Sunday, December 30, 2007

玖珠玖珠クリスマス: A Very Kusu Christmas

Well, as of this writing Kusu is officially a white winter wonderland--it started snowing today finally after days, no, weeks of bogus warnings and false starts. I bought a third "laser beam" heater that is pointed at my computer desk and only keeps me warm (as opposed to the kerosene and electric space heaters I already have, but that ran up my total energy bill last month to just under 10,000 J-bucks). Despite the infrared ray bath I can still see my breath anywhere in my apartment and it takes wearing socks and slippers constantly to be able to actually feel my feet. I'm past complaining though, especially since certain friends of mine in the mountainous West are grappling with far worse. Besides, I got a spiffy and massive new parka from my parents for Xmas and it's like putting on a localized Spanish Riviera microclimate. (あったかい~!)

Concerning the holidays in Japan, there's no way to pad it so I'll just come out and say Xmas in Japan tends to blow. It's got all the disadvantages of the holidays (annoying Xmas songs played 24/7 repetitiously, soul-sucking consumer rush, all the stores closed on Xmas Eve and day, etc.) with none of the advantages (quality time with family, special foods, airing of grievances, tests of strength, etc.) so I found myself doing a whole lot of nothing for a couple days really. It didn't help that my friend Mayumi canceled on our field trip into Beppu to see the fireworks on the 23rd, but I guess her wheezing breath and hacking cough was reason to bail.

It wasn't an entire washout though. When I went to visit my pal Lindsey down in Hita and reconnect with that crew I had no idea the night that lay ahead. First, it seems relations within the already-high-drama Hita Faction have soured as of late and it turned out being just Lindsey and I grabbing a bite, after which I expected to turn the car around and head home. A stop off for fried chicken at one of her friend's restaurants yielded other plans for the evening though: it was after all the winter equinox and why not spend it at a bar celebrating it like they do in Morocco? Yeah, why not. The host was a Japanese man who's taken to calling himself "Luchie", apparently after a stint living in Morocco, and the venue was a very chill bar in Hita made all the more impressive by the candlelight illumination and wood burning stove in the middle of the room. Luchie and his wife brought with them a veritable truckload of African musical instruments and we all got down to the inelegant task of losing ourselves in a beautiful cacophony of bongo beats, bell-ringing, dancing and micro brew beer. Nobody really got that drunk--I mean, who would want to forget this unique evening?

Almost instantly that night I made two good friends and I look forward to spending more time and writing more here about them. First is obviously Luchie who must be the most free-spirited and giving Japanese I have ever met. His English is excellent, his fried chicken is sublime (and I am not a man that likes fried chicken) and he volunteers to teach at preschools with his wife. Like, for no money. The second is Chizuru, a paradoxical woman from Hita who moved to Tokyo to attend university and then unbelievably moved back to her hometown to help manage her parents' music store. I can't begin to express how rare that is. Chi-chan is also the only Japanese I have ever met who knows and enjoys Advantage Lucy, my favorite J-indie rock band.

Next year, come hell or high water, (this is so cliche...) I'll be coming home for Christmas. If anything it'll give me a chance to examine the fascinating ins and outs of holiday traveling, particularly the social and mental effects of prolonged airport confinement. Am I the only one who sees those places as giant-sized habitrails?

--Matt

Monday, December 24, 2007

Stairway to Strawberry Fields(?)

This is brilliant and amazing:



My mind began racing with all the possibilities of converting various hip hop, indie, punk etc. songs to "Beatles" style.

--Matt

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The View From My Desk: Kitayamada JHS

Ooh, been a while since I wrote one of these. Truth be told, the winter cold has slowed the pace of not only my activities but the town as a whole: no children frolic at the riverside, so obviously up to no good; the frenetic soccer games have vanished like so much of the grapefruit juice I just drank; and there hasn't been a festival in a 25-mile radius since near Halloween. I did just find out though that there will be a Xmas/New Year festival in a couple weeks in Mori, which is always a blast. Not only is it my favorite part of town, it's also going to be attended by my students from Mori JHS who are the most fun in and out of class. I almost feel guilty about choosing favorites, but hey, tough break all you other schools. Try harder.

In fact, one of those schools that probably needs to try harder is my subject today, Kitayamada JHS. Located in the western reaches of Kusu-machi--though not as far as Yamaura JHS--this school is one of the more picturesque campuses I get to visit as it's located at the narrowing of the valley before the walls get ridiculously steep and the road needs to cling precariously to the mountainside or tumble into Kusu River heading towards Amagase and Hita. From the balcony of our second-floor teacher's room we have a pretty sweet view of Kagami-yama and its wind farm, plus some interesting terraced rice fields. Nearby is a waterfall whose name I have been told about ten times and can't seem to remember, but nonetheless is a sublime place to hang in the summer, has gorgeous maple leaves in the fall and even an onsen for the winter. I don't know what they have in spring yet, but it better be good since they're 3-0 now and I'd hate to blemish that record. Free money or hot chicks room would be nice.

Back to the school though, Kitayamada is, like so many other Japanese schools, located on the top of a hill looking down on the rest of its community. I have no idea why the Japanese do this, set up their schools as if they were hilltop castles. I noticed it on the school trip while we were heading to Hiroshima via bullet train. Through Fukuoka, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima Prefectures most of the schools we were flying past were up a hill, like Kitayamada. As a result of being on a bit of a slope the building is the tallest of the schools at four stories, which just means that I trip while walking up the differently-spaced-than-in-America steps here more than any other school.

I like Kitayamada physically, despite the stairs, but its students are a handful in a not-entirely-cute kind of way. Oddly, the third grade students here aren't of the usual jaded variety you find at my other schools and are no problem. In fact, they're among the most outgoing third year classes I have anywhere. No, it's the first and second graders that are off-the-walls bonkers. There's not much to say about the misbehaving first graders except that they are just that, misbehaving first graders. They don't listen to Matsunari-sensei, the English teacher of Kitayamada, virtually at all and they only listen to me if I walk over to them and act like a control rod to their miscreant designs. I can jump start individuals into listening and taking notes only if I physically go over, open their notebooks for them and take a pencil out of their pen case. I hate this though because A) I would have hated someone to do that to me when I was young and B) it's the same every week thus I know that the days I'm there are outweighed greatly by the days I'm not when they just revert back to being little shits.

The second year students aren't what I would call conventional problem students in that they are disruptive in class, instead they're like a group of super villain geniuses. They're very very bright and curious and are so obviously bored to death in class that they can't be bothered to pay attention. With the exception of a handful of students it feels like I'm talking to a wall with them. As at least the assistant teacher I know it's my responsibility to change their attitude, now I just need to figure out what activity will get them moving.

Another incident happened with the second graders a couple months ago though that sort of led to the "super villain geniuses" label. Well, the "villain" part at least. The day of the Kusu-Kokonoe JHS sports tournament I was eating dinner at Joyfull and ran into the Kitayamada basketball team (all second year kids) who were celebrating their victory over some flunky school in the town over. We chatted a bit, I went off to enjoy my dinner and read a book and they left after about fifteen minutes. Not long after, a staff member appeared and asked me if I knew the boys and was here with them, to which I replied that I wasn't with them but was their teacher. She explained that the boys had gone and pulled a classic dine n' dash--all told they skipped out on an 8000 J-buck bill. My kneejerk response was to bust up laughing, right up until she started demanding I talk to the principal about it and get her company's skrilla out of the kids. Whatever, I'm no squealer. To this day I haven't told her a word.

