Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Therapy, Thy Name is "Flight of the Conchords"

"Flight of the Conchords" has to be the funniest show I've seen in the past five years. Laughter really is the best medicine.


Two Very Large Posts Incoming

Due to recent events I'm really in no mood to write much of anything fun. I'll get back on the horse tomorrow or the day after though.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

RIP Unnamed Kusu Kitten, 8/21(ish)--8/27

I woke up Monday morning to find my adopted kitten laying still next to me in bed. At what point in the night she died I can't say, but it wasn't preceded by any frenzied meowing so I'm hoping the passing was painless.

Things genuinely started to level out by last Thursday, I felt, and I'd resigned myself to spending the next several weeks tending to the 'lil one before she became anything like self-sufficient. Where things went wrong I haven't the faintest. I did away with the heat pad-lined box as it was too confining and instead set up the pad on the floor of my closet with towels and a couple of clean undershirts to act as a bed. When I couldn't be here during the day she'd be in there (I spent my lunch breaks at home for feeding, of course) and when I was home reading or on the computer she'd be on my lap or beside me. I made sure she never shivered from lack of heat.

I found some special newborn cat milk at the local pet store last week and she'd greedily drink it from the dropper. However, on Saturday that amount began to steadily decline until the midnight feeding on Sunday when she was down to one dropper of milk from a previous high point of six droppers. She just refused any more than that. She started sleeping a lot too.

Other than the vets at livestock auction yards on the east side of town I haven't found a pet veterinarian in Kusu yet, but I wouldn't really be able to afford one anyways. My supervisor warned me of another problem with me, a foreigner, taking animals to the vet, but I only scarcely understood what she meant. I don't think the problem was digestive toxicity since I was helping her go to the bathroom every now and then. Maybe something related to the bizarre eye scabs.
Pet husbandry, I imagine, can only scarcely be compared with caring for an actual child, but it's still daunting. Perhaps ratcheting up the difficulty and anxiety by several orders of magnitude would get close to an approximation, I don't really know. Whatever the case, I'm still left with a newfound appreciation and respect for my parents and the phenomenal effort given to raise me and my sister. We humans are helpless and physically dependent for so much longer than cats, and then there's the financial dependency and the bullshit mischief we stack up like a rotten layer cake--reproduction and the human condition are a barely penetrable mystery to me.

Anyways, there's an infinite quantity of things I can say about how I was raised--I wrote and erased about ten of them in this space already as there's just no way to concisely express them--but the most important is simply to say that whatever you did, mom and dad, it worked. I'm alive here writing this, and though my heart is filled with a terrible sadness over the loss of this kitten I can't fathom trading it for any other life.


Friday, August 24, 2007

Cupdate 2

Those scabby things over the eyes are starting to give way a bit and the kitten is, at times, actively chipping away at it. I tried rubbing it away with a saline solution and warm water, but it doesn't like that very much so I left it be after a couple tries. I suppose it's best to let the kitten handle it.
Some advice I got from you guys and the websites were to keep the kitten in a box or enclosed area with a heating pad. I did that and the cat hates it--won't shut up meowing when put in there. I'm letting it run around when I can supervise and it seems to know the lay of the apartment pretty well even without seeing anything.


One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer

Many of my friends in other parts of the prefecture and even Japan were treated to a welcome party by their contracting organizations within the first few days of touching down in their new homes. Mine was just last night, two weeks after arriving. I'm not saying I'm entitled to jack, don't get me wrong.

And the wait was definitely worth it.

At exactly 6PM on the dot my coworkers and myself all filtered into a mom-'n-pop fish joint on the street between the town hall and the station, about twenty people in all. In the tatami-lined, shoji-screened back room an impressive spread was laid out and I was seated between the education department head and the school affairs section head. Both of them gave speeches I scarcely understood and then it was my turn to give a speech that I hardly understood. Or maybe I just don't remember too well after the drinks, who knows. My god, how the beer, sake and shochu flowed.

Kusu is a drinking town like so many other remote municipalities back in the states. I guess the typical nightlife equation in the states is sex, drugs, booze and rock, but there's no drugs here so the booze has to pick up the slack. Kusu is also a major rice producer in the prefecture, being in a valley and with plenty of water, and the town puts its bounty to use in at least three sake distilleries. My coworkers were soused within an hour.

Not me though, at least not entirely. Despite the widely held Japanese custom of anything-goes drinking with coworkers I wanted to err on the side of caution. It was a good thing too because the mayor arrived around 7PM and plopped down next to me and I got to pouring him drinks. He gave a little speech too and I understood it better than the previous ones, probably thanks to the beer ears. See, I understand and can speak much better Japanese when tipsy or even downright pickled, I think because normally I consciously over analyze what I'm saying and hearing instead of just setting the subconscious language nodes on the task of translating what I already know. Drinking lubricates the process, but one still needs to remain somewhat vigilant not to slip.

The antics among my drunk coworkers got pretty nuts at points. One has to remember that many actions normally taboo are considered A-OK when drunk in Japan. So a stroll down a somewhat uncomfortable memory lane last night has a gay swim instructor trying to get me out of a closet he seems to think I'm in, a married (but very cute) coworker flirting with me for over an hour and a P.E. teacher 8-years my senior all but throwing herself at me. Oh boy.

