information on the Bennington Alumni website, and requested a copy of the Alumni Magazine. (Thanks, Dorothy.) Aside from one of Steven's essays on Marlene Dietrich and a few other interesting articles, the magazine was plagued by the usual shameless requests for donations disguised as inspirational banners. One article that I found equally ludicrous was a report on student house renovations, which contained some egregiously poor attempts to describe the character of each house. I'm reposting some of the most ridiculous Facts here:

Kilpatrick
Fact: The house is known for hosting several of the largest annual parties on campus.

This is a really nice way of saying that Kilpat (for only Liz Coleman and the Alumni Magazine refer to the house by its full name) had the honor of hosting the Dress to Get Laid Party, celebrating the day when Bennington upperclassmen can have sex with freshmen every October 1st, debauching the campus every St. Kilpats Day, rigging a bathroom soap dispenser to serve alcohol, and filling a kiddee pool in the common room to use as a skeezy hottub in addition to countless other infamies I'm not even aware of.

Fels
Fact: Has its own washer and dryer and one of the newest kitchens on campus.

This is the most useless fact I could possibly think of to describe a Bennington house. Is Fels really so uninteresting that it has to be described in terms of its appliances?

McCullough
Fact: According to house chairs, McCullough has a very strong house community with an emphasis on food and spontaneity. House members provide a great deal of support for one another.

A contradiction of terms, a sentence that begins with "According to..." can hardly be considered as fact. Poor editing aside, "support" in this sentence actually refers to McCullough residents lending their +10 mana counters when their housemates encounter wandering bands of orcs during Larping tournaments.

Leigh
Fact: The Bennington Free Press says of Coffee Hours at Leigh that "no one knows exactly what goes on here, but everyone wants to be a part of it."

I find this hard to believe, and am pained that this was the best they could come up with for my former residence.

Dewey
Fact: Named after John Dewey, one of the fathers of the progressive education ideals that Bennington was based on.

Dewey is such a cesspool that the writer has decided to retreat behind historical detail rather than risk disgusting everyone with an accurate description.

Finally, last and certainly least:

Wooley
Fact: Legend has it that Bob Dylan once hung out in one of the rooms of the house after he performed at Bennington.

I think you mean "fucked a girl in one of the rooms of the house," yes?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Captain Zooey Dedalus’s Cultural Portal to Japan

Picture of the Month
The gateway to the world-famous Takeda Shrine in Kofu, designated by the Japanese government as one of the 489 most important cultural shrines in all of Japan. Japanese people of all ages come here to take pictures and buy good luck charms to help them pass college entrance exams.


Greetings and Salutations, loyal followers! It is I, your ever-adventuring guide to adventurous adventures, Captain Zooey Dedalus. It is my goal to present Japanese cultural explorations that highlight the most fascinating aspects of their culture, and I hope to singlehandedly bridge that ever-widening gap between East and West through open communication and a minimum of childish name-calling. As we all know, the true calling of any social scientist is to experience as much adventure as possible no matter what the cost, and your humble narrator is no exception. In this blog I shall analyze the varied aspects of Japanese culture ranging from tea ceremony to tentacle porn for the good of all humanity and with no expectation of personal gain.


But first, I must draw your attention to this cultural anomaly I witnessed just the other day at Yamako supermarket. Though this may appear to be a typical shelf of natto and other bean products, the trained eye of the cultural anthropologist will surely notice that something is amiss. Some careless shopper, having changed his or her mind about his or her shopping itinerary, has lazily deposited a four-pack of medium eggs on this shelf instead of returning them to their proper location. And why is this act, so common in American supermarkets, so important, my devoted readers may ask? Because Japanese people will always, without exception, return an item to its original spot on the shelf after changing their minds, always. (This just happens to be the one exception.)



Last month I took a trip to Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectures, in a region of Japan occasionally referred to by locals as the Kanto (I am not sure of the meaning of this word, but according to my Japanese dictionary, it may be derived from the word kantoku, or film director). Above you can see a cultural snippet of Japan from Oyama city in Tochigi, where electricity races down the wires faster than attractive girls fleeing a cosplay convention. Tochigi is famous for its gyoza, a small dumpling-type food that was probably brought over from China a long time ago (like most things in Japan that aren’t anime or co-prosperity spheres). We sampled gyoza with mushrooms (kinoko), shrimp (ebi) and cheese (chizu), among others. They were all really good, though I couldn’t really tell the difference between them.

In my travels, I also encountered one the most important hallmarks of Japanese culture, a phenomenon that has had more impact than flower arrangement, calligraphy, ukiyoe, kabuki, and J-Pop music combined. I’m talking about Love Hotels.



Love Hotels, quite simply, are small hotels catering to clandestine romantic rendez-vous (rendez-vous is a French word meaning meeting or appointment) and providing the ultimate in both secrecy and idyllic ambience. Access to the Hotel Crossway in Mito (which looked innocuous enough except for the neon sign outlining a stiletto heel) is obtained via an underground parking garage or through a cleverly hidden entrance at street level. In the interest of privacy, customers select their room by studying photographs on a large board, then buying the appropriate key from a vending machine. The gray d├ęcor spotted with more neon images of stiletto heels combined with the lack of human contact combined to unnerve your normally fearless narrator. Without buying a key, we managed to gain access to an upper floor where I snapped the above picture of a vending machine selling various marital aids. My companion and I then beat a hasty retreat when we spied an elderly Japanese gentleman vacuuming the hallway.

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That is all for now, loyal readers! I assure you that in this blog, I will continue to bring you authoritative reporting on the cultural and anthropological aspects of Japan and the rest of the world. I am devoted to experiencing the whims of adventure regardless of the perils of my financial situation, and am determined to keep going with only my wits to guide me; though of course its also helpful to have my 15.1 megapixel camera, a sturdy leather backpack, my iPod, laptop, adequate changes of clothes, a Blackberry, a nice fine-tip pen, some books to read in case I get bored, Nalgene bottle, Western deodorant, handkerchief, a nice cell phone, my lucky socks, a Japanese phrasebook, an extra watch, that cool Lawson’s button I found, some Alfort, extra batteries, emergency Ranch dressing, and my little stuffed manatee that spins around in a circle when you pull the string and let it go.

Stay tuned for more adventures!

Captain Zooey Dedalus

The Author would like to note that his name has been compiled from several obscure literary sources and intends no infringement therein. The author would like to thank everyone involved with the creation, production, and management of this blog, but he really can’t because he did it all himself. All material in this blog has been the result of painstaking research, and the appropriate Wikipedia articles have been cited when appropriate.

Current Mood: Adventurous!
Current Music: Theme from Neon Genesis Evangelion

Friday, November 20, 2009

flannel in the park

Plaid Garment District thrift store shirt, navy-blue Lee jeans, Rockport casual leather shoes, 100% cotton t-shirt with English non sequiturs, hemp necklace from the JD Collection, and elliptical Mr. Dandy eyeglasses.



It is getting colder here. I wear my scarf every day now. Soon it will be winter and I will have to pull out my black peacoat. I cannot go to the park to eat lunch now, and instead go home on my long breaks and stick around the office awkwardly during my short ones. The Japanese staff is always brushing their teeth after eating lunch. It is cute.

Also, I am getting fat.

Current Mood: Whimsical
Current Music: Too many to list here

Friday, November 13, 2009

My Hands Are Tied

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, but its been a rough few days. Loads of worry and self-loathing creeping up on me. A friend suggested recently that honesty at any cost was the secret to strong relationships, and that it was damaging to hold back the truth just because you’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings. Not only that, but hiding truths from yourself acts as a barrier to self-improvement. Thought-provoking words there, but they don’t make it easier when everything comes crashing down all at once, I can’t sleep, my mind keeps racing about the day’s events, and just making my lunch was a challenge beyond my power.

I won’t even get started on the thing with my parents.

