Friday, September 28, 2007


Damn, this thing with OJ happened, like, a week ago. These guys are on the ball to be sure.


The View From My Desk: Mori JHS

The actual view from my desk at Mori JHS.

I'm wondering if it's too early to declare a decisive winner in the "Matt's Favorite School" race, but Mori JHS is currently leading the pack, closely followed by Kitayamada JHS (a post for another day). What the winning criteria for contestants in this farcical little contest are I can't properly say except to tell you that: Mori is a brisk ten minute bike ride from Casa de Matt; has a great bunch of students; staff not too shy to engage me in (limited) conversation; and is situated in an...interesting...location. Of course the other schools have their individual charms, however Mori JHS's flavors mix together into an especially sweet cocktail.

Situated just under a kilometer north of downtown, past the expressway, Mori JHS is off to the side of one of the wider side valleys in the area and at the foot of a strikingly beautiful sheer rock walled mesa, Oogansenzan. You can't quite see that mesa from my desk, but just walk across the staff room a few meters and, boom, there it is. No wonder Mori used to be the hub of activity in the Kusu region during the feudal era.

However, the mesa isn't the only thing that makes Mori JHS's location "interesting". Like I said, the school is on the side of a valley, and on the hill right behind the school just happens to be the Kusu JSDF base--a Japanese military base. I have to commend them on hiding the location so well as I didn't even realize it was there until someone told me the stubby buildings you have to be a kilometer away to see sticking up above the treeline was a base. I would have found out last week though when I went to the post office at lunch and had to halt on a green light because I was being blocked by a line of fucking tanks rolling out of the base. Now I realize the familiar dull clinking of caterpillar treads at noon isn't nearby construction. Where they're going will be the sub-topic of an upcoming post, stay tuned.

Mori JHS from the field. The base is on that hill right behind the school.

Mori's students aren't, from what I've seen of their tests, the sharpest students in the silverware drawer, but they make up for it with gumption and guts. This is the only place where not even a single student runs away from me in fear of being pulled into a conversation. It's also where I have the strongest connection with a class, third year, group two. I don't know why they love me so much and actually *gasp* listen to me instead of falling asleep. Maybe it's because I used a small bit from a Taka and Toshi routine. These two guys are hot shit in the Japanese comedy world, specializing in manzai, two-man Laurel and Hardy-style skits. Here's a link to one of their routines:
Anyways, every time I'm spotted by one of them they yell my name and a loud "Obeika!" Don't even ask about what it means, I just can't be bothered right now.

Oogansenzan behind the athletic field. The kids here are getting ready for the sports festival.

Other than "oobeika" the kids have given me two nicknames. One is from my first day at Mori when I introduced myself on the athletic field during their sports festival practice. The staff had wanted me to use a megaphone to talk to them, but I hate those damn things and decided just to raise my voice. I guess the kids in the back didn't hear me well enough because they thought my name was "mushroom" instead of Matthew. The other nickname is just a twisting of Matthew, "macho". So now I'm Macho Mushroom.

And now this macho mushroom is going to upload some pics of Mori JHS and go out for a run or a bike ride. Whatever tickles my fancy by the time I get to the door. Later!


Friday, September 21, 2007

All the World Loves Mandom

The following is an incredibly old Japanese commercial for "Mandom" brand aftershave, which, surprisingly, is still on sale today. In fact, I think I'm going to go buy a bottle right now and bathe in it. I will have to beat off the women with a...what do they use over here to smack the ladies away here...

I'll have to beat them off with a frozen tuna!


Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Hokka Hokka Ho

Hokka Hokka Tei is one of Japan's homegrown fast food franchises, specializing in take-out bento (boxed lunch) that are, I have to admit, decent for the price. Its parent company has the strangest, most unappetizing name ever: the Plenus Corporation. There's one on the other side of the parking lot behind my apartment, but I really don't go there often since I have an unspoken duty to eat the school lunch everyday.

I have to pass Hokka Hokka Tei to reach either of the two nearby supermarkets or just about anything else on the south side of town and have noticed a very attractive, impeccably dressed twenty-something woman sitting out front in what seems like a constant vigil, as if she were keeping an egg warm. I'm positive she doesn't work there, just to let you know before that thought even pops into your head.

