Sunday, December 30, 2007

玖珠玖珠クリスマス: A Very Kusu Christmas

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, December 24, 2007

Stairway to Strawberry Fields(?)

This is brilliant and amazing:

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


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The View From My Desk: Kitayamada JHS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it's off my chest now.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Fatboy, fatboy! Fatboy, fatboy!

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

Because he can.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The City

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

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

Goddamn I miss SF...


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ever Vigilant

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

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


Of Zaibatsu and Keiretsu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Know Your Factions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Saying Hello to the Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, December 3, 2007

Blasphemous AND Educational!

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