So I played my cards right and didn't make a jackass of myself. Kudos to me. After the restaurant bit let out I headed out with my immediate supervisors Goto-san, Nogami-san and a few others to a nice bar whose name I can't possibly remember, but I'm definitely going back, maybe even becoming a regular. The owners were twenty and thirty-something surfer types who ran a very spiffy ship: reasonably priced, tasty and massive cocktails; a preserved German leg of pork on a spike adorning one end of the bar from which they cut paper-thin slices for appetizers; good pasta, surprisingly (rarer in Japan than you'd think); and finally just a chill atmosphere.

I couldn't stay too late due to my kitten situation and took off at about 11PM. It's about a three minute ride back to my pad, but I learned a valuable lesson in just that short time. I guess I'd never done it before, surprisingly, but alcohol and roadbikes really don't mix well. No catastrophic accident here I assure you, but man was it hard to keep my balance at slow speeds and control the thing when the equilibrium is off just a bit. No more of that for me--if I crashed Honey Flash (my name for the bike this week, subject to sudden change) I'd be beside myself, as well as completely screwed as far as transportation.

The Spread. The two in the back are Goto-san and Hiramatsu-san

The mayor and I

Michi, the P.E. teacher and I

Seriously, the room erupted in dance for no reason

A really bad shot of the kitten. I can't get good lighting with the crappy incandescents here. Notice the eyes, if you can see them--what the hell is that? It's doing much much better now, not wheezing anymore, eating well and meowing much less.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Cat Update ("Cupdate"?)

The cat I found was wheezing yesterday, having trouble breathing, but that's since stabilized. I have put it in a fairly spacious box with an electric blanket on low lining the floor covered with newspaper and a somewhat dirty white shirt I had. I'm pretty sure it's not too hot in there. I was able to find a special newborn kitten formula at the local Home Depot-esque place and it's eating much more than it was just this (early) morning. I basically didn't get ANY sleep last night due to the lil' bastard, so I'm turning it early now.
I may have found a home for it with my friend Caitlyn, but we'll see what her boyfriend says, I guess. I don't know, there's a weird crusty, scabby thing covering the cat's eyes too. Lisa said it could be an infection and I believe her. I tried washing it off with a mild saline solution with no luck. I'm wondering if this is some kind of injury (did someone poke out it's goddamn eyes?) or will this just scab away? I don't have pics because the lil dude won't stand still two seconds for me to get a detailed shot!


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

I Need Your Help, Really

I've got a Class III emergency here and need immediate help.

I was coming home today and found a newborn kitten abandoned in the parking lot in front of my house. I could hear the crying from my living room so I took it in, against my brain's better judgment. Its eyes aren't even open yet. I have no idea what to do.

I read online not to feed it cow's milk, instead substituting goat's milk infused with other goodies. Problem is there's no goat's milk here. I'm about to go around to various markets to see what they have in the way of formula or something, I don't know...

Seriously, WTF should I be doing?


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tsukumi Trip's Missing Images

As promised, I've strong armed my friend Rachel into forking over her pics from the weekend. Now you can see how I conduct myself in public in Japan rather than just seeing the objects I observe.

Rachel seems to think I have a fetish for plastic-domed play equipment.

The Mother Playground. Gaze in awe.


I'm trapped in a glass dome of emotion!

West Side (Pacific), yo!


Monday, August 20, 2007

Sky Rockets in Flight--Afternoon Delight?

I'm not sure, but I think an H2 rocket just lifted off from Tanegashima in Kagoshima Prefecture. Tanegashima is like Japan's version of the US's Kennedy Space Center. I'm on the Japanese space agency's, NEXA, email list and knew the launch window for their new satellite was from 8/19-8/23. Anyways, I was out exploring Mori-machi at dusk, one of Kusu's more picturesque wards, and saw the streak against the sky. A contrail thicker than I'd ever seen and stretching from horizon to horizon, originating in the southern direction of Tanegashima. Someday I'll actually head down there and watch a rocket launch.


Tsukumi-bound: A "Jollytime" is had by all

You might be wondering when, if ever, I'll actually get around to writing about the town of Kusu itself, and it's a valid query considering I've written probably over ten pages about places that aren't here. The reason is that I don't want to short change the town—I want to put forth the most comprehensive and frank assessment of this municipality that I possibly can, replete with oodles of images to supplement the text. How long that will take...I'm thinking a month, maybe two.

There is something I can definitively say about Kusu right now though, which is that this place was not made for the weekends or nights. The downtown-ish area has only a few bars, one karaoke spot, a handful of snack bars (a bit like a hostess bar, expensive, generally garish and completely not my style) and nowhere for a young, ahem, stud like myself to hang out at. Couple that with the fact that I really don't have any Japanese friends to spend the off hours with yet and I'm finding myself either wandering aimlessly through the backstreets of Kusu, reading books at Joyfull (yes, that's how the restaurant is spelled) or holed up inside my room watching all two channels of Japanese TV that I get here.

So unless I'm planning a hike into the mountains around here or a festival roars into town I think the weekends here were made for rambling down the open road/rails. That's precisely what I did this past weekend once again, this time renting a car—a Toyota Vitz to be exact—with Hita City JETs Rachel (from Canada), Adric (from Australia) and Lindsey then setting off for Oita Prefecture's eastern coast to visit our mutual friend Lisa in Tsukumi City.