Understandably, this combined with some other engagements I shan’t mention here have made it difficult for me to me to work on anything of substance, or even scribble random ideas for later. I thought the November internet parodies project would keep my work focused as far as this blog, but so far I haven’t gotten a lot done—no work on the meme, my self-righteous rant idea still lacks form, and today I found out that my camera doesn’t have a timer. And fuck, it’s already the 13th.

Work on Carcrash Parker has also slowed since I started devoting more of my mornings to Japanese study (which continues to kick my ass on a daily basis). Finished the first round of revisions on paper a few weeks ago, and have begun to laborious task of transferring those edits to the computer. I’ve been trying to work in more jokes (with Mike’s help, as his ideas lend the script more of the silliness we’re aiming for), more details describing our protagonist’s plight after high school, and expanding a secondary character’s post-college struggles. Have some ideas for more cut scenes to make this work, but dialogue’s never been my strong suit, and it’s hard to fit in much-needed exposition in a way that sounds natural. Thankfully, my friend Sam from Bennington has graciously agreed to draw some Sierra-style cut-scene stills for the game later down the line. Sam’s a talented artist whose illustrations have never failed to impress, and having her onboard adds some much-needed artistic credibility to our project. Plus she likes making fun of Larpers even more than I do.

Apart from the adventure game, my old FWT employer George Packard from the Warner documentary project recently posted one of my observational essays on Japanese life, this one about the hole-in-the-wall vegetable markets tucked away in the back streets of Japan’s aging cities. George’s blog centers around his quest to tend the ultimate garden, with various forays into rural New Hampshire life, and I recommend checking it out if you’re looking for a change of pace.

Finally, I friend recently introduced me to the old “Charisma Man” comic, which, for those not in the know, is an incredibly observational superhero parody about a gaijin English teacher in Japan. I haven’t enjoyed a strip this much since I tore through every collected edition of Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell,” and recommend it to both ex-pats and those still at home. You can read some old strips here and here.

That’s all for now. Probably should try and get some sleep tonight, though who knows if tomorrow will be a productive day by any stretch.

Itterasshai.


Current Mood: Emotionally fragile
Current Music: Cranberries and Lemonheads mix

Thursday, November 5, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

Rules:

Once you've been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you.

(To do this, go to "notes" under tabs on your profile page, paste these instructions in the body of the note, type your 25 random things, tag 25 people (in the right hand corner of the app) then click publish.)

1. I am 6’2” tall.
2. In metric, this works out to about 188 centimeters.
3. I weigh approximately 180 pounds.
4. My hair is blond.
5. I wear my hair parted on the left.
6. To the observer, my hair appears to be parted on the right.
7. I have blue eyes.
8. My eyesight is bad and I wear glasses to correct it, though I do not know my prescription offhand.
9. My right eye is worse than my left eye.
10. I wear size fourteen shoes.
11. I last clipped my nails six days ago.
12. I have had all four of my wisdom teeth removed.
13. I have a cap on my upper left lateral incisor (tooth #10 per the Universal Dental Numbering system).
14. I have had two fillings.
15. I have not lost any of my appendages to accident or injury.
16. My hands measure 21.5 centimeters from my wrist to the tip of my middle finger.
17. My forehead droops slightly over my right eye.
18. My blood type is O Positive.
19. I have no known allergies.
20. I cannot make a four-leaf clover with my tongue.
21. I can, however, spread out my tongue like a dinner plate.
22. I still have my both my tonsils and my appendix.
23. I cannot wiggle my ears.
24. When I was a kid I had an older sister I don’t talk about very much. Her name was Sharon. When I was four years old we were playing at our house in Bridgeport, and our mother went inside to use the phone. Sharon and I were tossing a purple rubber ball back and forth when one of us (I cannot for the life of me recall who) let it bounce into the road. Sharon dove out to get it and was instantly struck by a brown van careening around the corner, her limbs twisting brokenly around her brittle body as her blood spattered a line across the pavement. (The image of her flying helplessly into that cracked road haunts me still when I see cars braking abruptly on urban streets.) In a panic I screamed and ran into the house where I was unable to explain to my mother that my sister had been suddenly killed and was never, ever coming back. I wonder what my life would be like if she was still alive.
25. This list contains twenty-four truths and one lie.

Current Mood: Mischievous
Current Music: Cake—Tougher Than It Is

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween Wishes & November Parodies

Student: Why don't Christian people celebrate Halloween?
Me: Uh, good question.
- Today's memorable quote

Happy Halloween everyone. I shall be spending the holiday resting before my long weekend trip into the eastern Kanto region, and hope all of you back in the States have more interesting plans for All Hallows Eve. Halloween is not big in Japan, but to spread this proud Western tradition my school had an early Halloween party attended by students wearing various degrees of costumes both assembled and store-bought. Lack of planning provoked me to go as an American tourist in a Hawaiian shirt, sandals, and sunglasses with the tag still attached; thus marking another Halloween I celebrated by wearing my regular clothes. I also carved a Jack-o-Lantern, which, though laughably simple, blew away most of the students who had never seen a real one in their lives.

In other news, I've decided to do a theme month in this blog as a change of pace from my usual assembly of non-sequiturs. All November, I plan on posting a series of non-sequiturs that either parody or adapt the style of other blogs. I find working within archetypes a fun way to flex my creative muscles; and this will also be an excuse for me to finish some ideas I've been toying with for a while. You may also spot some parodies and references to Facebook and internet exchanges that have become part of the very language of the web.

Fuck, it's really hard to write about this type of thing without sounding pretentious. I think I'll go eat some saltines and play Ecco the Dolphin instead.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Our Friend Persimmon



Persimmons (pictured above in a hastily-assembled glamor shot taken on my dirty kitchen counter) are a common fruit in Japan and one of Yamanashi's big fall crops. This big was the start of the harvest, so multiple students brought a total of three shopping bags worth into AEON. I plundered all I could reasonably hope to eat within the next two weeks and left the rest in the kitchen.

Persimmons (Japanese kaki) are tough fruits with an inside texture similar to a melon drained of every ounce of juice. The skin is no good for eating, so one has to invest a great deal of time slicing through their leathery outside in order to enjoy the edible portion (which tastes pleasantly similar to dried apricot). The payoff is not quite worth the work required, but the taste is unique enough so that I keep cutting up more. Plus, you know, they were freakin' free.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Return Trip



Curving along towering bridges as if the sun would never set, we share the journey without words.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Corporations

Our language is a wondrous thing. Some words by their very nature evoke positive associations (blossom, sweet, caring, hero, hugable, etc) just as others (festering, bitter, conniving, villain, spiny, and so on) evoke negative ones. What fascinates me is when seemingly neutral words come adopt similar associations through our experience. Politics makes for some fine examples: in the latter half of the 20th century, propaganda convinced Americans that communism (which arguably refers to a political party like any other) would bring disaster, and that anyone adhering to it despised their country. Today, the Right tries its best to tarnish the word "liberal" in people's minds with a variety of narrow-minded accusations. "Different" is just a word for something that is not similar to something else, but in the right context it becomes a catalyst for all the anxiety of not fitting in.

"Corporation" is a fine example of this phenomenon, as I find most sensible individuals associate the word with massive, inhumane, robotic, cold, merciless, unforgiving, ever-expanding, stubborn, bureaucratic, treacherous, manipulative, scheming, labyrinthine, unwieldy, selfish, antagonistic entities bent on tormenting the defenseless individual at every possible opportunity. "Company" is far more neutral in comparison, but if I want to create a distinctly negative impression, "corporation" suits my purpose perfectly. Or, I can just as soon omit any title at all to give the entity a more personal feel. Consider:

Nijiag has big plans for the future.

This fictitious (not to mention hastily assembled) example conveys an optimistic feeling; as if Nijiag were a person we knew well and was trusting us with his or her mission for positive change. The syntax in the sentence is the same as if Nijiag were an individual. Now consider:

The Nijiag Corporation has big plans for the future.