I'm not angry at the students for committing their petty little crime (between them all it was less than 10 J-bucks), per se, what I am mad at was the aftermath that brought me to the uncomfortable realization that I'm part of, well, almost a caste here--the teacher's caste. I don't like many of the rules of this caste, particularly that I'm the state-appointed parent of the students between the hours of 8AM and 4:30PM and am thus virtually as liable (or equally as liable in some cases) in the eyes of society for their failures and misdeeds as their real ones. As the staff member was briefing me on the situation, I could feel and see the eyes of those in earshot upon me with that "why didn't you stop this?" look. I was having a Holden Caulfield moment in my head as she went on. I wanted to stand up and yell at everyone, "Who the fuck do you think you are to look at me like that, you who think we men and women that spend, at most, two hours a day with your sons ands daughters to impart our academic knowledge on them are able to tailor their behavior and even morality into what society considers the norm? If daddy beats her or mommy doesn't love him and that twists them up in the brain I can offer a shoulder to cry on and point in the direction of real help, but I can't be held responsible when they knife some convenience store clerk or jack $80 of food from a diner."

Well, it's off my chest now.

--Matt

Friday, December 14, 2007

Fatboy, fatboy! Fatboy, fatboy!



This is what I'd like to think my music video would be like were I ever to make one. The band is Pizza of Death, a thrash metal outfit from Tokyo. I'm especially fond of where the dude running just stumbles, gets up and jumps over some bushes. Why?

Because he can.

--Matt

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The City

Coolest map ever or only coolest map in this space-time continuum? We report, you decide.



OK, technically there should be a section cut out of Potrero Hill for the Dogpatch neighborhood, plus Duboce Triangle needs to be sandwiched between Mission, Hayes Valley and Upper Market, but kudos on separating Parkside and Sunset since they usually get lumped together. If anyone's wondering, I lived on the 'K' in Parkside.

Goddamn I miss SF...

--Matt

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ever Vigilant

I'm starting to lose individual socks in the classic "Oh my god, are pixies making off with my socks?" sort of way. This is mysterious to me because the distance between the washing machine outside my front door and the place I hang moist clothing is about ten feet. How many places are there to lose socks within a few paces of the washing machine? But, as stated, the machine is out in front of the apartment in the hallway and anyone can reach in and take things. This being Japan...well, this country doesn't exactly have a shining record when it comes to undergarments and larceny.

This is my official warning to any Japanese undergarment thieves out to steal me gold--I have two frying pans, several heavy books, lots of empty cans of coffee, an iron and a coffee bean grinder here and I don't think any of that will feel good when thrown or swung at your head.

--Matt

Of Zaibatsu and Keiretsu

The following article from Mainichi's English daily edition caught my attention tonight and got me looking into just what happened to the fearsome Japanese zaibatsu:

http://mdn.mainichi.jp/national/news/20071208p2a00m0na014000c.html

Though I was too young to have any interest at all in the economic happenings of the 80s, when I first became interested in Japan in adulthood I came across plenty of scary articles and literature from that decade about the economic menace that Japan posed to the US. There was some cause for concern since Japan was buying up dollars at a prodigious rate and Japanese real estate holding companies were grabbing land stateside by the handful. In many of those fear-mongering articles the term zaibatsu was brought up often and referred to the old family-run vertical monopolies that existed in Japan since the Edo Period.

The truth of the matter though is that the zaibatsu haven't existed for quite some time in their original capacity as all-powerful, untouchable entities in the Japanese economy. The original four companies that qualified as full-blown zaibatsu were Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Mitsui and Yasuda, but as many as a few dozen other "baby zaibatsu" existed up until WWII. Those four names are pretty familiar with anyone who's spent time in Japan or follows international business, and one of them, Mitsubishi, should be familiar to most anyone in the world not living in the bush. They existed as family-owned holdings right up until MacArthur and his crack team of post-occupation economic mercenaries wiped the smaller zaibatsu from the Earth by seizing their assets or completely reorganized them while the big four only got broken up like monopolies in America a couple decades previously. The big boys didn't share their little brothers' fate only because MacArthur needed them to rebuild Japan.

When the occupation ended ten years later, Japan's constitution prevented the zaibatsu from reforming entirely, but the US overseers had in the end tried to use Japan and the big four as a blunt economic instrument against Asian Communism and thus rescinded many of their restrictions on the conglomerates. What occurred then was not a reversal back to vertically integrated zaibatsu monopolies, but rather a shift to the keiretsu, a horizontally integrated business system that's nearly as powerful as their predecessors. To give an example of what this means let's take Mitsubishi who survived the occupation to become one of the six major today. Before the war Mitsubishi controlled shipping, auto manufacturing, chemical and banking companies. Mitsubishi could transport their chemicals anywhere by the ships and cars they produced and then financed the entire operation with their bank. Today the Mitsubishi keiretsu no longer has such power over the means of production in such a vertical way, instead spreading its influence over Japan and the world with a vast net of subsidiaries. Obviously when you drive a Mitusbishi car you know it's a product of that company, but I wonder how many Japanese know that Mitsubishi owns Tokio Insurance, Japan Oil, Nikon Camera and the Kirin Beer brand. And now apparently they own KFC Japan...

A quick rundown on the the five other major keiretsu in Japan--I think you'll be surprised by this list:

Fuyo Group--Canon, Hitachi, Nissan, Ricoh, Yamaha, etc.
Mitsui--Fuji Film, Suntory, Toshiba, Toyota, Mitsukoshi (largest dept. store chain in Japan)
Sumitomo--Asahi Beverages, Mazda, NEC, Hanshin-Keihan-Nankai Railways (basically the entire public transit infrastructure in Kobe and Osaka)
Daiichi Kangyo--Fujitsu, Hitachi (partnership with Fuyo), Isuzu, Tokyo Electric Power
Sanwa--Konica-Minolta, Kyocera, Orix, Toho Studios, Keisei Railways (a major rail line in Tokyo), Kobe Steel

Jokes are often made about the Illuminati or a secret Jewish banking cabal that controls the economy of the US and we all have a good chortle about it. In Japan it's six companies that pull the strings on most everything that goes down in the country. I'm looking around my room and realize that most everything in it is a product of these companies: my kerosene heater is from Daiichi; the wreck of a TV on my table is a product of Sumitomo; the AC outside and monitor I'm looking at now are Mitsubishi's doing. The beer in my fridge even a product of a keiretsu. Madness in all directions.

--Matt

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Know Your Factions

Before I came to Oita as a JET I joined the prefecture's Yahoo! JET board, started to make myself known and got the impression that the community here was pretty tight. Someone had previously mentioned "factionalism" briefly, but I didn't know what to make of it--truth or petty grudge? Well, I know now that it is indeed true and that there are several factions of JETs around the prefecture's various geographic regions.

What does this mean really? Sure, people that live nearer to each other are going to form bonds easier than those who live farther away due to the logistics. In this case though many of these factions display some of the worst characteristics of rival high schools/universities such as being, at best, socially apathetic towards people teaching and living in other regions. At worst it results in people boycotting parties to avoid certain people or actually showing up and just being wet blankets.

