Monday, December 15, 2008

Star Wars, You're Dead To Me

I've never been a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fanatic of the type that knows the canonical ins and outs of every spaceship, outpost planet and extended universe novel, but the original trilogy does hold a special place in my heart. My mind goes white and my eyes crust over just thinking about the countless times I watched it on our old wood-cased Zenith TV.

The prequels I blissfully ignored and the Cartoon Network Clone Wars shorts I couldn't care less about, but something recently here in Japan caught my interest--caught it and made me stare into the abyss that must be George Lucas's soul. It seems Sankyo, a maker or pachinko machines, has been licensed to make a Star Wars cabinet. The commercials are incessant on TV and the kids at school mimic it like parrots. The ad campaign (and maybe the machines itself) is dubbed "Fever Star Wars", and, as if to demonstrate the power of media on young minds, many of my students no longer associate the word "fever" with sickness or a feeling of ill health, instead they think of gambling and Star Wars.

Sure, you're thinking, George Lucas has pimped out his intellectual property to crap products in the past including, but not nearly limited to, breakfast cereals and underoos, but the thing about pachinko that only someone living in Japan can understand is that when something is made into a slot machine it's the true signal that it has become irrelevant. You know what pachinko machine also just came out? Ghost! Yes, that one, with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore! Freakin' Ghost!

So thank you, George Lucas, Sankyo, Japan and the magnificent media juggernaut for crushing that aspect of my youth like an Ewok under the foot of an AT-AT. Now I can purge that sector of my brain and put it to use in my never-ending quest to beat Maia at Puyo Puyo.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Penetrating Deep Underground (That's What She Said)

Wow, as weekends go it was a pretty diggity darn good one. A bit of culture, a bit of mother nature--perfect balance in both.

As per most Fridays, I pointed the car towards Kitakyushu and hit the gas to see Maia, holder of our tickets for the Saturday concert of Polysics in Fukuoka. Now, usually when we head down to Fukuoka--no matter what the weather gurus say about sun and clear skies--the heavens turn black as pitch and it pours a torrent down. We've dubbed it the Fukuoka Curse and it's a very scary and real thing (seriously, about 80% of the time we head there), but this day was flawless regardless of the seasonable cold.

Now, I've only seen two major-ish Japanese acts, counting this one, live in concert, but it's enough to convince me that this is a nation of musical entertainers that can put on a hell of a show. Lead singer and band founder Hiroyuki Hayashi is absolutely manic on stage to the point where his trademark orange jumpsuit was a shade darker from sweat by only the fourth song. And his energy is infectious, too, with a virtual mosh pit starting up towards the front row. This isn't even metal and that shit's starting up! No offense to Fumi and Masashi, the current bass player and drummer, respectively, but Hiroyuki and Kayo on synthesisers completely stole the show. Kayo especially, who Maia and I dubbed "Rock-bot" because of her deadpan "I'm an android" stage persona and wide range of audial input to the show (while mostly a keyboard jockey, she has a second mic for robot vocals, works SFX dials and busts out a recorder at times!) was a complete hoot to watch. While there are plenty of clips of them on YouTube my favorites are here and here. While the first clip features Kayo's polished robot look and vocals and the second shows her playing a recorder, both give you an idea how madcap singer/guitarist Hiroyuki is while doing his thing.

With our ears thouroughly blown to hell we capped off the evening with great Indian food and Puyo Puyo (a.k.a. Digital Crack) in Tenjin. Good god, I love this city.

I discovered the "flower" setting on my camera today. Auto mode's for chumps!

Exchanging the hustle and bustle of Fukuoka for the boondocks, the next day we drove the ol' Cartrain to the southern reaches of Kitakyushu City, almost to the border of neighboring Yukuhashi, to visit the karst plateau of Hirodai. There's any number of places in California Hirodai reminds me of, but the closest analog I can think of is the Sierra Gold Country foothills, particularly where there had been water blast mining in the 19th century. Rocks and boulders are strewn about like the gods have been playing marbles with them on the vast undulations of tall grass. There are few trees to speak of. There are three caves on the plateau and we'd planned on visiting all of them only to find two closed for...well, we don't know because there were no business hours or much indication as to why they were closed in the first place. We did find supposedly "The World's Biggest Tire" outside one of them. Go figure.