From Kusu the eastern Kyûshû IC (highway) wraps around Yufu-dake, a superb spike-shaped mountain, then approaches Beppu from the north and finally winds for tens of kilometers through Oita and beyond. When I was last living in Oita the IC was still under construction on its way down the coast to Miyazaki City, ending in Usuki City. In these past two-and-a-half years the teams have finished a series of major bores through the mountains separating Usuki and Tsukumi and are well on their way towards the next city, Saiki.

Even stopping off at the Beppu IC rest area for drinks and vending machine chicken and chips (yum!) we made the trip from Kusu to Tsukumi in under two hours. This is the second time I'd come to the city, the first being with my fellow Oita University foreign students almost three years ago, but I must have been napping or chatting someone up as it felt like the first. I don't remember the blight that awaits visitors entering the town from the west.

Tsukumi is built around the cement factories that line its harbor, employing a sizable chunk of its residents either in the cavernous production zones or on the surrounding limestone mountain slopes, slicing away epic-sized sheets of rock to feed The Machines of Industry. Outlandish as it sounds, I have to keep reminding myself that the basic stuff that ends up as our skyscrapers, rockets and iPods have to come from somewhere. California is a bad place to learn that lesson—we're the goddamn kings and queens of NIMBY. We don't know much about the mountains they slice up in West Virginia to get at cheap coal or the now-acid-filled copper pit mines in Wyoming and so much more.

On Lisa's side of the tracks, more towards Tsukumi's southern mountain borders, things are a lot nicer. This is actually a pretty pleasant place when one isn't looking at smoke-belching stacks and Taiwanese cargo ships. There are little coves where small fishing boats occupy every available slip and then some, where the wannabe Japanese Ahabs hang their anchors at nearby shrines to be blessed for good fortune. A network of small streams and canals snake through neighborhoods, golden koi visible through the crystal waters while children beat the summer heat in the shallows. The co-op grocery and art supply stores are excellent.

Not a bad place to be, really.

Lisa met us shortly afterwards at the station, we dropped our bags off at her stately manor and were on our way to Kamiura, a quaint seaside town just around the cape south from Tsukumi. At a place called Zeai Beach we all hopped in the cool, super-salty currents of the Bungo Channel and dodged jellyfish. The water's so salty we all ended up coated with an uncomfortable film of stickiness. In retrospect, if we wanted to get wet we should have waited until our next destination, Gyoran Waterfall Park. Part shinto shrine, part public rec area, Gyoran has a gorgeous mini-ravine that ends in a 12-15 meter waterfall. I wandered off alone and took the pictures I lost from my last outing here again before we all got a simultaneous hankering for ice cream and drove to the seaside rest area just down the street from the park. What a great rest stop: a fantastic view of the sea from an air conditioned sitting room; fairly good rum raisin ice cream; and the second greatest set of kids play equipment I have ever had the pleasure of dicking around on as an adult.

And then I inadvertently led the group on a death march.

Heading back around the cape to Tsukumi I noticed what looked like a gazebo perched atop a few-hundred meter tall rocky outcropping. We got closer and closer until finally I blurted out something like “It doesn't look to tall, let's have a go of it.” I don't think anyone with more sense than I was paying much attention, so we stopped and started walking up. And up. And up. The path transitioned constantly between slippery moss-covered rock, loose dirt and manicured steps, but massive and complex spider webs were a constant, as were comically large Japanese wasp-things. We reached the summit and found not a gazebo, but rather a four-story-tall lookout tower made entirely of wood. The top of the tower revealed a stunning view of the channel and inland mountains, but my god, what a phyric victory—we were dead tired and soaked with sweat in the 95+ degree heat and humidity. Then, on the way down I got stung or bit on the ear by one of those gigantic wasp-things. That would make four bee stings in a month for me, so I'm getting used to it and that one oddly didn't hurt too bad.

As dusk descended we got back to Tsukumi and picked up dinner and armfuls of alcohol at the cheapest bottle shop I've EVER seen. We got to drinking and I don't remember much afterwards other than getting down wedding proposal-style to ask Lindsey to be my watching the final season of Battlestar Galactica. I guess I passed out on the couch not long after and didn't wake until morning, hung over and hungry. Lisa couldn't think of a good place to get some grub other than a restaurant she insisted was called “Jollytime”. “Uh, do you mean 'Joyfull'?” I asked. That jogged Lisa's memory back to Earth as it was in fact Joyfull, but from here on out we will always refer to the ubiquitous Kyûshû eatery as Jollytime. Joyfull's katsu teishoku set (breaded, fried pork cutlet with rice and miso soup) had to do for breakfast, but it somehow tasted like ash in my mouth. Man, was I ever hung over.

The only cure, Lisa insisted, was to dick around on yet another kids playground, conveniently located just behind Joyfull. This is the one folks. The Mother of All Playsets. I am kicking myself now for not taking the camera, but luckily Rachel took hers and I'll pilfer her pics before long, trust me. At its tallest point it probably rises just over two stories and has five separate slides leading down from the tower, two being twin spiral ones that wrap around each other so riders can insert themselves like ammunition and race to the bottom. This is linked by three bridges and bar sets to a Noah's Ark-looking module with a stained glass ceiling and rolling pin slide. All over the superstructure are mini-games to play, including one with hundreds of yellow and blue rings arranged in rows so kids can create pixel art work or abstract patterns. I got my hands on it and spelled out “PooP” like the adult I am.

