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


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


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.