Suddenly, our subject doesn't seem so friendly. The article "the" opening the sentence turns Nijiag into an nonliving thing lacking human characteristics, and "corporation" removes all doubt. Nijiag is not a person, it is an assembly of people and business ventures combined for the purpose of profit. It is mammoth, frightening, and appears to have ambitions of its own. Those upcoming plans suddenly feel a tad more sinister.

This negative use of "corporation" is achieved wonderfully in the Bond film Moonraker (despite its countless other shortcomings) where the villain's business enterprise is constantly referred to as the Drax Corporation. Blade Runner achieves a similar effect with the Tyrell Corporation. I hope that one day I too have the opportunity to use this superbly loaded word in my own writing.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Weapon of Choice

If the pen is mightier than the sword, then maybe I’m justified in agonizing over my choice of writing implement.



This is a blue medium-size Bic pen. It is about six inches long with a plastic cap; and is available in twelve-packs at any supermarket, pharmacy, or big-box office supply store in America. I always assumed that moy was short for “medium” in another language, though I was never curious enough to find out which one. I have no idea what size tip it has, because for me it doesn’t matter.

I have carried this same model pen in my right front pocket for the last ten years for the reason that if I can have consistency in my writing’s appearance then I can concentrate more on expressing the ideas themselves. Its shape feels reassuringly familiar, and I can instantly recognize any notes, comments, reminders, journal entries, flash cards, To-Do lists, or hasty sketches I’ve made with its never-changing dark-hued blue: daily reassurances in a world where so much is constantly dying; breaking apart; growing old; moving away; or getting lost, stolen, molested, and smashed.



My problem is that no one sells plain Bics in Japan, and now I’m down to my last one. The Japanese take great pride in presentation—including their writing—and the stationary stores stock endless shelves of writing utensils in varying brands, colors and sizes; complete with long paper strips where giggling schoolgirls scribble notes to each other in kana and an occasional gaijin leaves cryptic English messages. These pens cost about 100 yen apiece (roughly four times the cost of an American Bic), with even more expensive models regularly sold in glass cases outside specialty shops. I find their rubber grips strangely soft, their shape distractingly contoured to my hand, and fear I’ll mark up my pockets if I jostle them the wrong way. Pens toting three or more colors are a huge fad, though I find their tiny triggers inconvenient and their variety unnecessary. Pencil cases—carried in the West only by sketch artists and elementary school children—are a daily appearance; and in class I constantly wait while students fumble in multicolored pencil cases for mechanical pencils and lead-smudged erasers.

I wonder how I must look twirling my old Bic between my fingers, popping off its cheap cap one-handed, and scribbling blue ink-smudged comments on their papers? (The Japanese, almost without exception, write in black.) Do people think me sloppy or lower-class because of the pen I carry? Or is it a sign of disrespect that I don’t wield a black 1.2 mm press-on Zebra Jimniestick with a rubber grip, brand name stenciled on the shaft, and auto-lock springclip? Add in the cost of shipping Bics from the States and the choice becomes fierce. Should I sacrifice the comforting familiarity of the pen that has become my trademark, or betray it in favor of a cool new Japanese model that will help me fit in?

I deliberate about these changes as if they threatened my very identity—because as far as I’m concerned, they do. Physical characteristics like the pens we use, the glasses we wear, our choice of jacket, or (in a perfect world) our jobs should be a manifestation of our personal values. If I start making small changes to suit other people (or my perception of their ideals), someday I might be organizing my whole life around what the majority thinks. This isn’t to say that all change is bad, but we have to change for the right reasons. Were I to buy new pens; it wouldn’t be because I wanted to; it would be to please the society in which I live. In that case, international shipping is a small price to pay for my own values.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

At the Capsule Hotel


I've wanted to stay at a Japanese Capsule Hotel ever since I read about them in Nickelodeon Magazine when I was ten. The concept struck me as starkly representative of the super-efficient Japanese use of limited space, and I had an impression that capsule hotels were one of the hallmarks of Japanese culture.

I stayed at the Asakusa Riverside Hotel in Tokyo, next to a grimy outdoor seafood restaurant and across from a square where several hobos had camped out in cardboard boxes for the night. An emaciated gentleman behind the counter was annoyed by my attempt to speak Japanese, and instead directed me to a decrepit ticket vending machine using a series of coarse English phrases burned into his memory through years of repetition: fifth floor, turn right and right again, use locker room, shower room top floor, last shower nine AM, checkout 10 AM.

For 3,000 yen I received a locker for my bag, access to a shared bathroom, and sleeping capsule #506. The top floor housed the aforementioned shower room, a sauna, a coin washer and dryer, a narrow vending machine with coffee, soda, and four kinds of beer, two pachinko machines (undoubtedly the newest items in the entire establishment) a balcony overlooking the river and the Asahi building. The walls stood dull with the odor of mildew, and the walls—once a spotless white—had now dulled to an unsightly yellow. The whole place was very 1960's; and I half expected to see shag carpeting in the upstairs lounge, but instead found only a middle-aged businessman smoking cigarettes in his yukatta and scribbling in a notebook.


The actual capsule itself was actually bigger than I imagined, since I'd always heard the word "coffin" tossed around as a comparison. It was long enough for me to sleep comfortably, and tall enough to sit cross-legged. The capsule walls were as discolored as the rest of the place, and the interior was designed with a very Logan's Run view of how people forty years ago must have imagined the future. My control panel (center of the photo) had light switches, air control, a faded digital alarm clock, AM/FM radio, and the channel listings for the coin-operated television (top left). The futon was thinner than what I'm used to, but not so thin as to disturb my sleep. A window shade (also very '60s, this time with wood paneling!) provided privacy from the rest of the hallway, where only six of the twenty capsules were occupied. Everyone on my floor (on purpose, no doubt) was a gaijin.

As far as I can tell, capsule hotels are an outdated staple of Japanese ingenuity comparable to laserdisc players or fondue sets in the west. Every Japanese person I described the experience to told me I was crazy to go. Gaijin looking for cheap Tokyo lodging and older men who recall the capsule hotel's heyday make up the bulk of the clientele, along with those younger salarymen who miss last train and need a place to sleep off the night's nama-biru and tsumami.

All I have left to say is that Nickelodeon Magazine, you've done it again.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Downtown Kofu



There is something odd about this picture. Can you figure out what it is?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fringe Benefits

The teacher’s room of an English conversation school. 9:25 PM.

Four Japanese teachers and one foreigner scurry around the cramped teacher’s room, marking attendance sheets, putting away lesson plans, pulling off nametags, and making phone calls to no-show students after the end of another workday. Amidst the commotion, another breathless gaijin enters waving his hands, his unkempt hair and cheap suit tousled by the exertion of the day. He addresses the teachers from the doorway as if they were a crowd of hundreds.

Gaijin: Attention everyone! I have an important announcement!

All eyes turn expectantly towards him fearing some disaster: a visit from the Head Office; a student who’s failed to renew his contract; or worse, a grammar question that even the foreign teacher cannot answer.

Gaijin: A student brought us three bunches of delicious Yamanashi grapes on Monday, purely out of the goodness of her heart. I helped myself to one of them last night and—I must warn you—they were the most delicious grapes I had ever tasted. (The others slowly go back to their work.) There are now two bunches of these famous purple mouth-watering Yamanashi grapes left waiting in the kitchen. These grapes are the size of ping-pong balls, and I myself can guarantee that they will not disappoint a single person who ventures to try them. Is anyone interested in taking them home?

Teacher #1: Nope.

Teacher #2: (shakes head)

Teacher #3: You can have them.

Teacher #4: No thanks.

Gaijin: (turning to his Western coworker) Matt?

Matt: I guess I could, but I took some grapes last time and they just went bad in the fridge. I’d rather have you take them all than have them wasted.

Gaijin: (in disbelief) All right, is it really okay if I take both bunches home? Is anyone else even remotely interested in them?

By this time everyone is completely ignoring him as they finish out their day’s work. The gaijin shrugs and goes to collect his prize.