As rain clouds gathered and thunder cracked in the distance we briefly visited Usuki to the north. Known as Japan's second most voluminous producer of the deadly fugu (blowfish) sashimi Usuki is the place to go for seafood in Oita Prefecture. Its historical downtown isn't anything to scoff at either. Again, not thinking, I forgot my camera, but plan to visit my friend Chiaki who lives here sometime in the near future. On that occasion I'll tell you all about the giant stone Buddah, the crisscrossing samurai-era historical streets and the refurbished 17th-century Portuguese church.

Well, we had to get the car back to the Hita rental place by early evening so around four we said our goodbyes to Lisa and hit the road again. The weather was turning to shite anyways. Everyone in the car was spent from the weekend of drinking, swimming and forced marches so our ride back was pretty chill until lightning and heavy rains started freaking out Lindsey who was behind the wheel somewhere around the mountains behind Beppu. But really, why be afraid? If it's our time then it's our time, and who can really think of a better way to go than in a lightning-charged, flaming Japanese compact car barreling down a mountain?


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Of Mushrooms and Volcanos

Yesterday...yesterday was nuts.
Like I wrote before, my friend Mayumi invited me on a road trip to neighboring Kumamoto Prefecture with her sister's family. Ostensibly the trip was to see her great grandparents, but ended up being much more. I'll get to that later.
She picked me up in front of the local supermarket, Marushoku, at 9AM and we set out towards her house in Mie-machi, another relatively small town like Kusu in the southern reaches of the prefecture. Back in the states I figured I'd be seeing Mayumi pretty often and speculated a two-hour drive between our towns using normal roads. After two-and-a-half hours of driving--a pleasant experience with the lovely and funny Mayumi (no, you're not boring!)--we were just pulling up to Mie-machi, so it's a bit more drive than expected, but shiyou ga nai ("can't be helped", quite possibly the most useful Japanese phrase that exists). We were bored waiting for her sister to get off work and went in search of adventure, which, like Kusu, is a sort of daunting task. In this sedate mountain farming community though we did find what we were looking for, and it's name is the Oita Prefecture Institute for Mushroom Research.
When we pulled up there was only one car there and the facilities were closed. And really, why would a mushroom institute be open on a Saturday anyways? We were about to shove off when a man walked up to us, apparently one of the research fellows, and invited us into the labs to see the whole operation! This type of kindness is something I can barely respond to in English, let alone Japanese. In the US I think we'd be met with a prompt "piss off" and shotgun brandishing, but here you never really can tell. I think maybe he thought I had come all the way from the land of the White Man to see their 'shroom lab.
Inside, the place is exactly as creepy as you might expect a lab that handles only mushrooms to be--climate controlled rooms absolutely overflowing with ten, twenty different kinds of fungi, a mix of eatable and deadly, and the whole thing permeated with a swampy moist atmosphere. I'm officially adding the Oita Mushroom Labs to my top ten list of places I think doomsday will emanate from, somewhere between Fermilab and a Kentucky Wal-Mart. This is the precise kind of place one of Godzilla's flavor-of-the-week nemesiseseseseseses would spawn, I think. But then he'd take a look around, realize nobody would care if he destroyed Mie's Jusco or Book-Off and promptly move on to trample Tokyo. It's how these things work.
Now this is where things got weird. We walked around and finished checking out the labs (unsupervised, may I add) when the research guy who let us in went into one of the walk-in fridges and began ripping out labelled shiitake from the their growing cubes and stuffing them into a bag to give to us. Sure, dude, we'll take them. Mayumi didn't know what to think either. So dinner tonight will be experimental shiitake curry with a side of mutant mushroom monster.
Back at Mayumi's I met her folks again, two incredibly nice farm folk, and her big sister's family, the Takagis. Now, Mr. and Mrs. Takagi wouldn't actually tell me their names, insisting I call them the Japanese equivalent of "mom" and "dad", but their two cute-as-a-button daughters are Ayako and Itsumi. We set off in their hot rod minvan for Kumamoto, stopping near the prefectural border for some peach-flavored soft-serve ice cream, then nonstop to Minami Aso (South Aso) where the old folks live.
Right now I'll only be taking a moment to brush lightly on describing the Aso-Kuju region, but rest assured I'll be spending lots of time here in the coming years and want to make many detailed written and visual reports. I'm not a religious man as you all know, but the best way I can think to describle Aso-Kuju is to say it's God's Country. The best SLR or video camera can never hope to produce a proper expression of its magnificence, you just have to be there. I've spent, cumulatively, maybe a week in and around there, between this and the last time I came to Japan, and have yet to find a non-picturesque landscape. Mt. Aso and its various sister peaks are, seriously, the world's largest active caldera and is powerful enough to generate its own localized weather systems. Imagine six to eight Mt. Diablos standing next to each other with lush greenery crawling up them, a steam and sulfur-spewing crater in the middle and peaceful farming towns all around it and you have an idea of the majesty of Aso.
On the southern side of Mt. Aso we stopped off at a fascinating little park after lunch called Takamori Yuusui Tonneru Koen (Takamori Spring Water Tunnel Park). My dad would love this place, being the water nut that he is. The name describes it pretty well: a tunnel leading into the mountain with a stream of fresh mountain spring water flowing its length in a central channel. You can walk into the tunnel about a hundred meters before you hit the spring where water is literally gushing from the wall into a little rock pool. Only from the highest mountain streams in the Sierras can you ever taste water this sweet and refreshing.
Oh, I almost forgot the rainbow.
I'd like to think I've seen a goodly amount of rainbows in my life, but I ain't ever seen anything like this. Over the eastern reaches of Minami Aso we saw it from the car, cartoonish in its brilliance, ending exactly on the road we were driving about two kilometers ahead. I have a bit of advice if you ever see a rainbow like this when you're driving, and that is don't drive towards it. Stop your car. There's nothing special about being inside a rainbow--you can't see anything--but there's everything special about admiring one so mind-blowing from 500 meters away.
Mayumi's great grandparents' house was mind-blowing as well, but in a more earthy way. At least 75-years-old, the house is as traditional as they likely come in these times. You can see the handmade in every ancient plank, each cabinet, the ranma in the entryway. It turns out the two inherited the house from their parents about twenty years ago and had spent the previous twelve years in Peru as part of that nation's large Japanese population. They got out just in time too, right before Fujimori came in (also a resident of Kumamoto Prefecture) and proceeded becoming a fugitive from Interpol for violations against human rights while president for ten years.
I would have liked to look around more, but the day's shadows were getting long and we had to get to the basashi store before they closed. Ah, Mr. Ed, you never tasted so good. That's right, basashi--horse meat. Raw horsemeat. With a touch of soy and some pureed garlic it's heavenly on the palette as long as you can suspend your childhood love of ponies. Luckily I have none, plus a strong "When in Rome" spirit. I expect all visitors to at least try one strip of it.
It was way too late by the time we were done with dinner back in Mie for Mayumi to drive me back to Kusu, so we stayed at the Takagi's place in Oita City and came back to Kusu in the morning. I want to sincerely thank both the Usuzuki and Takagi families for letting me tag along and then caring for me for the past day and a half. They were my family away from home three years ago and I hope we'll stay tight. More than that, I want to give back after receiving so very very much from them.