One thing I have noticed is that she all but stares at men 25+ years-old who don't show up with their wives/GFs/kids, so naturally the grey matter starts churning and spitting out its kneejerk hypotheses. Lady of the night? Looking for the love of her life? But front of a Hokka Hokka Tei? As C-3PO might say, the odds of either of those being the truth are 3,720 to 1.

But she sure as hell isn't handing out Jack Chick tracts so I'm stumped. Because the above two speculations are all I can figure at the moment I've given her the nickname "Hokka Hokka Ho", crude as it may be.

Now, how to incorporate this story into tomorrow's lesson...


Sorry I haven't been posting lately, been in a bit of a funk for all the normal childish, petulant or downright inexplicable reasons. I'm coming out of it now I think and have much to post about, particularly my schools.

Also, I've started painting in acrylics. Just pop art at the moment--household product packaging and other kitschy crap like that. I'll take photos and post them as I finish.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Billy's Blanks: Agent of the White Man?

No, your eyes aren't fooling you, nor have you been mixing pills and alcohol again (or have you?)--that is indeed Billy Blanks.

For reasons beyond my puny ability to comprehend, Billy Blanks is super-duper-popular in Japan right now and his infomercials can be found playing at any given time of the day if you flip through the channels. My connections in the ecclesiastic world say Billy's starting up an Asian chapter to his already international phys-ed cult, or maybe I'm just projecting that because I want to write a screenplay about it. Whatever, this story gets better.

This poster is from the sports festival at Kusu JHS that was just yesterday and is the work of the white team. There were two other teams, but their paintings weren't nearly as mind-blowing as this one. What really makes this special is the Japanese writing underneath that reads "hakugun", literally "white soldier".

God, I love this country.


Sunday, September 9, 2007

Where's the Fixed-Gear Bike Race?

Well, if this were taking place in SF every contestant would be riding a turquoise Bianchi fixed-speed with matching anodized aluminum wheels.


Wednesday, September 5, 2007

How Could I Have Forgotten?

I wrote a ton of throwaway haikus about, well, whatever, during the Tokyo orientation and intended to post them here about three weeks ago. That didn't happen, but oh well. Better late than never.

The context might be lost despite the meager explainations. Sorry.

Written in homage of the little green exit sign man above every Japanese door.

Exit man goes left
Really, what is over there?
Wait, I will go look

Written during the unconscionably boring keynote speech.

Prepare For Ass Coma
Crowd grows, tension builds
Too many JETs, light a spark
Let's start a riot

There was a door in the main hall with one of those Dharma Initiative hexagrams...

Are You Lost Too?
Dharma initiative
Yonder door handle has sign
"Others" lurk behind?

Another written during the keynote speech.

Eyes roll in sockets
He means well, still, it drones on
My brain has checked out

The powerpoint had a bad pic of Mt. Fuji.

Pixel Fuji
Snow-dusted mountain
Mt. Fuji, a perfect peak
Oh, just projection

I have no idea why I wrote this.

All Together Now
Repeat after me?
Stay loose, stay lucid, live free
We are not all drones

From our first night in Shinjuku when we went out for dinner.

Hot Night, Summer In 'da City
Shinjuku hunger
Fuck it, let's get omu-rice
Crazy Turks abound

A sort of addendum to the previous one.

The Stable
Yo, where my money?
Don't make me use my pimp hand
My "harlem" jumps me

Caitlyn was drawing rocket ships during the keynote.

Space Cadet
Caitlyn draws of space
Where's the line between Earth, sky?
There is none, I think


Plenty more haiku where that came from since then, so I'll try to include at least one a week.


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Let the Corruption Begin!

Today I had my first taste of teaching English and talking to the kids in a classroom setting, and dear fookin' lord was it awkward! Though yesterday was actually the official first day of the semester there were no classes thanks to the prefecture-wide sports meet every school is preparing for at the moment. That event starts Sunday and runs throughout next week and I'll be attending each day, but for now there's these classes to wrap my head around.