This all played itself out recently at a birthday party in Oita City for "The Two Rachels"--two women named Rachel who also share a birthday. It was a costume theme party of sorts where everyone had to come dressed as something that starts with an 'R' or 'L', which they claim is the Japanese 'R'. For future reference, they have it backwards and in fact 'R' is how the letter 'L' is expressed in Japanese. Anyways, I know you're dying to know what I went as so I'll let you know I went as...Luxembourg! Yes, that Luxembourg, the tiny tax haven in the middle of Europe. The costume of two cardboard flags and a large 'L' also made up in the flag's colors took me about thirty minutes to make while the research on what the hell is in Luxembourg took me about forty-five. Anyways, the party. First off, turnout was pretty low and when I asked about it to various people they would say "Oh, so-and-so was looking for any reason not to come so she wouldn't have to see person X", and "Nobody in City Y wanted to come so I'm here only to represent them." The people that did come broke into small groups based largely on geography and effectively locked others out with impenetrable inside jokes and local gossip. I went out to get some air and found a few kindred spirits who also couldn't stand the exclusive little chat groups. One of them summed it up nicely with "That's the fucking JET community for you." Indeed.

The following is a virtual cut-and-paste graphic and explanation I made up for a friend I was talking to about this:



Exhibit A will familiarize you with the major factions within the Oita JET community: the largest faction is Oita City since it's the seat of the prefecture and all that; the next largest is the hot springs resort city of Beppu and the Kunisaki Peninsula to the north; moving along, Nakatsu and Usa on the north coast is sizable as well; on the east coast is the Usuki/Tsukumi/Saiki Faction; bordering Fukuoka and Kumamoto Prefectures in the west is the Hita Faction; finally there is the creamy nougat center that is all, what, 5 of us in Kusu, Kokonoe, Kuju and some of Bungo-Ono City that have no real faction. For us in the center we have to lodge ourselves into another faction of our choosing by driving or riding there and making our presence known. The other JET in town, Rachel, for example, has joined the Beppu Faction.

The formation of these factions really is purely geographic. Despite cars, trains, buses and hot air balloons, whenever a mountain range is involved there is invariably a social divide in Oita, and conversely wherever there is flat land there is interaction. For example, Hita is surrounded by mountains to the north, east and south and don't often associate with anyone in my neck of the woods or Nakatsu. Nakatsu to Usa is a coastal plain and the two cities are socially linked. Anyways, should you get the factions together at a party they divide up into their respective groups like at Friday's party and just chat amongst themselves.

I wish folks could grow up and become a bit more inclusive.

--Matt

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Saying Hello to the Neighbors

Aha! Another misleading title that more than likely has you thinking I actually went and talked to the other people living in my apartment building, no? Sorry, no cigar. Truth is I've met the neighbors already and they're either really boring, alcoholic womanizers or just plain creepy.

No, the neighbors I'm referring to here are my neighbors in Kokonoe-machi, the next town over that's sandwiched between Kusu and the famous hot springs resort town of Yufuin. I've ventured into Kokonoe a few times in recent months to view its spectacular scenery, soak in its top-of-the-charts hot springs and eat the best damn hot dog this side of the big blue Pacific. Actually, the thought process to even go to Kokonoe always starts something like this:

Matt's Tummy: "Damn, you know what I could really go for, brain?"
Matt's Brain: "I hope it's not more beer to kill me with."
Matt's Tummy: "No, spaz, I want a hot dog."
Matt's Brain: "Oh, well that's OK as long as it doesn't have any foot and mouth disease in it or something. You're not planning on getting that as a side dish, right?"
Matt's Tummy: "Of course not...because they use all-beef franks and you can only order the spongiform encephalopathy on that. I thought you were the smarts of this outfit?"
Matt's Brain: "Just shut your piehole. Well, if you want that dog so bad let's just spend the whole day in Kokonoe then."


Such uncompromising deliciousness! Yes, that's melted cheese on top, not just some shredded cheese sprinkled on as an afterthought.

Regular Odd Couple those two are. The reason I spend a whole day in Kokonoe instead of just enough time to eat and bathe is that it's a bit costly on the gas and time to just blow in for those two minor things thanks to the town's geography. Kokonoe actually has less population than Kusu, but thanks to its stunning vistas and abundant natural springs it generates much more income than my humble agricultural town. The vistas people come to see are only possible though because the town is virtually entirely mountainous. Villages in Kokonoe lay cradled in steep-walled valleys no more than a few hundred meters wide or perched on mountainsides high above said valleys, so you can imagine that getting around involves a lot of climbing, hairpin switchbacks and narrow roads all of which take more time than I personally care to be in my jalopy.

Plenty of things to spend several hours in town seeing though. There must be a good thirty onsen to soak in, all with their own sensational gimmick. I've been to two only, but one was located on a cliff edge overlooking a 100-meter drop while the other one had no scenery to speak of, instead tapping into a special naturally carbonated and iron-rich water source that feels wonderful. I don't recommend taking a white washcloth into that water though lest it come out orange.

What most people come to Kokonoe for though is the scenery that is easily the most beautiful in the prefecture. Alpine meadows, reed-lined streams and massive unspoiled tracts of...whatever that tree is in Japan that turns gorgeous shades in the Fall. If you want to add a little man made engineering excitement to your trip to balance out all that icky nature stuff then there's also the Otsuribashi, the world's highest suspension bridge. To give you an idea of how tall it is, if you took the antenna off the Empire State Building it could park underneath the bridge with ten meters to spare. I haven't actually crossed the bridge yet as it costs 800 J-bucks to do so, but I'm told it's a hoot. There's also the fact that it doesn't actually lead anywhere, just from one parking lot to another parking lot, but that doesn't stop--get ready for this--hundreds of thousands of people from coming to see it. The thing was only finished a year or two ago and it's already poised to pay for itself by the end of the fiscal year. Good for them, I guess.


My (leased) car parked in front of what would be some of the most beautiful pasture land I've ever seen except the area is now tasked only with being beautiful, much like myself. *vogue* Next, a Kokonoe vista in the Fall. Note that this shot is taken from the hot dog stand. Imagine if I'd actually, like, gone to a vista point.

And no trip to Kokonoe is complete without a stop off at The Place On the Way Down the Really Twisty Mountain Road With the Waterwheel and Neat Shrine Behind It. That's the Japanese translation of the name, you can totally believe me on that. This place is perched on a cliff maybe a hundred and fifty meters off the valley floor and can be identified immediately by A) the large waterwheel spinning on the side of the building and B) by the people with painted faces BBQing dango (mochi balls) over hot coals. There's a foot bath next to the railing overlooking the valley and it's a great spot to eat said BBQ dango or read a book, both of which I've done there. Maybe most important of all is that this place emanates happiness--people are always grinning like a three-eyed monk with a plate of crackers. In other words, the shop has a good vibe.


One of the face-painted denizens of TPOtWDtRTMRWtWaNSBI doing his thang cooking dango. The next pic shows the waterfall shrine located behind...that place and the giant geta-style sandals out there for, I'm sure, a very good reason.

And that's about it for Kokonoe. Oh, I also want to mention for my autophile buddies out there that this town is a great place to see hot Japanese sports cars in many tunes thanks to the fabulous driving roads. And no doubt they're also coming for the hot dogs.

--Matt

Monday, December 3, 2007

Blasphemous AND Educational!

The script is taken from Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars. Brilliant.



--Matt

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

In the City of Brown, Grey and Red

Shanghai is a pungent city day and night, but especially during the daylight hours. Still, at any given time wafting on the breeze your nose will smell burning rubber, roasting meats, brake dust, people wearing too much perfume/cologne and good ol' exhaust fumes from gasoline, natural gas and diesel engines. I can hardly imagine what summer must smell like when the moist low pressure systems blow in from the South Pacific--just thinking of what musky aromas are generated...yuck.