Return of the King

Man, I kinda screwed up bad on Thursday (the 9th). The problem dates back about a month actually.
One of the Oita JETs had invited me to a nomikai on Wednesday, the night of our arrival and I'd heard that there was going to be a two day Oita orientation at sometime. I put the two together thinking there was a link and made plans with my friend Mayumi (one of my English students from last time) for the second night of the orientation. Just wanted to kick it, grab a drink or two and catch up. But there was no connection between the two events: the nomikai was aimed only at the Oita City JETs; and the orientation isn't until the last week of the month.
Well, missing the party was a bummer, sure, but I got my bike reassembled and running true, got myself settled into the apartment, so that day was a victory in my books. But I'll be damned if I'm going to reneg on a second commitment, especially with Mayumi who was a blast to hang out with and helped me so much before. She had also taken a special vacation day already just for the occasion. The catch for me is that the last train back towards Kusu leaves Oita just before 8PM. Do I take a vacation day tomorrow? No, too short of notice. Can Mayumi drive me back? Waaaaay too far to drive late at night. Stay at Mayumi's place? I haven't much talked to her in three years, for all I know she's married.
No, this was a one-way trip
So I was ready to catch the 5:00PM train to Oita City when my coworker, Hiramatsu-san, knowing the intrinsic problem with my journey as any Japanese would, offered to drive me to Oita Station and pick me up around 6:45 the next morning at the Mukainoharu Station in Minami Oita City, near where he lives and about four stations into the train line that leads back to Kusu. How I spend the night in Oita City is my problem. It's a deal I can't pass up and snatch it as quickly and politely as I can. On a side note, my goal this first month language-wise is to get good at thanking people for stuff and politely asking for favors. In this move-in phase it's a valuable coin to use with those around my office helping me out, among other things.
Hiramatsu-san is a very nice fellow, but he's incredibly quiet and our trip to Oita City is mostly a void of conversation and jokes. I'm going to work on him once I master the art of oyaji gaggu and other owarai styles (thank you, Willis, for turning me on to this stuff. It's been gold so far. Dondake~!).
Now something a little mellow:

Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

excerpt from The Simple Truth, by Philip Levine

I was introduced to Levine and his poem The Simple Truth in just this last semester of university, during my English 214 class, and its verses have proved to be apt to so much in my recent life, especially my previous Oita experience. A lot of this will sound incredibly corny so please bear with me.
Check out the rest of the poem online if you have the time. I think we, each and every one of us, has a distinct Simple Truth in our lives and hopefully we've found the drawsting that will pull down the obscuring curtain on it. In my case Oita City is the embodiment of that Truth, it's like the crucible in which my current heart and mind was forged. To the layman it's just some funky, out-of-the-way Japanese coastal city, to me it stands noble and strong, needing no qualification whatsoever. From the second I entered its wings last time I knew I'd arrived. You know, arrived. Delusional as it may sound, the place may have just been calling me telepathically for about a decade. I mean, I could have studied abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo, one of the nation's most prestigous colleges, I could have attended Kyoto University, a city-sized museum and the heart of Japanese traditional culture. I chose Oita. The most common response I get when I tell people that is "you're shitting me..."
Now I'm slipping into Oita City again from Beppu, cruising past a Naruto Udon, spotting a Book-Off on my right, noticing the remodeled Sushi Meijin, the Macross Bridge Building (not its real name) is coming into view, as is the Docomo transmission tower. Finally Oita Station. I fucking love this city.