World's Biggest Tire my arse...that title goes to Allen Park, MI. according to the intertubes.

The third, however, was open and quite awesome. Senbutsu Dokutsu, or "1000 Buddha Cave" is nearly a kilometer long and with half that done ankle deep in, well, magical water. Here's the deal: I've had a lingering, rather deep cut in my right foot's big toe since as far back as Gion in August and nothing has really healed it up properly until now. Mind you I walk and bike and chase kids around school on occassion, so my active life could have something to do with it, but I've tried wrapping it in gauze and antibiotic yada yada and cleaning it really well and nothing has worked. Yesterday I was limping along in pain the same way I've been limping along on and off for weeks. As we hiked around Hirodai I limped. As we entered the cave I limped. When we entered the water I limped for a bit...then the pain was gone. I thought it was just the fridgid water numbing my toe, but no, it's been painless ever since! What's more, the cut is properly scabbing up and closing. I have no explaination for it other than magic cave water.

There were lights in the cave all the way to the last hundred meters or so when you turn a corner and bang, nothing. We only had our meager cell phone lights from that point on. A great time to be sure!

Oh, I almost forgot, before our foray underground we ate some proper American-style, artery-clogging, dense-as-plutonium cheesecake at a cafe named "Annies". It's country-western motif was complete with hound dogs, copious pics of John Wayne, leather chaps and vests for sale and, of course, two (count 'em, two!) Confederate flags flying out front. If they're going to be having cheesecake this good, hell, let the South rise again, baby!

Howdy and welcome to Annies! Collect cheesecake on the right and your grey woolen coat and musket on the left.

PS: I forgot to mention that before the Polysics concernt Maia and I went to the Fukuoka Prefectural Art Museum on the last day of their M.C. Escher exhibit. While I enjoy his optical illusion trickery and clever use of interconnecting shapes, what I felt was the highlight were the early sketches of his wife, (I think) mother, still lifes and landscapes. These were original pencil and charcoal sketches, not the lithographs and block prints he later did. All in all, a fascinating exhibit.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Cats of Moji

The Kanmon Bridge from Retrotown. The far side you see there is Honshu and Yamaguchi Prefecture. Next, me posing with a banana man!

Maia and I wanted to have another crack at visiting historic Moji "Retrotown" when it wasn't raining cats and dogs and finally got our chance Saturday. We had a bit of a secondary motive for visiting though and that is to find cats. Well, one cat, specifically. When we visited before we found a single kitten near the docks hiding from the downpour under floatation rings, styrofoam bits and random plastic detritus and were determined to feed it. Maia's more an Elanor Abernathy (the "Crazy Cat Woman" from The Simpsons) about cats while I'm just your average schmuck who likes to pet soft things (maybe like a meth or ecstasy addict), but combined we couldn't find anywhere selling cat food that day, so she came back alone the next day after work to feed the little guy.

Got a bit nostalgic for my dear departed BC when this very sociable black cat showed up, but she would not look at the camera no matter how much I rubbed his chin! Then, Maia plays with a very cracked-out white cat. That thing just attacked everything!

Well, this time we didn't end up finding him, but we did find a lot more--and some fantastic eateries to boot. Moji is definitely on our list of hot places now.

Moji Station, replica of old Termini Station in Rome and last stop in Kyushu. All aboard.


Monday, November 24, 2008

A Proper Trip to Kyoto

So it's that time of year again when Kusu's second-year students set off on a four-day excursion to some destination in Japan under the pretenses of "education", but which end up more or less as semi-supervised vacations. In certain cases, like Kitayamada JHS, there's really no way to veil the reality if it being a vacation since the kids get to go to freakin' sunny, warm Okinawa, but with most of the rest it's off to frigid Kyoto. I went last year with Kusu JHS and had a godawful time, however there were about eighty students to herd around that time so its low score on the fun-o-meter was understandable. This year I was invited again to go with Hiju JHS, one of my mountain schools with a grand total of three second-years, so I warily accepted. For the most part it was a good decision.