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You would be amazed at how often this happens. Fruit in Yamanashi is so ubiquitous that people have long grown tired of the mammoth peaches, grapes, and cherries that the farmers harvest and hawk on the roadside every year. I assure you that I intend on taking full advantage.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Carcrash Parker and the Sierra Nostalgia

In addition to short pieces geared toward the Japanese gaijin community and the usual crap for this blog, this month I pulled out the dusty script for Carcrash Parker, determined anew to finish it. May God help me.

Last summer, feeling the frustration inherent in our respective day jobs and lacking any productive creative outlet, Mike and I set out to create a point-and-click adventure game. I still don't remember how we came up with the idea, or why it seemed so good at the time (though perhaps Mike can lend a hand recalling); but we figured that if I could write it, he could program it, and we'd figure out the pesky graphical details along the way. I came up with the concept one cloudy day at George's Mills, we designed the world map and game layout together, and behold: Carcrash Parker and the Haven of Larpers was born.

I wrote the script draft last fall, mostly in the evenings while I was painting for Dad at the Hillsborough house, and finished the ending lines on Christmas Eve while my parents worked on their yearly last-minute gift-wrapping in the other room. Mike, meanwhile, started making the engine, and we'd meet on weekends to discuss progress and make long lists of references we wanted to include. My coming to Japan threw a wrench in the gears of the project, because with all the chaos of getting set up, working on an epic adventure game was the last thing on my mind. It feels good to come back to this after so long; I've distanced myself from the writing of the first draft and can approach it more critically, yet the ideas are still fresh in my mind.

Carcrash Parker is hard to talk about because most people I know don't understand larping, let alone what the fuck an adventure game is; and talking about the project invariably leads to an explanation of one or both concepts. Since Mike and I only make fun of the former and are both passionate fans of the latter, I'll give a quick rundown:

Mike grew up playing the old Sierra games, and he introduced them to me somewhere around the time I saw my first rated-R movie (which, for the record, was Total Recall). We used to play a lot of the old text-based games (including the primitive yet eponymous Adventure) on the PC or the Commodore 64 where the player typed out all commands and solved puzzles using inventory items. These, however, were small potatoes compared to the Sierra games, which blew me away the first time we played them. These games, like a host of other graphical adventures of the time, allowed you to move your character onscreen and either type out commands or use a point-and-click interface to explore and interact with the game world. I'd never seen anything like the Sierra games before: the epic storylines, the full voice acting, the humor, the ridiculous puns, and that magic of being transported from Mike's darkened computer room into a world of malicious wizards, dark labyrinths, and suspenseful murder mysteries. (I'll stop here, since I spend enough time talking nostalgic in this blog as it is.)

Simply put, what we want to make is a point-and-click interface computer game in the spirit of Sierra where a player wanders a 2-D world finding items, solving puzzles, and interacting with other characters. No fighting engine, no character stats, no endless farming of items, and no customizable teams of party members. Adventure games have a limited appeal to a new gaming generation, but in them lies a vast storytelling potential that has not been fully explored. I was attracted to telling a story of 20-something, post-college frustration through an adventure game because of its non-linear structure. The player can piece together a complex, multi-layered plot by looking at various objects, having conversations with the right people, and exploring the world map at their own pace. The plot, backstory, and characters can all be spread through a gigantic narrative jigsaw puzzle. Like a good Faulkner novel, the player can finish without absorbing the whole story, or they can look deeper and see the bigger picture. Perhaps no game I know of accomplishes this feat more impressively than Laura Bow 2: The Dagger of Amon Ra, though King's Quest VI and the Quest for Glory series certainly come close.

So after all that pretentious-sounding build-up, that's where we stand. I'll try and keep this blog somewhat abreast of the game's progress, but until then, here's a few other adventure game links I recommend checking out:

AGD Interactive Games Page: A nonprofit company who's made some pretty kick-ass SVGA remakes of the first two King's Quest games, plus the second Quest for Glory game, free for download. As this is the easiest way to discover the old Sierra series, I highly recommend giving these games a try.
Peasant's Quest: Remember when the Homestar Runner website was the shit? I still enjoy their King's Quest 1 parody immensely. If nothing else, it's the only adventure game I've ever heard of to include a meatball sub inventory item.
Al Lowe's Humor Site!: Al Lowe created the Leisure Suit Larry series, which (before they degenerated into 3-dimensional abominations of taste and gameplay) were a hilarious batch of games with an, *ahem*, more pertinent goal than the average adventure.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Life in Japan #5: Japanese Writing 101



I don’t know if you knew this, but in addition to speaking a different language, the Japanese writing system is also, like, totally different than ours. Dang.

Luckily for me, English abounds here, from the signs on the bathroom doors, to the “PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE” warning on the train, to the high school kid wearing the “Make it a night I want forget” shirt. There are restaurant menus, tourist pamphlets, and department store sale announcements in English; though more useful things like ATM instructions are conspicuously absent here in Kofu. At the very least, however, Japanese place names are usually spelled out in the Roman alphabet (romaji); making it a simple matter for a lost gaijin to at the very least get from Shinjuku to Jinbocho (if he doesn’t horribly butcher the pronunciation first).

That’s where the easy part ends. The most common (and most confusing) writing system in Japan is the kanji, characters taken from China during ancient Japan’s long history of borrowing from the mainland. Each of these characters represents a different word, and in different contexts will be pronounced totally differently. The meaning of the kanji remains the same in both Chinese and Japanese,* but the pronunciation was changed sometime around the sixth century to fit the existing Japanese word. This means that a person who can read Chinese should be able to grasp the meaning of a Japanese sentence without having any idea how to speak it. Of course, this doesn’t help me any.

Kanji are freakin’ difficult to learn and require a more skillful hand than mine to write, but the studious gaijin should be able to master the Japanese alphabet (the kana) with some hard work and a good study guide. The kana actually contains two alphabets, each with forty-six syllables (A, Ka, Sa, Ta, Na, Ha, Ma, Ya, and so on) plus some other symbols that change the sound of each syllable. The more graceful hiragana is used for Japanese words like sushi, gaijin, and chikan, and comes in handy when reading the station names on the train platform. More recently, hiragana has been my best friend when ordering at small noodle houses with traditional Japanese menus lacking pictures. Even if I can’t read the kanji names for the flavors, I can at least be sure whether I’m ordering udon (a delicious thick white noodle) or inari (rice rolled in tofu and lightly fried).

The Japanese use their second alphabet—the blocky, bold-faced katakana—for the thousands of loan words they’ve borrowed from other languages (mostly English). This is the one that all the gaijin learn because the practical payoff is far quicker than for kanji or hiragana since the word’s meaning is usually apparent after you’ve taken the time to sound it out. Words like basu (bus), erebeta (elevator), sarariman (salaryman), bi—ru (beer), and sarada (salad) are everywhere, making it a cinch to order at Starbucks and read the foreign movie listings (as when I saw Hari— Pota [indecipherable kanji] Purinsu in English with Japanese subtitles telling what was surely a truncated version of the story in a silver gothic font). Katakana makes finding your way around a lot easier—unless of course you’re like me and can’t figure out the English word from the garbled mass of syllables.

Fun Quiz: Can you translate the Romanized katakana into regular English? (To make it harder I’ve left out the spaces, just like the Japanese do.)