I met Mayumi about thirty minutes after arriving. Willis and Emily, you'll be happy to know that the first thing I did was eat two slices of cheese toast from Trandor. We hung out until about midnight, hitting up Don Quixote for shits and giggles, walking up and down the Centoporto mall, Mos Burger for drinks and a place to rest our bones. I cued her in on my haiku rampage and wrote one for out night out. Then I got a cheap and very shady business hotel room and retired until 6AM. Hiramatsu was at the station exactly when he said he'd be, the punctual superhero that he is.
So everything worked out, if not with a hefty burden of anxiety early on. Mayumi invited me to Kumamoto Prefecture on Saturday with her sister's family to visit the family elders there, so until then...


I Just Flew Into Oita, And Boy Are My Arms Tired

It took an unbearably long time to exit Tokyo on Wednesday morning. For some reason the bus driver drove around the hotel block, which in Shinjuku rush hour traffic gobbled up about fifteen minutes right there. And we didn't use the expressway to get to Haneda like we did while coming in from Narita. Whatever--Tokyo's long gone now and I had fun making haikus about things I saw along the way. By the way, Brian and Pat, the haiku thing is brilliant. I am now "The Haiku Guy", so I consider those two hours in Laguna Seca traffic worth the misery and am even, as of Saturday, full on into Japanese language haiku and tanka.
I sat next to Caitlyn on the plane over, the only other Oita alumni I know of in our party, and we were both completely psyched to get back "home". Caitlyn was (are you still in?) one of the women in my "harlem" that I think it's about time to explain. It sounds much more suggestive than it really is, trust me.
Bleary-eyed and hungry upon our arrival at the Keio Plaza on Sunday night, Lisa, Caitlyn, Lindsey, Laura and myself went out looking for grub in Shinjuku. We hadn't crossed the street heading north before two Turkish guys started talking to me. I only got one of their names, Seljuk (the less creepy of the two), so the other guy I'll call Kato (like OJ's Kato) for no apparent reason other than it is the first name that popped in my head.

Seljuk: "Whoa, look at this guy! He's a real man!"
Me: "Gee, thanks."
Kato: "Yes, all these women are yours, no?"
Me: *putting my arm around Laura and Lindsey* "Damn straight!"
Seljuk: "Yes, it is like your harlem."
Caitlyn: "His what?"
Seljuk: "You are his harlem."
Me: "I think he means 'harem'."

So there you have it, my harlem. If you must know, I run a fair but firm harlem and am always accepting applications. Must be willing to make midnight Lawson and/or Joyfull runs. Offer void in Wisconsin.
Back to the matter at hand though, we touched down at Oita Airport and were immediately picked up, all of us, by our contracting organizations. I barely had time to say 'goodbye, see you in X weeks' to my new friends before being whisked off directly to Kusu and the city hall where I immediately began nothing. So here's the thing: from the second you exit the tarmac and meet your CO reps you're their property, essentially, and your work has begun. Some towns take it more seriously than others, some less. Kusu is less deathly serious than just by-the-books, so I arrived around 3PM at the town hall, met my four bosses (two section chiefs, one division head and another dude above even him that I can't properly place) and waited an hour and a half at my desk for work to end before I was taken to my apartment.

My apartment. Well, it's larger than my old place in Oita City, which only my parents, my sister, my ex and any Oita University alumni could truly appreciate. Essentially, that doesn't mean much since most broom closets were larger than that dorm. You walk into a tiny entryway with the restroom and shower room to your right. On the left is the living room and kitchen, both separated by a little breakfast bar thing. Across from the living room is the sleeping area with a large closet spanning the back wall. There are sliding glass doors in living room and bedroom and it's this detail that brings me to the major issue I have with the apartment. Japan touts its four distinct seasons as much as they push cars, cameras and sushi to the foreign market, but it wasn't until I lived in Japan that I got a taste of a "real" winter season. See, bitch and moan as we might about cold SF winters, they are nothing--NOTHING--against the awesome oh-my-god-I'm-going-to-have-to-amputate-that-finger freezing power of a Japanese winter. That being said, the big ass single-pane windows, thin walls, floor and roof basically mean that whatever the temp outside is you can count on it being the same indoors. Not only can I look forward to frozen pipes, but also frozen liquid items I leave out overnight on the counter. I swear to Jeebus, will someone please talk to Japanese zoning admins about this? Japan, darling, it's even a proven fact that insulation is one of the most effective energy saving techniques around, and we all know how you're trying to be the greenest mofo on the Asian block.
I have a heater, mind you, and it runs on kerosene: if I leave it on at night for three or more hours without a window cracked I die of carbon monoxide poisoning. I'll have to cross this bridge in three months, so there's still time to scheme and mastermind a solution, if one exists. Here's hoping for a global catastrophe to wipe out the Japanese winter.


