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.


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!


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.


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.


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.

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!

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?


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.



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...


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!


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!


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...


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?