1. ro—son
2. nekkuresu
3. rojiyazuianemu
4. sanfuranshishuko
5. buru—manguru—pu
6. zakurashurondonkaringu
7. nuterahe—zarunattu & chocoretosupureddo

*There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. According to Mr. Chen, the Chinese character for “husband” is read as “owner” in Japanese. Likewise, for their word “husband,” the Japanese borrowed the character for “strong man.” (This pretty much sums up the traditional Japanese view on relationships, which is a subject for another day.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kyoto > BBQ >Tokyo



Lots of maps. Train schedules, tour books, and hand-scribbled recommendations. Slight panic attack. Rainy Yamanashi towns turning into rising mist over lush Nagano hills. Endless sprawling plain of southern Gifu. Cubist station art. Japanese pizza. Temple moat aquatic life. Endless walking. Scattered French. Friendly Japanese hostel owner with a baby. Sandals on the tatami mat—oops. Team kanji and kana decryption. Slight earthquake. Temple hopping: Oldest guns in Japan! Zen rock garden! Byobu galore! Quiet walkways. Bamboo forest. Water pails for monks in training. Historic Japan, here, alive and with that wondrous mystery the past always has for the compulsively nostalgic. Golden temple, crowded but with green tea-flavored shaved ice. Ryoanji: overrated. Repetition. Long bus rides. Touristy Arashiyama and undisturbed Tenryuji. Katsura River and the smell of freshwater spray that reminds me of home. Long conversation with an Iraq vet turned English teacher disillusioned with America and the war, good to be out. Europeans, travel stories, and free toast. More temple-hopping, nice views and massive crowds. Aquaducts. Man fishing in reservoir—how do you say "Any luck?" in Japanese? More walking, endless walking. Sketchy hostel with reluctant English-speaker and overcrowded rooms. Panda-bear sorbet. Children splashing in the river. Misheard directions. Meiji steam-engines. Endless waiting and poorly-timed connections. Mountain town with dusty wares for sale. Bottle rockets fired into the neon night. New-smelling suburban homes drooled over by curious apartment-dwellers. River-fish served on sticks with crab legs and rich sauce with sushi for dessert. That rare confession that they didn't want to go back to work either. More train rides. Ueno street musicians. Jomon pottery. Okinawan toiletries. Ukiyoe of towns and snow and hunched-over workers with the bowed heads and wide-brimmed hats. Ume wrapped in gooey candy served on a stick. Bag of chocolate: 1000 yen. Katakana Harry Potter. 2-D love. More creamy breakfast pastries. Mounting excitement. Roger's the musician, Mimi's the whore. No day but today. Jinbocho book town stacked with browned art and cloth-bound Japanese books, best head to Ginza for Western fare. Best just to wander and poke through open bins. Best just to talk. Best just to rest.



Today I signed the contract that will keep me in Japan for one more year.

Where we're going we don't need roads.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Atomic Age

Today, August 6th, marks the sixty-fourth anniversary of the American atomic attack on Hiroshima, which lead to the Japanese surrender nine days later and ushered in the nuclear age. The blast instantly killed a staggering 70,000 people, injured that same number, lead to countless deaths by leukemia and other cancers, and destroyed 69% of the city's buildings. Heavy shit.

I crawled out of bed at 8 AM to watch the yearly Hiroshima memorial service on the national broadcasting network, which culminated in the ringing of a bell and a minute of silence at 8:15. Someone who may have been Prime Minister Aso made a speech that, strikingly, ended with a hearty English shout-out for the world to remember the bombing, hasten nuclear disarmament, and Obamafy the nation. I am not making this last part up. As well-intentioned as this evocation of our president may have been, I found the obfuscated verb form shameless and slightly demeaning, and went back to sleep.

Take time out to remember the day. A hell of a lot more people died in this attack than on September 11th.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Thought

I am blessed with ninety minute lunch-breaks on Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons, and though I made the hike to Maizuru Castle park as I usually do, today I chose a spot under a grove of trees on the upper level. The shade was cool, and I ate my tuna and rice looking out at the northern mountains that rise up from the city without a single smear of human habitation. I was reading an old copy of Steinbeck's The Red Pony; and the mid-afternoon heat, natural isolation, and graceful prose style reminded me of a time when I was paid to sit in the shade with a camping chair and a novel. (That is, until I let people's judgments get to me.) I wondered what lay beyond the mountains, and took off my floppy dress shoes as a cool breeze blew through the crown of the castle. In that moment, all the official meeting etiquette, corporate hierarchy, phony friendliness, and renewal percentages of my routine melted away, and I was a Lake Host again.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Non-Pretentious Thoughts on Blogging

Though my last post was strictly for fun, I have been thinking a lot about the purpose of this blog, fears about what it might become if I'm not careful, and the things that it simply can never be.

I started this thing a year and a half ago to fill the massive creative void left in my life after Bennington. Without the challenge of producing work for classes, helping with my friends' projects, and even Purple Room discussions, I found the lack of creative challenge in the post-college world disorienting. For various reasons it was difficult to sit down and work on my more ambitious ideas, and the smaller ones that would pop into my head fizzled and died without a medium for me to nurture them. Writing Facebook notes was a good start, and I felt a blog would be good motivation for me to continue developing these smaller ideas. It was never meant to be a daily record of my life, as I find these boring to read and laborious to write. I thought of the blog then, and still do now, as a way of keeping my writing skills in tune and a dumping ground for smaller ideas that are ill-suited for a wider audience.

Now I worry that recounting my experiences in Japan may become the focus point of this blog. I originally kept these separate as the numbered Life in Japan entries, though writing about Mt. Fuji, Nova, and tissues has blurred that line. I run the very real risk that the few people who read this may begin turning to this blog for an update of my travel experiences instead of, you know, actually talking to me about them.

I'm also at a point where I feel ready to embark on more ambitious projects, whether they be long-term (which I may discuss later) or articles about Japan directed at a wider audience. I'm currently looking into ways of approaching the latter; and though I feel ready to write about Japan with more articulate, developed voice, I am afraid I do not yet understand this place well enough to write about it well. When this does happen (or the bigger projects come into fruition), I may venture to use this space as a record of those projects and the issues I'm tackling, since I don't have other Benningtonians to shoot ideas back and forth with on the way to VAPA anymore. Randall has been doing this quite successfully for some time, and as always I encourage you to read his blog to follow the work that he's involved in (he's certainly linked to mine enough times).

I doubt anyone is still reading this with anything more intense than a light skim; but if you are, expect more of the same mix of disassociated reflections, personal experiences, and poorly-lit pictures; but now with an extra dose of free-thought.

We now resume our regularly scheduled programming.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hipster Trash

Artist’s Statement:

An experimental venture into the postmodern art-nouveau movement concurrent in a synthesis of literary extrapolation and uninhibited hegemony, A Wave of the Hand stands alone as a voice of independent thought. Removed from the pretentious conventions of other blogs, Hand instead asks a simple question of its bountiful readership: What is it? By reducing the complexities of our world to a perspective which alters our perceptions of everyday experience, the reader feels compellingly drawn to the ruminations of an author who remains frustratingly aloof. Who is he? What is his purpose in defining this space? And why is he so disillusioned with the concepts of marriage and gainful employment? The juxtaposition of these vitriolic mysteries with a catalogue of the mundane only heightens our awareness of his intent. By discarding our preconceived notions of what a blog should be (for instance, in over one year of blogging the author only once stoops to answering a meme), the reader is granted leave of any exhibitionist prejudices, awareness of the mundane, or outmoded diversions. Reading this blog also makes you cool.

- Ian M. Rogers

Total Time Spent on Artist’s Statement (including conception, creation, and revision): 39.86 hours.
Time Spent on a Typical Blog Entry: 12 minutes, give or take.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

No Longer a Fool

So I totally climbed Mt. Fuji. And it kicked my ass.

There is a saying that he is a fool who never climbs Mt. Fuji but a fool who climbs it more than once; which I never really understood until now. Green forests and mountain vistas (which, more than anything else here, remind me of New Hampshire) abound on the drive up to the Fifth Station, but the foot trail is nothing but coarse volcanic rock ranging in color from a dull gray to a dull red. As the mountain is so picturesquely conical, for convenience's sake the trail winds up back and forth like a set of stairs with only the occasional change in angle to break the monotony. Add to this the long lines of Tokyoites and gaijin on bus tours herded up the mountain by professional guides with neon flashlights, and the trek feels more like waiting in line for Star Wars tickets than anything resembling real hiking.