My does she ever look happy to be stuffing her pie hole with processed meats "Hot Dog!" indeed... Then, the bustling alleys just outside Yuyuan Gardens. You can't see it in the pic, but there's a Chinese Starbucks over yonder. Worst. Latte. Ever.

But summer's summer and this is fall and I don't judge a city by its unfamiliar scents, especially when it's a good ten degrees warmer than in the town I flew in from. However, I wouldn't be feeling much of that (comparatively) warm atmosphere because I was stuck on a climate controlled bus. Yes, it was the school trip happening all over again, but this time with commercials. What I mean by that is that with the exception of the Shanghai Museum and Yuyuan Gardens every tour we went on was just a commercial for the gift store at the end, which was sometimes larger than the exhibition itself. The silk factory on the outskirts of the city, the pottery and precious metal craft museum, the afternoon teahouse and that canal-strewn historic town halfway to Pudong Airport whose name I forget, all of them had gift stores with scores of pushy salespeople that were larger than the exhibition itself. (In the case of the historic town actually the entire place was one large gift store.) What was worse had to be that we couldn't leave the gift shop unless our guide was good and damn ready to go, and don't think any of the meek Japanese tourists would dare ask if they could scoot or even walk out of the store on their own, hell no. Drove me nuts...


Taken from the Oriental Pearl Tower's observation deck, the building in the foreground is Jin Mao Tower, China's tallest completed building, while behind it we have the Shanghai International Finance Center, the soon-to-be world's tallest building. Next, inside Yuyuan Gardens.

Thinking about that just now, I started browsing the Wikipedia entry for Shanghai to see what attractions I missed while the tour was stuck buying overpriced jade baubles and I'm officially livid at the tour guide. In descending order of awesomeness I missed: Nanjing Road, perhaps the busiest shopping street in the world; Longhua, Jing'an and Jade Buddha Temples; Wen Miao Market; the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum; and finally People's Square. Un-fucking-believable.

But both nights, after dinner and upon returning to the hotel, I was free. While my coworkers were getting massages with happy endings (seriously) I slipped out into the crisp Shanghai night and headed north. Literally starting across the street from our three or four-star hotel was a fairly wide expanse of tenement housing that looked much scarier than it actually was once you're inside it. The buildings may look like a brisk wind will do them in and foul liquids ooze from bamboo pipes jutting out of alleys ("the black blood of the earth" as Egg Shen might say), but the people filling the hole-in-the-wall noodle shops and sidewalk mahjong games wore smiles as wide as the Yangtze River and laughed harder and more often than hyenas. I'm not saying I'll be looking for a summer home there anytime soon, but just because it doesn't appeal to me doesn't mean it won't work for the Shanghaiese and that I should pity them.


I knew I shouldn't have taken the old gondola out at rush hour on the canal. Doesn't matter though, life's a breeze when you've got a chauffeur.

As I meandered north and then northwest towards the Zhabei and Putuo financial districts I ran into street after street of obviously British-influenced commercial buildings that must have dated from the early 20th century. I had expected men in funny bowler hats and clutching canes to come ambling out of these brownstone offices--now tinted a grayish-brown from years of accumulated dust--but felt dejected when only stuffy Chinese businessmen emerged. Grey and brown are colors you see a lot of in Shanghai, right there along with good old traditional Chinese/communist red. Somehow when you're walking on the grey concrete slab sidewalk, next to the red-trimmed brownstone building undergoing renovation and thus flanked by brown bamboo scaffolding the color scheme just seems to work.

As I walked back towards the hotel around 10PM I was surprised to see the fantastic neon and LCD light shows that adorned the sides of skyscrapers begin to turn off one by one. Unlike Tokyo or Fukuoka that run these virtually 24/7, Shanghai--prompted by what authority I have no idea--flicks it to the 'off' switch within minutes of the hour turning. The result in areas particularly bathed in this glow, like The Bund waterfront, is a descent into the sobering illumination of run-of-the-mill sodium streetlights. When I got back to the hotel and took a glance out the window from the 16th floor I noticed almost the entire skyline in my 180-degree field of view was nothing but abstract silhouettes in black and grey with only the red or white pulse of aircraft hazard lights to punctuate the darkness.

Reading back these two entries I feel no inspiration, no drive to write more as I have in the past for even the most trivial trips to the next town over. I feel hoodwinked. Gypped. I feel like someone owes me $900. Well, maybe not that far--maybe just another ticket to Shanghai for the weekend and no godforsaken tour bus. I will, however, go so far as to say I feel I can not trust my coworkers to organize a trip anymore and in the future will wriggle out of it in any way possible.

And now I feel as if I should apologize to you for what has proved to be a prolonged rant against Japanese-style tourism and a pledge not to do it again--until the next time I do.

--Matt

Monday, November 26, 2007

I Felt Like Having a Pork Bun This Weekend...

...so I skipped across the East China Sea to Shanghai.

Wait, first, I am way behind on posting if you can believe it. I haven't posted about Kokonoe in the fall (or the time I went before), Futagoji and the Kunisaki Peninsula, Fukuoka's sumo tourney last week and I haven't told you about the other, what, four or five schools in "View From My Desk". So I have some work cut out for me over the next month I think and I will be cutting down on the trips to do so...and because I need to save about $4,000 by March to buy a car.

For those who might be wondering how a person could just pick up and go to Shanghai at the snap of a finger let me tell you it wasn't like that at all. Though prone to sudden fits of wandering the Earth like Kung-Fu's Kane, the truth is that I was invited to Shanghai almost immediately after arriving in Kusu by one of my supervisors, Goto, and the ball got rolling for an entry visa right away. To say I was stoked would be a gross understatement: only perhaps Istanbul, Tblisi (before the shit hit the fan) and Bangkok tickle my fancy as much as the thought of going to Shanghai did.

And now, because you knew it was coming, the "but"...

But as the departure time slowly grew closer clouds of doubt gathered overhead. First off, if I'm going to buy a car in just about three-and-a-half months I have to start saving my skrilla, chedda, dead presidents, etc. That ain't happening with $900 (+spending money) trips to China or even weekends in Oita City. Next, I was close to the breaking point with the Kusu JHS school trip and its insufferable "Itinerary" and within a week's time I'm going to hop aboard another hellish Japanese tour? To put it bluntly, fuck that, I'll take a weekend in freezing Kusu and my freedom over that in a heartbeat. I talked to Goto about canceling my reservation only to find that there was no going back--my Chinese visa was approved, the room bookings set in stone, yadda yadda. I should have pressed the issue, because I was soon to find that to be a bullshit excuse for "no, you're part of the educational department and this is more or less a 'business trip' at your expense".


Looking north over The Bund from our hotel and then the Oriental Pearl Tower. As you can see, air pollution is a serious problem in the city, possibly worse than LA. You wouldn't believe the size of my boogers...

Resigned to my fate I decided I wasn't going to let it get in the way of enjoying the fascinating place I was heading to, and landing at Shanghai's massive and architecturally stunning Pudong Airport things were looking promising. It got even more promising when I saw what we were riding into the city--a maglev monorail! The Shanghai Transrapid Maglev runs the 30km stretch between the airport and the Pudong #2 subway line in about eight minutes traveling at a top speed of 431kph (268mph) making that officially the fastest I've ever gone in a surface vehicle. From the end of the line we met our tour guide and hopped on her bus for the hotel over the river in the Hongkou district.