Two pics of Kiyomizudera, easily Kyoto's most impressive single temple.

Now I probably said much of what I'm going to rant about in the following paragraph last year, but I can't be bothered to check, however the core of it is this: I have never had any desire to visit Kyoto. To Japanese and Japanophiles alike Kyoto is some kind of pilgrimage destination, some place you "just have to go if you ever visit Japan". Oh, bullshit. It's a city-sized tourist trap, quite possibly the biggest in Japan. All the temples are way better in photos than in reality, which may be a given, but you'd expect at least a single moment of grandeur to sweep over you at some point and yet it doesn't. In fact, the famed Ryoanji Garden was disappointing enough to leave me a tad bitter that I'd paid 800 J-bucks to get in. And I feel sorry for young inhabitants of the city as it lacks that intangible core of vibrancy that makes life in the city so much fun. So I say to you, dear reader, if you want to see magnificent Japanese architecture and really be wowed then I suggest Nara.

Fun with nighttime photography! Wheeeeeeee! Next, Gion's main thoroughfare. Had I turned around you'd have seen the geiko standing directly behind me.

On the plus side I did get some fantastic shots of dark cobblestone alleyways and the fall colors were really at their peak over on the Arashiyama side of town.

You couldn't tell it from this picture of Arashiyama, but man was this place packed. Perhaps it was the fall colors because it was certainly the most mobbed destination we hit up that day.

And because I know it's going through your head, yes, I went to the Gion District and yes, I did see two geiko (they're not called "geisha" here). I didn't take a pic of or with them as they're absolutely beset upon by tourists whenever they stick their necks outside their private establishments to welcome a client in or see one out. Anytime there's an opportunity to reverse the boorish foreign tourist stereotype you can bet I'll be there.

See? You want impressive, go to Nara! The hall of the Nara Daibutsu, the largest wooden building in the world.

But despite my above gripes, yes, I did have a much, much better time than last year. I tell you, take the horrible mass of urchins of Kusu JHS (not all of them, certainly, but it only takes a few to really spoil things) out of the equation and things come up roses. Yuki, Asuka and Hiro from Hiju JHS are three of the smartest kids in town and there is a very short list of students I could concieve of as better companions to Kyoto. Sure, they don't speak English well (read: not at all), but they give it their best and when that fails they're not afraid to shove mystery foods in their mouths on a dare for our entertainment. That's the spirit!


Monday, November 17, 2008

High Road, Low Road

Just a real quick update to put out there to cover travels of the past couple weeks before I head out for the duration of this one (more about that later). First up is a bit of a quirky destination that came to Maia and I by way of one of her high school students when prodded about any interesting places they might know around Kitakyushu. Technically speaking, Inunaki Pass isn't is outside the city limits and closer to Fukuoka City than Kitakyushu, but it's not the pass's, uh, proximity to any metropolitan area that makes it interesting--it's the "fact" that Inunaki Pass is...HAUNTED!

The approach to the pass's tunnel is half overgrown with vines and other detritus. Scraped the car paint more than once. Getting onto and over the barrier that blocks the tunnel is ridiculously simple.

The pass's supposed haunting is a fairly well-documented phenomenon, with a short list of the ghosts inhabiting it and some background info to be found here. The newer pass tunnel has been open for some time and serves and a busy thoroughfare between Kitakyushu and Dazaifu. Can't say we saw any of the ghosts ("a woman in a white one-piece at the telephone box", fifth entry down on the bullet indexed list of ghosts at the top of the first linked page), but I did certainly feel the spirit of Robert Stack in me, yearning to understand the secret history of these man made Morlock tunnels.

Next, a trip up The Cupboard of the Gods! Let me explain. One geographic feature dominates the Kitakyushu skyline--Mt. Sarakura. Dividing the built-up metropolitan area of Kitakyushu from the sparsely populated karst plateaus to the south, Mt. Sarakura is a pretty awesome sight to have your city's back to. It's just that name is so damn ridiculous. You see, the kanji for "Sarakura" literally mean "dish storage". Dish Storage Mountain. I'm not making this up.