We also picked a bad night to go. About halfway up the mountain it started raining; first a dull mist, then full-blown torrents blown in our faces by unforgiving wind by the time we reached the summit. My glasses were so wet I could barely see, and I actually made the entire descent without them. We started at about 9:15 intending to catch the sunrise (which, needless to say, we did not see when we reached the top seven and a half hours later) and guided by our headlamps, which, sadly, became nearly useless in the rain and clouds of the upper levels. I'm not in the best physical shape (that's putting it mildly), and also discovered that I am especially prone to oxygen sickness, and would stop to take great comforting gasps of canned oxygen or deep gulps of oxygen water at the mountain huts endlessly planted along the way. For stamina, Toyakazu had brought some of those fruity Japanese energy drinks that come in Capri-sun pouches, and two small bottle of energy drink that we both downed before the climb. The combination was enough to keep me up all night; but also provoked explosive, frighteningly sudden and frequent urges to urinate in the provided restrooms along the trail where hikers were encouraged in both English and Japanese to "Keep Mt. Fuji Beautiful" and leave a 100 yen tip (a routine that got old after my second frantic rush to the toilet).

I will not attempt to describe the trip down along the return trail (which was really more of a path for small pieces of construction equipment) in the cold rain, slipping on small rocks, exhausted and with more sore muscles than I could count, with no sunrise or top views to reward our efforts and the energy drinks starting to wear off along that endless winding path dipping back and forth like a DNA spiral.

Still, it wasn't all as excruciatingly awful as I make it sound here. Before the rain began our climb was illuminated by night views of the Five Lakes and southern Yamanashi as far north as Kofu (and my friends know how much I love night views). A distant thunderstorm also provided some entertainment as we stopped to rest at the 6th Station. Stars are rare on humid nights in the city, and seeing them again felt reassuring, like the rest of the world was still waiting for me when I finished whatever it was I came here to do.

Since far better writers who have had far less difficulty than I have written about climbing Fuji using far wittier turns of phrase, I told myself this entry would be shorter than it became. Maybe I just needed to vent. I miss real hiking, and want to climb other mountains on sunnier days that have at least ten or fifteen trees on them.

Photo 1: Fuji seen from Lake Kawaguchi in March.
Photo 2: Toyokazu and I at the Ganso-muro hut near the 8th station, in one of the four pictures I was able to take on the trip.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Nova and the Eikaiwas


AEON and Geos ads in a Kofu alley. I am fairly certain that Geos has not obtained the necessary permission to use that Shrek image.

English conversation schools (eikaiwa) in Japan are big business. Many adults who studied written English in school for the dreaded TOEIC exam later find themselves wanting to actually communicate in English for business, travel, or just for fun; and over the past thirty years several huge corporations have sprung up to fill this demand (and, arguably, to create a larger demand). These companies advertise on billboards, subways, and on television; often employing actors or other traditional gimmicks to entice consumers. Aside from AEON (currently the largest eikaiwa chain) and Geos, Berlitz and ECC currently offer classes for adults and children in cities from Hokkaido to Okinawa. The rivalry between AEON and Geos is particularly strong, as the heads of both companies were once partners who split over the issue of whether to expand worldwide or to focus on conversation schools within Japan.

Even Kofu—whose rural character guarantees a low demand for English education—boosts an AEON, a Geos (technically the Geos is now located in a neighboring city, as the company abandoned the aging streets of Kofu for a brand-new shopping center to entice Yamanashi’s affluent suburban population); for kids, the Perfect English School, the humorously titled Speakeasy, Peppy’s Kids Club;* and, surprisingly, a Nova.

That a Nova school still operates in Kofu is astounding after the company’s embarrassing bankruptcy less than two years ago. Nova was the biggest, most powerful eikaiwa of them all, operating nearly a thousand schools (compared to AEON’s three hundred), and whose colorful likeness and annoying pink rabbit mascot (pictured at left) overloaded television stations across Japan, making the company’s name as well-known as McDonald’s or Lawsons. At its peak, the company employed five thousand English-speaking foreigners; many of whom found themselves stranded in Japan without jobs or back pay after the company went bankrupt. This lead to a job crunch when many teachers desperate to stay in Japan took jobs at smaller schools wherever they could. Those that couldn’t find jobs either went home or stayed with help from generous parents.

So why did Nova go bankrupt? As far as I’ve been able to piece the story together, Nova’s incredible profits and outrageous expansion were due to its aggressive marketing policies and bait-and-switch sales tricks to lure in new students. Whereas AEON and Geos offer students a reserved spot in one class (with the option to switch if a conflict arises), Nova sold ticket books that students could supposedly use anytime they wanted to take a lesson. Because the individual lesson price was cheaper if students bought tickets in greater numbers, many students bought more tickets than they could use before they expired. When students did show up, they were frequently turned away because a class had maxed out. Customer dissatisfaction was huge, and to make up for this loss of renewal revenue, Nova reached out to more new students with even more aggressive expansion. The bubble finally burst in 2007 when Nova filed for bankruptcy and cast a black spot over the eikaiwa chains.

However, that was a long time ago, and the eikaiwas march on. Expansion has slowed, and companies are now more careful about where they open new schools. Meanwhile, an organization called G.Communication—who operates, among other things, several cram school and restaurant chains—took over what remained of Nova; and now operates just thirty schools. I like to think that there is a lesson in this story about people refusing to be manipulated by the education business’s pushy advertising and sales gimmicks—but that could be wishful thinking. Maybe Nova was just stupid enough to go too far.

*A funny story about Peppy’s Kids Club: the company is changing its name after one of its Canadian teachers was caught in Thailand messing around with little boys. Not the kind of club I’d like to join.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tissues

Companies in Japan (Kriasho included) employ people to stand on the street handing out tissues wrapped in advertising; with the reasoning that passer-bys are less likely to accept an unaccompanied flyer. I’ve started up a collection:



I’m not sure what most of these companies are, but they’ve paid massive amounts of money (I’ve heard a pack of tissues costs about ten yen) to get their logos into people’s homes, pockets, and hopefully their minds; on the chance their investments will pay off in the form of increased sales. Advertisements, however, tend to lose most of their effectiveness when the recipient can’t read them, and in my hands they serve a purely utilitarian purpose. I can reap the benefits while maintaining my freedom as a consumer, and I’ve vowed to go my entire stay in Japan without ever purchasing a single tissue.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Thirteen

Does anybody else remember the Great Brain books? When I was in elementary school I lost count of how often I lugged those big hardcover editions home from the library to reread over and over; following Tom “The Great Brain” Fitzgerald, who uses his superior intellectual abilities to swindle neighborhood kids out their pocket money, in addition to solving the occasional bank robbery. Tom’s biggest mark is his younger brother J.D., whom Tom enlists to help with his schemes and tricks into making impossible wagers. Throughout the series, Tom smuggles candy into his boarding academy, rigs the town-wide tug-of-war, and opens his own gambling casino among other escapades in his sleepy world of 1890’s Utah.

In the last chapter of the final book—ominously titled “Thirteen”—Tom becomes a teenager and receives both a raise in his allowance and a talk from his father about the burdens of work and responsibility. To J.D.’s prepubescent horror, Tom begins to take an interest in neighborhood girls and is seen carrying the books of one whom he particularly likes. These new preoccupations swiftly take the place of his youthful shenanigans, leaving poor J.D. miserably bored with Aldenville’s routine.

This would be a disappointing end to the series, but the author lets a ray of hope shine into this dark future. On the final page, Tom once again pulls J.D. aside as he has so many times before to propose a scheme. And J.D—who has repeatedly been left broke, humiliated, frustrated, embarrassed, punished, and bitterly vindictive against his brother—agrees unquestionably to Tom’s plan before he even hears it; for these pains are nothing compared to the ennui awaiting him without the Great Brain to add excitement to his humdrum existence.

And if that’s not the epitome of growing up, I don’t know what is.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Sagas of Round-Up

Long before I arrived in Japan, the publishing arm of the Kriasho Corporation redesigned some of its older textbooks so they no longer resembled brightly-colored workout tapes from the 1980s. Though the new textbooks are sleeker and easier to use, the lessons chronicle the exploits of characters so absurdly two-dimensional that I can no longer restrain myself from making fun of them. Were I in charge, the textbooks would be about Japanese salarymen searching for lost Viking treasure, or a bumbling band of college students on a cross-country road trip to locate a mythical Kentucky Fried Chicken that had successfully merged Original Recipe with Extra Crispy. Maybe someday.