Views of the new Pudong Financial District from The Bund waterfront. There seems to be some growth on my head in the second pic. I'm seeing a doctor about it.

For a city of 18 million people (counting itinerant workers) Shanghai is incredibly compact, with almost 3,000 residents/sq km and it shows. Massive apartment blocks and high-density 4- and 5-story slum neighborhoods stretch almost to the horizon when viewed from the Oriental Pearl Tower, the highest viewing platform in the city for now. I'm willing to bet that any two square blocks of either kind of residence would house the equivalent of my humble hometown of Castro Valley.


Yet another Asian city with odd/nonexistent zoning. This slum (I really have no other word for it) restaurant was about a block from our posh hotel.

With those kinds of numbers you better believe traffic is a nightmare of epic proportions. It took us almost an hour to get maybe 10km from the station to the hotel over concrete slab streets in a bus with little suspension to speak of. God, what a piece of crap that bucket of bolts was--and not a lovable bucket like, say, the Millennium Falcon. The engine shuddered like it wanted to shake itself into oblivion, the carriage made a squeaking noise that came from literally everywhere (at least I didn't have to listen to the guide) and the brakes made the most horrible noise you'll ever hear, making me long for some good old fingernails on the chalkboard. The kicker was that the exterior was pristine, like it'd just come off the lot--the bus was the polar opposite of a sleeper/Q-car. But back to traffic, I wouldn't believe there were traffic laws in China if I didn't see people occasionally being ticketed for who-knows-what. Red lights are seemingly a suggestion as our bus driver and everyone else didn't mind rushing into cross traffic with their horns blaring to declare "look out, I'm coming through". There is never a second, day or night, when you can be standing at any point in the city and not hear a horn blaring somewhere. Scooter riders practically keep their fingers on the horn button, which I guess would be prudent since they're the most vulnerable motorists there. Oddly enough, the worst thing one can do as a pedestrian is be courteous and obey the laws as I discovered by the end of the first night. Waiting at crosswalks for the light to change got me funny looks from residents and almost run over a few times from red light-runners. The best thing to do is look confident while you cross, walk quickly or jog and always look in the direction of oncoming traffic for the eyes of drivers you can establish contact with. If you can get that contact they'll toss an anchor out the window if it'll help them stop for you.

Getting late so I'll cut off the travelogue here tonight and finish it up tomorrow. Until then!

--Matt

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Pilgrimage '07: Finale

As the sun began to set on Wednesday our whirlwind tour of Nara came to an end and everyone piled on the buses again to head for Kyoto. Within fifteen minutes of sitting down on the bus I was in Dream Land, so exhausted was I, and thus I can't begin to tell you what lay between Nara and Kyoto. Maybe suburban sprawl and golf courses, maybe the home of Cthulu, or maybe a swirling nether void. Our lodging in Kyoto was an unremarkable ten-story business hotel with a single elevator and students spread out between floors 4-10. Yes, there were other guests staying at the hotel and I feel nothing but sincere pity for them as they had to endure rowdy JHS students shuttling incessantly between floors for little conceivable reason, holding up the elevators for several minutes during morning and evening peak hours. At least the third-floor restaurant was decent.

After our mass dinner that night I was a free man and skated out the door before my chopsticks could hit the floor. Back when Kyoto was the capital of Japan the city was laid out in a grid and modern planners have kept at it in the intervening centuries--the place is moronically simple to navigate and has an above par subway, train and bus system to get one anywhere quick. I rode the subway three stops south to the somewhat-new Kyoto Station that I'd heard so much about, both good and bad. In Dogs and Demons, Alex Kerr's polemic concerning the supposed loss of Japan's soul, the author lambastes the local and national government for allowing the ultra-modern glass, steel and stone behemoth that is the new Kyoto Station to be built, pretty much calling it an architectural abortion. Without touching the sticky subject of anyone's national heritage or loss thereof, Kyoto Station is one of the more breathtaking pieces of architecture I've ever seen in person or pictures. One enters from the north at street-level ideally and is treated to a main "hall" with a glass canopy at least ten stories up and enough airspace to set up a pretty respectable RC airplane course. To the left are the entrances to a couple hotels, a performing arts theater, some top-end restaurants and more. Straight ahead are the departure/arrival platforms for trains heading to every conceivable destination in the city and Japan. To the right is an Isetan department store, several cafes and restaurants situated on tiers (including a Cafe du Monde with real beignets! WTF?!) and a stairway that rises all the way to the roof. Overhead is a "skywalk" platform that takes you from the top of the stairs on the right to the hotels on the left--all the while suspended over the cavernous main hall. Don't look down...


Inside Kyoto Station's cavernous main hall. Look at that yonder staircase--you can't even see the top.

I decided to save a couple J-bucks by walking back to the hotel and discovered no less than three Starbucks on the way. I stopped at one and had a latte after a three week cold turkey. The next morning I borrowed a bicycle from the hotel and rode to the Kyoto Station one for morning coffee and a scone, found another one while riding the northern outskirts of the city later and stopped for afternoon java, then returned to the Kyoto Station branch again for a late night fix and another scone. I know, it's Starbucks and believe me that if I'd had any other choice I would have taken it, but when you're confronted with real lattes...damnit, I'm not made of stone! My secret dream is for Peet's to maybe slowly creep up on Japan from the Aleutians, hop to Vladivostok, catch a ferry to Hokkaido and *BAM!* set up shop in Sapporo while I have them distracted.

And then there was Thursday.

Thursday thoroughly confused me before it gripped me in wonder. Here's the deal: the entire trip so far had been conducted under the iron fist of "The Itinerary", giving little to bupkis in the way of freedom to the students to decide what they want to see. That book was more or less scrapped on Thursday when the students were allowed to divide into groups of four, given chartered taxis and set loose to see whatever the hell they wanted with the stipulation that they had to be back by 6 PM for dinner. It made no sense. It boggled the mind. Why didn't they do this in Nara and Hiroshima? Maybe not the pricey taxis, but maybe just doing something like "OK, kids, here we are at Hiroshima Peace Park. You have until 4 PM to see anything you like within the park boundary. Piss off and have fun." And in Kyoto fun they did have, and learning too. Not a single group steered their taxis to the nearest video game arcade or, umm, goofy golf course (what delinquent things to JHS students do these days? I should ask), they visited Kinkakuji, Gion-machi, the Imperial Palace, Ginkakuji, Arashiyama and all the other places of great historical importance in Kyoto I'm leaving out. If the administrators need any proof that giving the students some breathing room is a good idea then Thursday is their case study.


Kinkakuji and Arashiyama. Fall was definitely a good time to see these.

I only got around to seeing Kinkakuji ("Golden Pavillion" as it's known in the West) and Arashiyama because I was traveling on a counterclockwise bike loop of the city starting at the station. Now, if I'd had my bike--or any proper road bike--I could have seen much more, but no, I was on a single speed mamachari, the flimsy, squeaky and frankly dangerous machines that pass for 98% of the bikes in Japan. The back tire was leaky and the the accompanying brakes squealed so loudly I only used them in the most dire of emergencies lest nearby eardrums and glass panes burst. The leaky tire would have been enough to deter most, but luckily I know a secret about Japan few foreigners ever learn: at virtually all Japanese apartment complexes, large and small, someone on the premises has squirreled away a pump somewhere near the bike parking area. I have never not found one when I look, whether it be placed next to the gas meters, hidden inside a stack of used tires, behind a pile of cinder blocks or hanging from the ceiling.