It's no monorail, but...wait, it's better--it's a funicular! Next, hazy in the late afternoon from all the water vapor collected after a shower, the pic here is of downtown Kitakyushu, the Kaimon Straight in the distance and the southern tip of Honshu, main island of the Japanese archipelago.

Being of infinite wisdom, and just a bit hungry, we decided to stop for lunch first and emerged from the restaurant just in time for a rainstorm. The one day we had to travel up the mountain...just lovely. We hit it anyways as a futile, symbolic gesture of shaking our fists at the heavens and paid a rather modest fee (comparatively) to ride the funicular to the top. As I get with my temporary obsessions, I literally spent hours studying funiculars of the world before stepping onto Mt. Sarakura's vehicle, and was more interested in the cable movements and passing track than the view. You really can't take me anywhere without a geek-out.

Welcome to Cafe 3po, home of the meticulously handcrafted cup of coffee and a man undoubtedly with horrendous back problems from sitting in a VW bus all day. By the way, '3' in Japanese is pronounced "san", so the name is "Sanpo" Cafe, not our favorite effeminate protocol droid.

Finally, a major breakthrough in the continuing journey of coffee exploration in Japan! Thanks to Fukuoka Class magazine we have discovered a small, but tasty network of roving coffee trucks that ply the mean streets of Fukuoka Prefecture and sampled two of them on Sunday. What's great is that these two are conveniently located in what Maia and I have decided is hands down the most awesome neighborhood in Fukuoka and, by extension, Kyushu. Yakuin (which basically means "pharmacy") boasts a strategic location adjacent to the always fabulous Tenjin district, at least one each Thai, Indian and Korean restaurant, a delicious bakery, cozy-looking bars and, as if to top it all off, the best bike shop I've found in Kyushu so far. Liked it so much I became a member.


Top Gear Came to SF?!

Damn it!

Damn it! Damn it! Damn it, I wasn't in town to catch them! The greatest show out of the UK since Peep Show came to SF and I'm in Japan...



Thursday, November 13, 2008

Please Refrain From Lobbing Fruit in the Bath

We had a three-day weekend a couple weeks back and that, coupled with the ridiculous Kusu-gun English Festival that I had to MC on Sunday, meant that Maia was coming down to Kusu for the weekend instead of my usual heading up there. Always an excellent occasion to kick around the local Kusu/Kokonoe/Hita area having lots of fun and get good and nostalgic. This particular weekend we left the area and headed over to the eastern coast of Oita Prefecture to visit our friend Lisa and view (in my opinion) the single most gorgeous festival in all Kyushu, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

You can't see them here, but there were oh so many bees here. And me without my bee suit...

Saturday we decided to head into Amagase, that plucky little onsen town nestled right between Kusu and Hita proper, which I discovered is more than the sum of its riverside onsen bits. No, we got away from all that and climbed the canyon walls into the highland plateaus above the river to end up at Amagase Flower Park, a delightful little flower preserve whose specialty is the Cosmos...whatever that is. Seems rather cut and dry--pretty pretty flowers, nice smells and epic vistas--but this flower park had a couple tricks up its sleeves: two rabbit pens that were microcosms of Japanese society (one pen contained several identical white rabbits with one aggressive leader that chased and attacked one scarred and haggard looking rabbit, while the other pen, located well away from the first, contained three multi-colored social rabbits); and a monkey show. I had no idea that monkeys could be trained to walk on three-meter-tall stilts. Go figure.

Lyle Lanley approves. (No, I'm never going to be tired of saying that.)

After that we headed just over the border of the prefecture into Kumamoto to the hot springs resort town of Tsuetate Onsen. There are several choices here, all very interesting and flashy, but the most flashy and the one that I'd been wanting to visit since I first laid eyes on it over a year ago is a place perched on a rather steep hillside that can almost be called a cliff. Overlooking a rushing river the...uh, I didn't actually get the name of that hot springs we went to, but this place was freakin' amazing. First, the parking area is a good 30 meters above the actual onsen itself and there is a switchbacking pathway down, but more importantly there is also a motherflippin' monorail to get down also! Already dazzled by the monorail the operators of this place just had to drop some cocaine in my already quite happy fruit smoothie when we discovered that our onsen had whole yuzu fruits floating in it! Whoa! In addition to coming out smelling citrus fresh you can chuck fruit at people in the bath. Nothing says fun like a nice Nolan Ryan pitch of sour/sweet fruit in the eye!