I'm not sure what the teachers here expect of me right out of the gates, but I can tell you it's overly optimistic to say the least. I strolled in today at 8:30 not knowing what the hell is coming at me, as normal, and sat through the boring teacher's meeting for fifteen minutes then asked the English teacher, Suehiro-sensei, when the first class is at. "Oh, it's at 8:50, you have five minutes to prepare."

There's no point in getting angry or trying to haggle the point. This isn't a negotiation and I'm five thousand miles from home, so it's not a choice anymore either. I jump into action, collecting the scribblings in pen I'd made the day before, connecting my digital camera to the printer station's computer and setting it to spit out the entire card's contents. I take the stairs to the third floor two at a time and by the time I reach the class I'm sweating like a hog. Perhaps leaping up stairs in 80-degree heat while stressed is a bad idea. Mental notes...

That first class wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't a triumph either. It was a disjointed and awkward hour, with the kids alternating between a frenzied state and complete lethargy. Just that one hour was telling though. I learned that a question posed at the entire class has about a one percent chance of being answered whereas one asked of an individual will either A) receive an enthusiastic reply and keep the kid awake for the next fifteen minutes, or B) cause all the kids around the asked individual to confer with them, ending up in an unintentional but welcome group participation session. Those group sessions are hilarious, actually, because you're just asking one kid something like "what's your favorite fruit?" and then all their compatriots start an immediate little committee on the issue.

"Well, what is his favorite fruit?"

"I think she said she likes oranges once."

"No, Hiro likes oranges, I like apples."

And on and on...

That period ended, I taught the class clown how to shake hands like a NorCal thug and headed down the hall to the second year students. For whatever reason, the second year kids are much more receptive to learning English. They opened up right away without much fuss. I was instructed to follow my English questions and certain statements with their equivalent in Japanese, which probably helped them understand much easier. I also had my self-introduction shtick worked out from the first period. All and all there was a palpable sense of success that period.

I can do this job, I'm happy to report. Dealing with kids isn't so hard, even in another language. Perhaps especially in another language. Hell, it seems tougher dealing with the staff than the students.

Tomorrow is Kitayamada way down the road and I'm riding my bike there, which is sure to be a hit with the kids. For now though it's time for a jog at the river. Night all!


The View From My Desk: Kusu JHS

Fifth period cleaning time for year two, class one.

Did I mention my duties will take me to all seven of Kusu's junior highs? I'm too lazy to go back and peruse previous entries but, yeah, there's seven: in order of size from largest to smallest we have Kusu, Mori, Yahata, Kitayamada, Kogo, Hiju and Yamaura. My classes range in population from about thirty at Kusu down to two and three at Hiju and Yamaura. Yes, just two or three per class at those two. Unbelievable.

Third year, group one class. This class is my first period of the day.

Why does the Japanese government maintain these remote schools instead of consolidating them when their student bodies drop this low? I keep thinking that maybe nothing has changed in the Japanese mindset since the second world war, this pointless stubborn streak that prevents retreat even in the face of a hopeless cause. It's not like this is the Alamo where there was simply no retreat from the situation so they might as well go out in a fantastic blaze of glory--there is a better way! Consolidate! There's room at Kusu and Mori and Yahata to fit the kids at Yamaura, Kogo, Hiju and Kitayamada, really. And make no bones about it, these schools will close at some point as the rural population steadily declines from old age or emigration to urban areas. For a school to close in Japan though, from what I've heard, the body must drop to two students. At that point I think you're just damaging the kids' ability to have a normal social life though.

The staff offices at Kusu JHS.

But enough about that, this has all been an elaborate, somewhat dark lead in to my seven-part series "The View From My Desk". In this series I'll simply take a picture to show what's outside the window next to my desk. That's pretty damn simple

Here it is, the view from my desk at Kusu JHS. That's Mt. Kirikabu in the background, one of many forested mesa in the area.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

Bad Idea Bike Ride, 8/25 Edition

Welcome to what is almost certainly the first of many Bad Idea Bike Ride posts! Indeed, for the past several years I've taken a staunch damn-the-torpedoes position on most any activities performed in the path of bad weather, plague of locusts, etc. Why? Because adversity of almost all varieties are the mother of fantastic adventure! Also, the more often and more intensely we leave our comfort zone the further that zone's boundaries are pushed back, allowing for a greater breadth of memorable and unique life experiences.