Here it is, the entrance to Dendentou, for all your electromagnetic blessing needs.

Kinkakuji and Arashiyama were, as expected, gorgeous and well-covered in touristy sites around the web. I'll let the pictures do the talking and just comment on one of the oddities I found at the latter of the two sites. On the same grounds of a moderately famous shrine where kids from around the country come when they turn thirteen was a smaller shrine called the Dendentou. It caught my eye because of the relief carvings of Heinrich Hertz and Thomas Edison. A nearby placard indicated that one prayed at this shrine for "good fortune with electronic devices and electromagnetic radiation." OK. Sure. What I missed in Kyoto that I dearly wanted to see were the three largest hanamachi neighborbhoods in Japan where the geiko and maiko live and train. You may not recognize those names, but they're the proper and polite way to refer to what we non-Japanese know as geisha.

That was pretty much it for really eventful happenings in Kyoto. There should be more, but, you know the deal, I was only there for a day-and-a-half. Friday morning came and I found myself on a bus for Osaka and Universal Studios Japan. USJ is located near the Osaka docks and that morning a viciously frigid wind was blowing in off the bay, but it hardly matters at all when you've got tunnel vision. You see, USJ has a roller coaster and it's been ten years since I last rode one (Santa Cruz Boardwalk's Big Dipper) so I was just a little bit excited to get a crack at it. Unfortunately so were lots of other Japanese folks and I only got to ride it twice since waits fluctuated between 45 and 70 minutes. Maybe I would have stuck out a third wait if three of my students hadn't invited me to come with them on Jaws and Jurassic Park. It was very educational for all of us: they taught me about enjou kosai (paid dating, a kind of prostitution) when we saw a 50-something-year old man with a 20-year old girl; I taught them how to pickpocket and stole one of the girls' wallet to demonstrate (I'm not a pickpocket, really); they countered by stealing my hat and glasses and running away; I got back at them by pushing them towards the outside of the boat and the hungry jaws of, well, Jaws to which they screamed incessantly. A bonding experience to be sure.


OK, the "Land ho!" pose is officially my shtick. Hands off! In other news, Yuki photographed me pretty well. Next to that photo is--I shit you not--San Francisco Land, one of USJ's "districts"! They actually had the Buena Vista, sans Irish Coffee of course.

We were having enough fun to miss the 3 PM rendezvous time and ended up fifteen minutes late to the buses for which we got scolded. Whatev, it was an arbitrary meeting time since our plane wasn't leaving Itami Airport for hours and we ended up lazing around the souvenir level there buying rare canned coffees, Hello Kitty cell phone straps and bagels with brands (like "branding a cow" brand) burned into them. When I stepped off the bus in Kusu I literally got on my hands and knees and kissed the ground knowing that I had a semi-relaxing weekend waiting for me. One where I set my own schedule. Goddamn, freedom is sweet.

--Matt

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pilgrimage '07: Part 2


Childish, yes, but with the right eyes...just put a space between 'i' and 's' then 't' and 'e'...

The ferry ride from Hiroshima to Matsuyama is absolutely lovely as it winds through the straights near Kure and cuts across the Seto Inland Sea. It would have been more lovely if it wasn't about 10-degrees outside plus wind chill. From Matsuyama to Kobe is also an excellent ride that takes one under the many island-hopping bridges that span the passage and gives an excellent view of lots of port towns. Being an overnight journey, that ferry has staterooms and even an onboard bathhouse, so after one of those, some light reading and snacks with the teachers I hit the sack. That didn't last long--we pulled into port at 4:30 AM and disembarked at 5.

I stayed awake on the bus to Nara just long enough to see Kobe through the windows, take in the industrial blight between that city and Osaka, get a feel for the truly FUBARed Osaka expressway system and gaze befuddled upon a disturbing Tommy Lee Jones BOSS Coffee billboard that portrays him as a dangerous MPD schizo. When I woke up again an hour later we were parked in front of the cafeteria where breakfast was being served and down the block from Horyuji. What a miserable breakfast and a miserable hour of the day (about 8 AM) to tour one of the most wondrous treasures of Japanese ancient architecture. I took pics not for posterity necessarily, but rather so I could look back from a place of comfort and take in the view instead of while half asleep freezing my arse off as was the reality.

Piled on the bus again we meandered across town in Nara Rush Hour (not entirely that bad) to reach Yakushiji, another gorgeous 8th century Buddhist temple. Unfortunately only one building on the site can claim to be from the original phase of construction, the rest having been destroyed in fires and earthquakes over the centuries, but it's in remarkable shape with the minimum of maintenance put into it. It's not everyday that one gets to stand next to 1,200 year old wood beams. On the grounds we met up with Beppu's Hamiwaki JHS second-years who were coincidentally on their school trip also and together the classes listened to a very funny monk explain the temple grounds and how to pray like a bad ass Buddhist.


The main hall of Yakushuji. Behind and to the right is the 8th century pagoda that are the grounds' only original building.

If that past couple paragraphs were lackluster it's because I was hardly paying attention at these two temples, both which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and this brings me to my second major complaint against the way these school trips are operated. I understand wanting to expose the students to as many bits of their heritage as possible, but this schedule had them (and me) so wound up shooting off from one temple or museum or park to the next that everyone's heads were spinning. I think it's very fair to say the trip had absolutely no focus and I would have chosen two of the four cities we spent time in and devoted more to those than superficially skimming them all: you want to teach the kids about contemporary Japan then Hiroshima and Osaka would have been fine; teach them about where they came from and you head to Kyoto and Nara. Simple as that and I guaran-fucking-tee you the students wouldn't have been coming to me every five seconds (they only come to me with these things because I'm the only adult human being at school that tries to relate to them) with "Matto-sensei, tsukareta yo..." (Matt, I'm tired...). A bit more on what would have made the students happier and improved the learning experience later, but first back to the trip.


The third largest bell in the world is right there in Nara Park along with over a thousand beady-eyed, drug-addled deer. I see those eyes--I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE UP TO!!!

From Yakushiji it's only a short ride to Nara Park and Todaiji, home of Nara's Daibutsu, or Great Buddha statue. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, I was sufficiently awake to be aware of what I was looking at and be blown cleanly away. I still can't decide which is more impressive, the 15m-tall (50 ft.) bronze Buddha statue inside or the building housing it that just happens to be the largest wooden building in the world. Supposedly it used to be even bigger until earthquakes and fires destroyed it a couple times. I can't even imagine that building falling down and the cleanup effort afterwards. "Awe inspiring" hardly captures the feeling.


Largely kept secret from historians and theologians alike is that Buddha's superpower was to supersize himself and turn his skin to metal. Now he doesn't know how to turn back and just sits there all day. And to your right, a very very big wooden building.

The Todaiji grounds don't end at the Daibutsu though and have much more to offer the intrepid walker. Like deer. Lots and lots of tame deer. The Sika Deer were thought to be messengers from the gods and allowed to roam the area around Todaiji protected under an imperial order not to harm them and today they remain. Shops around the park sell packs of a special kind of cracker (senbei) for 150 J-bucks that the deer find utterly irresistible, like a can of Red Bull filled with crack-laced, heroin-stuffed cigarettes and tasting of chocolate. My clothes were bitten, my pockets browsed through and I was actually, physically gored by bucks with antlers all trying to get some crackers from me. Cute as the deer are I think their contact with human beings has been, ummm, excessive and very against nature's plans.