Take Off (Even Days): Surpassing the Love of Men
Take Off follows the everyday adventures of Meiko, a smartly dressed anime character, and her redheaded shoulderpad-wearing American co-worker Amber. Meiko bears the distinction of being the only character in the Kriasho universe with an even remotely sexy voice, though Amber's slow drawl evokes the painful lethargy of a soap opera-watching housewife. In the first Listening section, Meiko is devastated when she fails to score a date with the narcissistic Jules (who, though he is American, has adapted the Japanese men’s habit of carrying a purse)—however; after fifteen units of restaurant visits, cooking classes, and weekend trips with Amber; Meiko turns down Jules’s invitation for a romantic ski weekend because there isn’t enough room in the car for her very special friend.
Rating: 4/10. I give this story extra points for its daring lesbian undertones and a circular arc worthy of Strindberg; though that damn actress playing Amber prevents it from scoring any higher.

Gear Up (Odd Days): A Boy and His Trains
Katherine is a flaky eighteen year-old on a homestay with the Kobayashi family in Tokyo. Her host brother Hiro is a twenty-three year-old introvert who still lives at home even though he works for an international bank, and whose defining characteristics are his crippling shyness and his obsession with trains. Many an astute Gear Up reader has noted that Hiro seems to love trains a little too much—to the point where his idea of a fun weekend is riding the rails to Shizuoka and impressing upon his blonde companion the finer points of rack-and-pinion locomotion.
Rating: 3/10. Though Hiro’s train fetish and social awkwardness are good for a few laughs, this story’s lack of tension will leave readers falling asleep. Even a nerve-wracking moment when Katherine runs out of money at the mall is easily resolved when Hiro rushes to her rescue with her forgotten ATM card.

Breakthrough (Odd Days): A Narrative of the Life of Chris Quimby
Chris is the token black character of the Kriasho universe, and the Breakthrough editors—in an unprecedented display of social daring—push the bar even further by making his wife Haruka Japanese! Unfortunately, instead of speaking out against America’s narrow-minded views on interracial marriage, Haruka spends the majority of the book volunteering at animal shelters, fussing over her dog, and generally being as annoying as possible.
Rating: 1/10. This story is saved from a zero only by Haruka’s adventure-seeking father Toro, who backpacks across South America and serves as an inspiration for travel-junkies everywhere.

Breakthrough (Even Days): Why America Hates Vegetarians
This saga centers around Takashi, a physical therapy student (already I loathe him) from Japan attending college in San Francisco. We also meet Jake the pretentious art gallery owner and Jill the yuppie lawyer—though they both pale in comparison to how irritating Takashi is. In the first Dialogue, Takashi proudly announces his vegetarianism and strict abstinence from alcohol, and later—in a particularly horrendous example of sarcasm—makes a painful speech about the merits of organic vegetables. The actor playing Takashi has a voice like a rhinoceros dying of prostate cancer, and I feel the cringe of fingernails on a chalkboard every time I play the Breakthrough CD. Takashi spends the second half of the book in pursuit of an unnamed female Friend (whose voice, if I may be so bold, is almost as annoying as Takashi’s), whom he finally gets alone on a bluff overlooking the Bay in the final lesson. Sadly, Takahashi’s date comes to an embarrassing end when he prematurely ejaculates all over the backseat of Jake’s car and has to spend his New Years Eve wiping semen stains off the leather interior.
Rating: -12/10. Not even a reference to Where the Red Fern Grows can make me give this hunk of crap a positive rating.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

International Health Trends

(from a low-intermediate level class)

Me: Belinda doesn't eat meat. What do we call someone who doesn't eat meat? Do you know the English name?
A student: Vegetarian?
Me: Excellent! Now—a harder question. In English, what do we call someone who doesn't eat meat, doesn't eat eggs, and doesn't drink milk?
(pause)
Another student: Allergic.

I found this far too funny not to post.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Censorship

Like most of my more open-minded peers, I despise censorship in all its forms; from government-sponsored suppression of a free press to a public school’s removal of ideas that threaten its daily routine. However, there remains a gray area regarding opinions posted on the internet, where—though no one is officially regulating the flow of ideas—what you post might come back to hurt you. I learned this during my Livejournal days (*shudder*) on multiple occasions that I will not go into here. These incidents lead to my aversion to blogging, which I overcame only by shunning the daily recounts and true confessions that hounded my last blog. People, I’ve found, despise being written about as if they were characters in a narrative; a statement that evokes, even as I write this, the image of a menacing figure with tinted hair and a fur-lined coat wandering the Bennington campus late at night with her scowling sidekick, blowing cigarette smoke in my face and stretching out her o’s and i’s as she whispered her condemnations in the bushes outside Commons. That girl had dark, hideous eyes made all the more sinister by an abundance of mascara and eyeshadow. I’ll never forget those eyes. (Okay, so I lied about not delving into the past, but that’s the most you’re going to get).

However, once again it is clear to me that if I’m not careful, and if Certain Parties (I’m not talking about ex-girlfriends, either) were ever to find this blog, a similar fate could be in store for yours truly. As much as I hate to, I have to be careful about what I post here. This is at times frustrating, and at other times made easier by obfuscating or manipulating key facts or opinions. I consider it censorship if someone wants to express something and cannot; and by this definition I do feel censored with this blog. I’ve given the matter a lot of thought and vowed to tread as close to the line as I can and encourage all to read between the lines until this threat is no longer a problem. As a further precaution, I’ll post this official-sounding Disclaimer written with lots of Latinate language and passive voice:

DISCLAIMER:
All entries in this blog are, for all legal intents and purposes, works of fiction, and any opinions expressed therein are not necessarily those held by its author. The tone has been highly distorted for entertainment and humorous purposes, and should be considered facetious. Where incidents are recounted which supposedly involve real people, the names of those people have been changed. Any resemblance between the identities of people recounted here and those of the real world are purely coincidental. Much of the dialogue and anecdotes recorded herein are works of the author’s imagination and, even when they appear to refer to real-life incidents, should be taken as fictitious.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Life in Japan #4: Real Questions Students Ask Me

I wrote my list of false questions as an outlet for various frustrations that I’ve been mulling over in my post-Bennington life (which, for those of you just joining this blog, I’ve found to be particularly unsympathetic). Before I came to Japan I entertained the idea of convincing the Japanese that all Americans were a pack of Salinger-reading, mix CD-burning, Hawaiian shirt-wearing creative types who shunned traditional symbols of wealth and status; though I quickly found that Japanese people already have predetermined notions about Americans that I will discuss later. Most of their questions, by contrast, are personal ones:

Q: Where are you from?
This is undoubtedly the most common question I am asked, as the Japanese government’s English curriculum appears to progress as follows:
1.)My name is _________.
2.)How are you?/I’m fine, thank you.
3.)Where are you from?
With lower-level students, “America” will usually suffice, though for a long time I was unsure of how to handle a more specific answer since New Hampshire is not exactly given to international recognition. I used to say “Boston,” which everyone in Japan knows (katakana: Bo-su-tan), though this soon made me feel like a traitor to my home state. “Near Boston” didn’t work very well because even most intermediate level students don’t understand the geographical concept of “near.” Finally, I just started telling the truth, which works quite well since Japanese people are used to hearing the names of states they don’t recognize.

Q: What is New Hampshire like?
“There are many mountains, many forests, and many lakes—like Yamanashi.”

Q: What is your hometown like?

“It’s very small. Too small for me.”