Escape From JET Orientation

At the risk of sounding like a smug jackass, Tokyo JET orientation is made for those that have never been in Japan for more than maybe two weeks. Workshops on how to cross the street, what shoes to wear when, helpful kanji you'll see around and what's happening in current events. After the first working day's mandatory morning lectures, keynote speech and a once over of the following day and a half's workshop schedule I knew I was done with this. Really, you're going to learn more about Japan if you go out on the streets of Tokyo and poke around. That's a fact. So my official recommendation to anyone thinking about JET in the future is to attend the mandatory keynote for appearances then split. Want to find out about how to drive in Japan, stand on a pedestrian bridge and watch traffic. Want to learn how to cook Japanese food, go to a mom-n-pop eatery and watch them behind the counter. Want to be a saavy shopper, visit several markets and compare prices. Hands-on action, yo.
I thought slipping out after the speeches ended at noon was daring, but Laura was smarter and more brash than even myself. Laura is the fantastic woman I mentioned in my above character rundown who will be heading to somewhat-nearby Nagasaki Prefecture. The first night in Tokyo, after everyone else had peeled off to nurse their jet lag, she and I wandered the streets of Shinjuku like a couple of stray coyotes. After the meet-and-greet blitz of the day, that walk was a refreshing respite from things. But anyways, Laura left during the ten-minute break in speeches around 10:30, not even staying for the second half, then proceeded to soak her feet in the hotel pool. Much respect to the woman that can be more delinquent than even I. (I'm trying damn hard not to get infatuated, but it's rough.)
I stuck around for lunch then found Caitlyn and we headed off for Tokyo Tower, a cliched tourist spot I said I'd never visit. Caitlyn is cool. Caitlyn would be a great enabler for my hair brained, half-baked travel schemes I so often come up with here. Just a passing comment about thinking of going to Godzilla's toothpick and she was on board. I have to admit to being glad I went as it's one of the best 800 yen I've spent on sightseeing in Japan ever. Big touch screen computer stations around the observation deck tell you what you're looking at and the windows are kept pretty damn clean, despite the legions of overeager little brats pressing their greasy faces against the panes. There are even some thick plexiglass floor sections to stand on and look down through. I'd like to have explored the Ootei-machi area more, but we both had our respective plans for the night approaching, in my case an alcohol and karaoke-fueled night with the Oitans.
Heading in the directions of Kabuki-cho we found a karaoke box with a two hour all-you-can-drink deal for only 2000 yen, which for the time of day and location was excellent. I downed two pitchers in total and went through a couple renditions of Everybody's Talking before the time was up. We stumbled back to the general vicinity of the Keio Plaza Hotel, hunkered down on some stairs and continued drinking and smoking until about 3 AM. I don't smoke and I don't plan to start, in case anyone's wondering. This was a special occasion. I have only hazy recollection of what went on from there on out, but I am definitely an honorary Kiwi, my name is now Princess and my fellow Oitan, Lauren, can do thirty push-ups in one go.
And then another day. Another day of pointless workshops to play hooky from. To me the only really important lecture was on team teaching, but I'd already attended one at the Japanese consulate in SF. Instead of any of that I headed east on the Yamanote Line and landed myself in front of the Japanese parliament building and imperial palace. It took me nearly an hour to circumnavigate the palace grounds and search out Yasukuni Jinja, one of my prime targets for sightseeing on this go around in Tokyo. If you don't know about Yasukuni, it's the shrine where all the war dead are honored, including Japan's class A war criminals, like Tojo, etc. If any of my more conservative relatives ever get to reading this blog they might think that I'm just a craven anti-patriot for going there. They'd be right about the anti-patriotic thing, but it's not why I went to Yasukuni. Yasukuni is probably the best place to view and study the uyoku dantai, Japan's ultra-right wing political groups that believe the emperor should be running the show again and Japan should reinstate the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. They're Japan's neo-cons. The place attracts them like mosquitoes to a redneck's bug zapper. I wasn't received particularly well, getting stares from the visitors ("What the fuck is whitey doing here?" kinds of looks) and even being shooed off a park bench by the cops. Zany.
Getting back to the hotel I headed out shortly after with Yoji, Lindsey and Caitlyn for Harajuku, another of Tokyo's trendy fashion districts, this one catering more towards the young market, it seems. Now, I've told several of you on different occasions that I don't like Tokyo, but Harajuku broke me. I like it there, I have to admit. Whether it be the tree-lined avenues, the relatively quaint station that backs up to the Meiji Shrine, the deluge of restaurants that make you say out loud "Oh lawdy! I have to at least get a beer there" or just the posh, modern architecture, Harajuku exudes a chill vibe I haven't felt elsewhere in Tokyo. I couldn't stay long though as I had plans to meet up with Emily and Rika, two friends of mine from my first Oita excursion.
I jogged and walked to Shibuya instead of catching a train. I was just way too flush with excitement and emotion not to--I had to release it somehow before we met. No mix of adjectives, adverbs and nouns can begin to describe what I felt when we all met. Sometimes when the heart does the talking there's just no written or verbal translation, maybe just a sigh, a tear and an accelerated heart-rate.
The night ended with me feeling pretty good about life, I must say.


Nonstop To Tokyo

The jet flies northwest, more towards Alaska than Hawaii. Never trust your average mercator projection map when it comes to planning the shortest route over continental distances. They really expanded the movie selection on JAL since two years ago, that's for sure.
And eleven hours later, five thousand miles or so, one time through Sam Raimi's anti-masterpiece Spider Man 3, Nick Cage playing a precog in Next, some weird movie about a yakinikuya (restaurant that specializes in BBQ meats), the summer stage of Sasuke (known stateside as Ninja Warrior) and most of the way through Gibson's Count Zero you touchdown in Narita, Chiba Prefecture.
Know this about Japan in the summer: it's stupidly hot and humid, more than I remember Orlando and New Orleans being when I was younger. And I think that if you've been in weather like this it would leave an indelible impression on your brain, maybe in the form of a heat stroke. But you have a choice about how you're going to act towards it. You can A) take it in stride and accept that nothing you do short of parking under an air conditioner unit will alleviate it, or you can B) bitch and moan about how hot and sticky it is, how you hate it, how you wish you'd come later in the year, how you're going to put the AC on first thing when you get to the hotel. If you're a B please stop talking to me forever. Tokyo JET orientation was over-fucking-flowing with them, the noobs that were getting paid--PAID!--to be in Tokyo for three days with free food and board only to miss one of the world's greatest cities because they couldn't be bothered to leave the comfortable hotel AC. Ame ga furou to, yari mo furou to is the Japanese way to say "by hell or high water..." and I'll be damned if I wasn't going to see the sights and even make some great friends while doing it.
First, a rundown on "The Gang". These are my fellow JETs in Oita and one in Nagasaki that I feel I made a nice connection and shared good times with in Tokyo. There is a sub-category to this group that is "My Harlem", but I'll get to that later.