OK, that's all for tonight. I'll wrap it up with Kyoto tomorrow night and another rant. Yay, fun.

--Matt

Monday, November 19, 2007

Pilgrimage '07

I got back from Kansai (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kansai) last Friday evening, but decided not to lose any momentum from the trip and continued on Saturday to Fukuoka for the Kyushu leg of the sumo season and then Sunday onto Futagoji, a temple northeast of here known for its changing maple leaves. More on those later though, because first I have this monster to wrestle down.


Kusu JHS second-year students stage a sit-in at Hakata Station. Their demands: less math homework, more spontaneous appearances at school by Kiera Knightly (Orlando Bloom for the girls).

I've yet to actually meet another JET face-to-face who's gone on one of their school's second-year student trips (it's only the second-year students from junior and high school that get to go) so between the four paid days I'd be spending away from the official parameters of my job and the dozen or so messages I'd received expressing never ending envy/loathing from other ALTs I was feeling damn fine. That also meant though that there was nobody to whom I could turn to to find out what to expect. Reality finally snapped jarringly into place the Friday before we departed when Kusu JHS requested my presence at a meeting to discuss the final itinerary and I discovered everything was meticulously planned down even to exactly where every student and teacher would be sitting on each bus, train and taxi we would take. "Here we go," I thought, "the plodding, clinical, killjoy Japanese tendency to avoid even slight anxiety at the expense of spontaneity and adventure." I shit you not: the itinerary is 64-pages long plus supplementary seating charts and floor plans.


What'd I say? Monorail! What's it called? Monorail! I mean...Shinkansen. The students didn't get that one, but then again I'm no Lyle Lanley.

I had a weekend of hot springs, video games and yakitori to forget about Friday, but come Tuesday I got slapped in the face again with the tear jerking start time of 6:30 AM. Whatever, the following morning would see a waking time of 5:30 AM. Let me take the rest of this paragraph to rundown the schedule for the four day expedition. Tuesday morning we assemble at Kusu JHS's gym, file into buses and make for Fukuoka where we hop a bullet train (Shinkansen) to Hiroshima. There we tour the Peace Park, inspect the genbaku domu (A-bomb dome), leave a thousand origami cranes as modern tradition dictates, listen to a speech by one of the hibakusha (bomb survivor), visit the park museum and finally hop a small ferry across the Seto Inland Sea to Matsuyama and get hop on a much larger ferry bound for Kobe. Whew, first day only! That took way too much space so here's the compressed version for the remaining three days: Wednesday, Nara; Thursday, Kyoto; Friday, Osaka's Universal Studios theme park and an airplane home.

Picking up in Fukuoka, um, I rode a bullet train for the first time. I rode a fucking BULLET TRAIN! Sorry, I blame my parents and the trip to Sacramento's train museum at a tender age for my lingering adoration of them. The Shinkansen, as it's said in Japanese, truly is all that and a bag of chips though. The 700 series train we rode sat five abreast in seats reminiscent of airplane business-class and had at least fifteen cars, each of which were about as long as one of those articulating double MUNI buses. It was like being on a luxurious BART train that traveled 150 MPH, was on time and allowed beer and smoking.


No witty caption here.

After little more than an hour's jump through hyperspace we had arrived in Hiroshima. Being hardy past 10 AM the students remained bleary-eyed and I was remaining lucid only by the grace of these strange little energy drink jelly pouches for sale over here absolutely everywhere. I admit I like them and they do "work", at least for a while. Anyways, Hiroshima's Peace Park and the monuments erected and remaining to commemorate August 6, 1945 are just...wow... I've been to two other UNESCO World Heritage sites in my lifetime before this, Yosemite and Redwood National Forest, but unlike their ilk Hiroshima is unique in that it's the only site (that I've found perusing the list so far) that commemorates war and an astronomical loss of life. Gallipoli, Dresden, Gettysburg--none of them are UNESCO sites. I don't know, maybe they all deserve to be named World Heritage sites and maybe just none of them held the implications for mankind that Hiroshima does. Whatever the case, I am just happy to know that UNESCO shares the desire to make peace as much a part of our global heritage as much as it does for places of beauty.

The students actually had an assignment while in the park and I was just the man to help them along with it. Their task was to ask one foreign visitor to fill out a questionnaire concerning their opinions about the bombing and nuclear weapons in general. While everyone respondent expressed general horror about the bombing happening in the first place, when asked their opinions about the existence of such weapons the responses ran the gamut from full disarmament to people that wanted more to even people that wanted to return to a Cold War "MAD" scenario. Where I came in though was helping the shyest students approach the big scary white people. Weird as it may sound, in retrospect, this was the best part of the entire trip, because not only did I get to meet tons of people from France, NZ, Australia, etc., the activity forced the kids out of their comfy shells and revealed that we white devils can actually be agreeable folk on occasion and we bonded over that. I have a few clingers now (meaning students that basically stalk me) and three of the girls keep on stealing my hat and glasses, but it's easier to talk to and teach them now.


Students from around the world come to the Peace Park to hang one thousand origami cranes in these clear-walled bins that protect them from the elements. Next, a picture of the eternal flame housing and the genbaku domu in the background.

*Sigh*
There's no way I'm going to wrap this up in just one post seeing how long-winded I am. And I have so much more to say, so I'm going to wrap this here and pick it up tomorrow night. Stay tuned!

--Matt
This is beyond fabulous...



I guess seeing this movie was the last straw for me--after I return to The States (or perhaps even before) I resolve to start organizing my friends into creative activities, such as the above amateur movie. Why didn't we ever form a band, create a book club, become a traveling troupe of mimes? Particularly to the Donald's House Crew, remember what fun we had making those Quake videos in high school for the sci-fi lit class?

--Matt

Friday, November 16, 2007

I Just Got Back From Kansai and Boy...

You know, I'm not even going to finish that.

I have a lot to say about this past week's little outing and its ramifications on my Hello Kitty cell phone strap collection, but I'm going to go to Joyfull now, get a chicken nanban teishoku, come home, drink a beer, unpack and wrap my head around this thing while basking in the warm glowing warmth of burning kerosene.

In the meantime please take a look at these two very, very geeky links. For the alphabet one if you scroll to the bottom and look at the two deleted entries and know what "G is for Glitter Boy..." then you're my best friend for life pretty much automatically.



http://www.headinjurytheater.com/abcgeek.htm

--Matt

Sunday, November 11, 2007

For Sara: The Poop Snacks

Sara, this one goes out to you in Wyoming. I present to you...Poop Snacks.



Actually made from white and black sesame, respectively, they are not very good tasting and a complete waste of 100 J-bucks. On the other hand I did buy some tasty baked pea snacks along with them that my mother loves and that are so pricey in The States. So this afternoon I was eating both poo and pea snacks. Your zen thought for the day...

--Matt

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sometimes I Wonder How Far the U.S. Is From This



The political situation in the former Soviet province of Georgia is not going well, to say the least, and the government is going as far as systematically shutting down opposition television and radio stations. A stupid move to be sure as it's probably exactly what the Russians want seeing as how they're likely to have stirred up the mess in the first place. From the 2006 natural gas pipeline sabotage to the four spies caught red-handed in Tblisi to the Abhkazian separatist movement, Russia's been trying to destabilize their breakaway republic, just as they've been doing to all the others. Putin is an such incredible bastard.