Q: Do you cook?
A: Students, in addition to most of my co-workers, ask me this unnatural-sounding question whenever I talk about food. Since Japan is a land of plentiful restaurants, cheap convenience store bentos (which I got tired of really fast), and several hundred varieties of ramen, it is perfectly easy for the blundering gaijin to consume his or her recommended calorie intake by doing nothing more complicated than walking into the konbini or boiling a kettle of water. There is an insatiable demand for convenience foods here; and most twenty-somethings of both sexes have no interest in cooking. Many are even afraid of it, and answer my question with nervous laughs and trembling hands. There is almost a social norm against cooking; possibly because that duty is traditionally given to the wife of a household, or possibly because it is their way of showing their peers that they too can afford the convenience of prepared meals.

Q: What’s your blood type?
Before I came to Japan I had never been asked this question by anyone not wearing a Red Cross uniform. People here talk about the relationship between blood type and personality in the same way that Americans casually evoke the Zodiac. I forget what personality type O Positive signifies (I had to sneak a peek at my blood-donor card as I wrote that last sentence), but I seem to recall it being something vaguely complimentary.

Q: What was your job in America?
Since there are no fewer than nine correct answers to this question (see 1/22/09), I almost always say teacher (which, I freely admit, is a shameless lie by omission), since most students do not know what a tutor is, and any other answer would undoubtedly cause me to lose face in a culture where having a steady, full-time salaried position marks the line between success and failure. Answering this question professionally is such a common predicament for foreign teachers that AEON included sample answers in its Native Teacher Training Manual, which of course I am forbidden from quoting here.

Q: Do you use chopsticks in the US?
Chopsticks are not as ubiquitous in Japan as in other Asian countries, and I have even met some Japanese people who are not adept at using them. I taught myself chopsticks by reading the back of the package at the Hawaiian Isle Chinese restaurant at age eleven; and that I took the time to learn the traditional eating methods of another culture surprises and delights many students.

Q: How do you use marijuana?
This question arose on the street one night after someone mentioned a prominent Japanese actor who had been caught naked in a park in the throes of a cocaine high. The asker had the fascinated look of a child approaching a forbidden subject; and I wondered if he had ever known anyone who had gotten stoned. I’m obviously no expert, but I explained how to smoke a joint using a series of simple gestures, to the acknowledging nods of the crowd. After all, part of my job is introducing students to American culture.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On the Road

I finished Jack Kerouac's On the Road today, and found the experience significant enough to write about here. People have been telling me to read this since Ben recommended it freshman year of college 5+ years ago, though it seems fitting that I should finally read it after reaching Japan. I'll be honest; the book didn't make it on to my Top 20 list, but every time I picked it up I felt an incredible invigoration that I tried to hold on to as long as possible while the memory of Kerouac's breathless prose still surged through me. I read the last two sections in one sitting and my mind spun with possibilities for adventure and that I can't quite put into words right now, and haven't been able to for a long time. That a writer can provoke such a feeling, even with just one sentence, is proof of the sheer power of the medium.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ian Answers Japanese Students’ Questions about America

Q: Is rap music popular in America?
A: No, not at all. Hip-hop and rap music have yet to gather a strong following in America and are enjoyed by only a small percentage of people. The same goes for country music and terrible pop music that for some reason gets played on the radio. Americans enjoy almost every other kind of music, and the most popular band is called Rane.

Q: Is fast-food popular in America?
A: NO. Most Americans abhor the heavily commercialized, overpriced fast-food chains; succumbing to their temptations only for the occasional snack (which makes them remember why they avoided fast food in the first place).

Q: Do Americans prefer Coke or Pepsi?
A: Both are equally popular. Most Americans will usually choose one or the other based on their mood, though they usually drink Moxie instead.

Q: What sports are popular?
A: Some Americans enjoy baseball, but I can’t think of any other popular sports.

Q: What kind of cars do Americans drive?
A: Americans prefer small, reliable, fuel-efficient cars that they maintain themselves. A minority drive large, cumbersome vehicles called SUVs that are merely status symbols of shameless middle-class consumerism; and this small group is regularly the subject of ridicule for their attempts at overcompensation.

Q: Do Americans read for pleasure?
A: Of course; all the time. Reading is one of the most popular pastimes in the country.

Q: Do Americans follow news?
A: Yes, ardently. Americans understand that it is important to be informed about what’s going on in the world around them, and follow both national and foreign reports from reputable, unbiased news sources.

Q: Is President Obama popular?
A: Yes, though most Americans resent the over-commercialization of his image.

Q: What jobs are popular in America?
A: All kinds. Americans understand that success is about more than just money—it’s about doing what makes you happy. As a result, those young people with passions for art, acting, music, or film are especially admired for their creativity, even if they don’t currently have full-time jobs using their degrees.

Q: Are there any jobs that Americans respect less than others?
A: Massage therapists.

Q: Is a quality education important to Americans?
A: Naturally. Americans today understand that post-secondary education is a wonderful opportunity to expand your intellect and develop a more sophisticated outlook on the world around you; and most Americans keep on learning new things long after they’ve left college.

Q: I’ve heard that Americans care only about themselves and their own needs. Is this true?
A: This, I’m happy to say, is the biggest misconception of all.

Q: Do all Americans think the way you do?
A: Yes.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Back in the Habit



Tokyo cityscape, as seen from City Tower in Roppongi Hills.


After two months of keying out phone e-mails until my thumbs blistered, I've finally gotten my computer set up and successfully plugged into the internet after only three phone calls in search of the correct English tech support assistance. It's been so long I don't know what to do. I have an overwhelming urge to peruse eight weeks worth of news stories, look up every reference I've scribbled down in my notebook for later, e-mail every person I've promised correspondence with, read every blog entry I've missed, scroll every message board, and post every blog idea of my own that I've haphazardly drafted by hand without the ease of Word to oversee the process. So many possibilities await. I feel so...connected.

I wonder who's updated their Facebook status?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Picnic with Queen

Time for an update, Robert Stack style:

- My new computer is en route to Kofu as I write this, and will be here later this week. I got a good deal on a Toshiba laptop off of New Egg, with a warranty and free shipping to boot (sadly this offer was only good within the continental US, so my ever-gracious parents are forwarding it to me). It seemed to have decent enough specifications; though honestly I`m so far out of the loop technologically that the numbers all seemed egregiously high to me. My internet is being installed on the 8th, so in less than two weeks I`ll say goodbye to free internet cafe soft cream and return to the world of easy communication.

- After fifteen months at Kriasho Kofu, my coworker Eileen is going back to America amid a flood of tearful goodbyes from students. She`s given me a lot of good advice, especially during those first few weeks when I didn`t know a hanko from a drill card, and I am eternally grateful for that. I wish her the best of luck in her travels and future career goals, and freely acknowledge that I have some big shoes to fill.

- After six weeks of listening to the same eleven CDs over and over, I finally got my packet of Mixes from the CD Swap! There's a treasure trove of new music inside, and seeing the individual effort that friends and strangers had put into each design was a welcome breath of creativity amidst the stagnant Japanese business environment in which I work. Good God I can`t wait to listen to them all.

- I saw a yakuza on the train heading out of Shinjuku! He was dressed in all black, with long hair and an elaborate tatto running up his neck on to the right half of his face. He spent most of the ride sending text messages on his iPhone.

- After a half-hour late-night struggle to work the ticket machine at Lawson`s alongside an equally clueless clerk, I now possess two tickets to the Tokyo leg of the Rent tour! Since I am unable to accurately express my excitement in mere words, I shall leave it to the reader to imagine my frantic anticipation.

- One last anecdote: on Thursdays I teach a middle-school class of two girls who spent time in America and speak better English than most adults. Since there is no place for them in the Kriasho curriculum, we use a third-party textbook and do lots of other activities. During a particularly intense game of Picnic (˝I am going on a picnic and I am bringing apples, bananas, a cat...˝) one of the students hesitated when she was unlucky enough to get stuck with Q. She thought for a while, and, still a little unsure as to the game`s flexibility, asked: ˝Is it okay to go on a picnic with Queen?˝ (Japanese speakers often struggle with articles.) Aside from this phrase`s obvious awesomeness as a cover-band name, I would have to say that a picnic with Queen would probably be the greatest thing ever. Period.