Yoji: Japanese-American dude from SF who seems unassuming at first, but will go balls to the wall when the sauce is placed in front of him. Man got hammered, I think, every night we were there while I only went for it the second night. Yoji's stationed in Oita City, not far from my old Kaikan stomping grounds and I predict many nights of excess in Miyako-machi with him.
Lisa: Lisa will, for the duration of her stay in Oita Prefecture and possibly life, remember me as either the annoying haiku guy or Mr. Forgetful since I had to ask on three separate occasions where she went to college at (you try keeping details straight after chatting up I-don't-know-how-many people in three days). It's UCSC, by the way. Sucks that she lives at just about the polar opposite end of the prefecture from me as I really enjoyed her layed back style and generous personality. Stay strong out west, Lisa, and I'll be sending you more haikus as soon as my phone is ready. I've already breached Japanese haikus with my friend Mayumi!
Lindsey: I didn't think any of my Tokyo buddies would be close to me, but luckily Lindsey is right next door in Hita City. Like me, Lindsey is a classic geek who watches Star Trek, BSG and all that nerd stuff. She also drinks hard liquor straight from the bottle. I look forward to binging on Lost, Heroes and whatever else comes our way over bottles of frosty (insert alcohol here).
Caitlyn: After the keynote speech on the first real day of the orientation I casually mentioned that I wanted to skip the day's remaining workshops and head to Tokyo Tower. That's all it took for Caitlyn to bite and become my fearless traveling buddy for the day. Anyone that will shirk responsibility for the allure of the open road is golden in my book. Let's hit the road again in Oita!
Sanke: Now that's not pronounced like it looks. It's "Zoon-kuh" to be exact. Sanke's our man from Hamburg, Germany heading to Taketa City in southern Oita as a CIR. Why Taketa needs a CIR is beyond me--you'd understand if you've been. I think Sanke will be my partner in onsens as he's just about the only person I met who so far has no aversion to stripping down and jumping in a pool of water with other men. To the rest of you, it won't make you gay, if that's what you're scared of.
Laura: Laura isn't actually an Oitan (as I'm calling us) as she's heading to an island off the coast of Nagasaki, and it's a damn shame too. Smart, blindingly beautiful, patient in dealing with well-meaning-but-annoying people, impatient when a situation wastes her time and not afraid to take action in pursuit of something better, Laura, I think, has her priorities straighter than any ten laypersons combined. Damn impressive, for sure. Not to turn this blog into a Craigslist missed connections board, but I hope our story doesn't end with that nirvana-like walk through the deserted streets of Shinjuku.

More on Tokyo later.


The Second (Un) Predeparture Post

Believe me, I had intended to follow up that first post almost immediately afterwards, specifically with a "Why I'm Going" post. But each time I sat down to actually writing it some issue would crop up with what I was saying or how I attacked that subject. Finally I realized the problem is that blogs are pretty much inherently egotistical and I try to be anything but as much as possible, and the issue of why I'm leaving the country for years on end, to me, presumes that my going is a life-shattering ordeal to my friends and family, as if it's keeping people up at night (except for my parents I suppose). I think if you know me well the reasons are obvious, and if not then this blog will be a running treatise on why. (Now, please don't post comments about how I'm saying nobody cares about me, that's not what I'm saying at all.)
About Wednesday's pizza-and-a-movie, now that I'm writing this from Japan, I can tell you all now that Japanese folks will simply not believe me that we have pizzas in The States an inch and a half thick and weighing in at a good three or four kilos. Zachary's. Rules. All. Pizza.
Not Old Chicago though. (Zing!)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

NTT/Yahoo! BB is Starting to Piss Me Off

Looks like I won't be hooked up to the net until sometime next week for reasons I can only speculate at. So I have no cell phone, no reliable internet service (this is my co-worker's computer that I can only use once a day) and nothing to do at work or home but read. I'm on my fourth book since coming to Japan. I've never read so much in my life in such a period. I've even typed up all my catch-up posts and they're just waiting to be set free online. Be warned, there's about fifteen pages of text. Geez, I bet my rogue and paladin have been at full rest XP for a week now...sorry, geek moment.


Thursday, August 9, 2007

Massive Post Incoming!

Everyone, I arrived in Japan less than a week ago and have been handwriting down my blog posts from day-one in Tokyo. As soon as I get internet at my apartment here in Kusu I plan to hermit up on my place for a night and just type type type it all in here. Already I've a healthy well of material to tantalize and amaze or, at least, keep you amused for a few minutes.

Teaser: Saw a shirt my second day with a picture of a cartoon Jesus over a plate of french fries that read "I Love Jesus...and French Fries"