On an entirely different note, what's this about a Chinese tanker hitting the Bay Bridge and spilling light oil into my bay? WTF people?!? Not to stir up racist sentiment, but I would formally like to request China train its supertanker pilots better and also that they stop sending us toys made of lead and filled with cyanide. Thanks!

--Matt

So, You've Decided To Go To Kansai

Believe it or not there are plenty of places in Japan I don't really want to visit for one reason or another. Nagoya's one of them--I'm told it's just another sprawling, featureless city, but with less charm than even other such cities. Anywhere in Chiba, because, well, Chiba's the ass-side of Tokyo. Kyoto's another, which always surprises people when I let them know that, but I'm not sure what I can see there that I haven't already seen in countless photos and documentaries. Finally there's Hiroshima, because I don't relish being reminded of one of the single most monstrous acts my countrymen have committed. If I wanted that I would just open the newspaper and look for reports about Iraq. And really, after reading things like Barefoot Gen and the collected accounts of survivors...

But Tuesday morning two of those places are exactly where I'm going: bus it from Kusu to Fukuoka, bullet train to Hiroshima than bullet train to Kyoto, all thanks to Kusu JHS second year students who I've been chosen to supervise. But as the Japanese say, "mottainai", meaning in this case "it's too good a chance to pass up". Honestly, more than the important cultural yadda-yadda I'm looking forward to the bullet train ride. Never been on one of those before! I'm about a hair's width away from being a full on train otaku, the lowliest form of Japanese geek. I blame my parents and the trip to the Old Sacramento Train Museum back when I was knee high to a mule.

But wait, there's more! Besides the previously mentioned stops we're also heading to Nara and Osaka, two places I adore. This time in Osaka I'll have a hotel and not be forced to sleep outside on the Dotombori Bridge even. Joy!

--Matt

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Usuki Takeyoi 2007

Like eating a Chicken Nanban Teishoku, sipping a latte in a window seat of Forus's Starbucks, shopping in Don Quixote at 2AM, taking a dip in the onsens of Kurokawa and drinking beers in Jungle Park, this weekend was another one of those cosmic events I've been dreaming for three years about: Usuki City's Takeyoi, or bamboo festival.



I know what you're thinking, "Ooh, a festival that celebrates some sticks that grow really really fast in sub-tropical forests. Big deal. Wood is dumb." I admit to thinking the same thing (especially the "wood is dumb" part) the first time I reluctantly hopped on a train with my friend Candy Wong three years ago to see it. I was going just because I really like festival food stalls and wanted some yakitori, but damn was I blown away. Here's the setup: every year on the first weekend of November the coastal city of Usuki decorates is historical downtown area with tens of thousands of sections of sliced bamboo cylinders containing a candle. Some streets are merely lined with the cylinders while other streets, temples, parks and residences have elaborate constructs, patterns and themes. Now, when I say "historical" in reference to this part of Usuki I mean it's still got old cobblestone paths, rice storehouses and samurai villas. Even on a normal day in downtown Usuki without the candlelit streets one still feels like they've entered 17th century Japan.



I've seen a lot of festivals in Japan, from Gion to Kagura, Sakura to ones celebrating a town's derelict train roundhouse (Kusu's Kikankou festival). I've seen videos online of fire festivals in central Japan where hillsides are ignited in controlled burns to create messages in kanji and festivals where men ride logs down steep hills. Usuki's Takeyoi trumps them all for beauty, hands down. My Fuji FinePix also recognizes the absurd brilliance of the event, I think, because it's so awed it can't seem to TAKE A GODDAMN PROPER PICTURE OF A SINGLE DAMN THING AT NIGHT!!! For me though the best pictures are in the mind, and believe me, you'll never ever forget what you see here. Now if I could only find a USB cable that fits in my ears so I can upload those images to the computer...

--Matt

PS: Yes, there IS a lowrider scene in Japan! I've seen them in Beppu, one in Kusu (a red Monte Carlo) and now this one in Usuki.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

When Fat Worlds Collide

Tuesday and Wednesday this week were the evenings of the Takinouchi Festival in Kusu's Kitayamada neighborhood, where the sumo tournament was conducted. For me, the first night of the tournament did not go well, while the second was much better.



Both nights of the festival though were fantastically fun. A ton of my students came out for the night and while sumo matches were going on, in general, everyone over the age of twenty was huddled around steel drum fires watching them, leaving the long alley of festival food stalls inhabited only by nogoodnick teens. It was like Japanese Lord of the Flies. In fact, I should make a movie, no, anime out of that idea.

Back to sumo, the scope of this tournament and what it means for certain Kusu residents wasn't made entirely clear to me until Tuesday. Practicing with the town hall team last week was fun despite the ring rash and bruises--we batted light-hearted mocks back and forth while running full bore into each other and told dirty jokes over beers afterwards. I guess the closest parallel I could draw to what I thought the event was would be to the Bay to Breakers. You know, a bunch of people get together to have a fun-run, right?



But then you remember that even at the B2B there's the fifty or so guys near the front running for the prize money. They couldn't give two shits about what the guy dressed as the Queen Mum is here for, they've got a race to run. There were a few teams like that at the festival and it sort of leeched some of the merriment from it for me, especially when I faced them.

There were a ton of entrants for the two nights and I only actually had three matches, one on Tuesday and two Wednesday. The Tuesday one was just an embarrassing disaster that was as much a result of being a greenhorn as it was with being completely outclassed. The team we faced Tuesday ended up being the tournament's first place group, consisting of men tens of pounds heavier than anyone on our team and probably each with a decade or more of sumo experience. To make matters worse, some joker had made me the taisho, or team captain, meaning that I had to face their captain. Furthermore, in practice we didn't start the match until both wrestlers were in a fighting stance and the ref yelled the Japanese equivalent of "fight!", but in reality the match starts the instant both men are in the stance. I hadn't noticed that nuance during the evening's earlier matches. So, when I was putting the finishing touches on my stance (it's a very specific way of crouching) I get a head butt to the lower lip and get pushed out, almost into the crowd. That sucked. Adding insult to injury the fucker didn't even help me up.

But you live and learn and by Wednesday I'd put a lot of thought into how I went wrong and where to improve, so when we got our marching orders I was much more confident. I was going to need it too, because our two opponent teams for the night were the Jieitai (Japanese Army) Team and the Tsukawaki Team (last year's champs). For the army match I applied what I learned Tuesday--head down at the start, charge immediately upon entering the stance and aim to grab the belt--and actually won. The next match against Tsukawaki I didn't win, but I put up a good fight. In both cases my opponent was smiling and looked to be having fun, which was a far cry from Tuesday's match.

And because I am a magnet for the surreal, there was an episode Wednesday night that gave me a good "only in Japan" chuckle. Just after the army match I was buying some food when all of the sudden a very out of place group of Filipino, Chinese and Thai women in cocktail dresses, miniskirts and 4-inch stiletto heels come striding into the shrine grounds from the train station--Kusu's very own contingent of strippers and foreign sex workers. They had come to cheer on their favorite clients, seemingly not caring for who they were outing to the townsfolk as frequenters of Kusu's bluer bars. What was even funnier was when the bar's madame came forward a few minutes later to admonish the women for being so loud and disruptive, subsequently ordering them to sit down and shut up.

And if you're wondering how I know who the sex workers of Kusu are, first off, at least two of my coworkers have confided in me how they visit these bars so often it's nearly bankrupted them. Second, c'mon, it's me--when have I ever not gone somewhere and discovered just the weirdest little minutia about it?

--Matt