So, damn it, go out and drive without AC in summer heat, try that freaky tofu quesadilla, walk down that sketchy street in the Mission and ride your bike in the rain in Japan.

And that's exactly what I did last Saturday, 8/25. For the two hours I'd been up the sky was cloudy and ominous, but not a drop of rain had yet fallen. I knew it would rain, I just didn't know if it would be in this town or the next one over. Would the wind whip it back east to Hita and Saga Prefecture instead? I put on my riding gear anyways, oiled the chain and rolled the dice.

My heading was south from Kusu into the town of Kokonoe, famous for its hot springs, winter snow festival and the world's longest pedestrian suspension bridge (built for no apparent reason other than to be pork project). At the border of Kusu and Kokonoe the road forks in two: left is highway 210, the larger of the two that eventually leads to Oita City; right is 387, a much more narrow road that winds its way to Kumamoto Prefecture and the Kuju area after some time. I'd been on 210 seemingly every other day since I arrived, but the last time I was on 387 was in a blinding snow storm over two years ago on my way to Kyushu's only ski resort. Naturally I headed up 387.

Mirrors at curves and corners are very common in Japan. This one is near the 210/387 split.

The road follows the Kusu River for about a kilometer before beginning its gradual uphill climb. Kudos to Japanese road engineers on their path finding for even these backwater highways, they are never so steep to be unpleasant for riders and their surfaces are always immaculate. However, by the time I reached the village of Minami Yamada, about seven or so kilometers from home, the rain I'd thought wouldn't materialize did. At first it was a drizzle, then a sprinkle. It stayed at that level for the next few kilometers when I stumbled on a hot springs town (onsen) town I'd been wanting to visit for a few weeks, Hosenji Onsen.

Some poor sap's rusted out Honda in Hosenji Onsen.

The practice of bathing in spring water isn't uniquely Japanese, but don't tell them that--they think they're the only ones in the world that do it. So when a foreigner enters an onsen town, especially these out-of-the-way ones, its time for everyone to really stare at the crazy white man. And why the hell is he here on a bicycle, in the rain no less? Well, I had forgotten my towel at home, not anticipating any hot springs action, so I can't make a review of this quaint riverside onsen town. Forgetting one's towel doesn't disqualify you, but you have to pay more for the rented towel. Besides, I was sopping wet and didn't want to take a nice bath then hop into cold, wet clothing. Yuck. I rode around town, snapped some pics then made for home.

Largest statue in Hosenji Onsen's Buddhist diety park.

This is where it got hairy. As I left town the sky really--REALLY--opened up with what the Japanese call ôame. These are fat, surreal rain droplets that impact and seemingly crawl all over your skin. My glasses were useless and actually made my vision worse with them on. The water was flowing off the road into ditches in sheets and I was hydroplaning often on my slick Serfas track tires (very good tires, by the way). Compounding the danger and fun was that all my uphill on the way to Hosenji Onsen was now blissful downhill. Like I said before, the roads here are perfectly paved and a joy for cyclists so on even slight downhills, in my highest gear, I can break the speed limit with ease. I joined a pack of cars in Minami Yamada and tucked into their tire wake to avoid large standing pools of water. I was doing at least 50 kph for those last few kilometers before the border of Kusu.

House with a moat. How cool is that!

And then at the border, quite literally where the sign announced one's entrance to Kusu-machi, the rain abruptly stopped and the roads were dry. Nature works in mysterious ways. For my risky flight through the rain there wasn't a particularly juicy pay off other than discovery of a nice onsen town and good exercise, but you can't win them all. One thing that was helpful though was to know that Hosenji Onsen is about ten kilometers from my apartment and I made it in less than an hour despite it being about half uphill. Armed with this knowledge I can make reasonably accurate judgments about trip times with my bike.