Maia: "I'll never be satisfied taking a bath ever again with anything less than fruit floating in it."

Sunday, after the Lovecraftian horror that is the annual English Festival for JHS students, we fled east to Tsukumi first to meet up with Lisa and then went via train to Usuki for the decidedly less horrible annual bamboo festival. I've ranted about it before and I really have nothing more to say other than there is nothing like it on that side of the pond that I can remotely draw a parallel to. You have to see it to believe it.

They got creative with what they did with the unused cuttings from bamboo lamps this year, turning them into chains hanging off this shrine foundation's wall. Well played.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Bang, Zoom, Straight to the Moon!

Can there be any better way to escape the troubles of the work week than with the good ol' modern day bread and circuses of a theme park? Heck no, says I! Which is why Maia and I packed up the RV with a few industrial-sized cans of baked beans, a box of the finest, cheapest Mexican cigars and an armful of old woolen blankets (not the small pox kind) and headed to Space World!

Actually we just hopped on a train for about fifteen minutes and walked up to the front gates since it's located in the Higashi Yahata neighborhood of Kitakyushu, a handful of stops from Maia's place. I'm not sure how anybody can cruise by this place--and you must if you take the train from Kokura to Fukuoka and vice versa--and not be absolutely tantalized by the UFO-themed log ride, the roller coaster that wraps around a 1-to-1 scale model of the Space Shuttle Discovery and the "Space Eye" ferris wheel, the 17th tallest in the world. Being filled with such childish glee and lofty expectations we were a bit bemused when we got to the ticket machine and there was virtually nobody around. Mind you it is late-October, but it wasn't windy or cold that day. Heck, it got hot enough for the two of us to break a sweat and strip layers, yet nobody was around. Could the mighty and impressive Space World have already succumbed to the condition that doctors from the Hollywood Upstairs Medical College professionally refer to as East Asian Theme Park Degenerative Syndrome?

OMG, the future is here, today, with this astounding Space Bird House! What fantabulous dreams will tomorrow bring? Only time, and Space World, can tell us.

Mind you the park did open in 1990 and the rides are, well, getting on their age, but I would have thought Japan's renewed interest in The Final Frontier thanks to the success of their H-IIA rockets would have signaled a renaissance for the park. Whatever, the two of us were there on our continuing mission to seek out new kitsch and new ridiculousness--to boldly go and wallow waist-deep in the insanity of Japanese theme parks and extract a unique pleasure from it all that only our twisted minds can comprehend. And I guess to ride some roller coasters and stuff.

First stop was the Zaturn ride, a combination roller coaster/drop tower ride that was freaking awesome...if you could ever get off the ground. The thing is just a long track with a vertical u-shaped tower at the end that you are steam catapulted towards, launched up and twisted so as one's orientation is upright for the trip down. Like I said, awesome, but it takes about three minutes per launch, maybe a bit more since they don't allow anything--and I mean anything to be in one's pockets or on one's face. Glasses, hats, pocket change, etc. are all no-nos. By the end of the fifteen second ride Maia and I were blind and had fantastic hair. That was sarcasm there, did you catch that? Right, actually we looked like crap. There's also the pointless drama aspect of the ride that slows the process down, which is to say that before they find it in their infinite grace to launch everyone we had to do a yell or put our hands in the air or get pumped or something. Lame people, just lame. Push the button and put us on our way, there are others waiting in line.

Oh my, this race has my glands all aflutter!

That drama theme was continued at our next stop, the Venus GP coaster--before launch we had to fill an energy meter for no apparent reason. We did this coaster twice and both times didn't yell loud enough to fill the meter past 75%, so I guess we could have had 25% more speed and more fun if only we'd have put our hearts into it. Oh well, we have only ourselves to blame. This coaster is cool though because it has a wicked loop and wraps itself around the Space Shuttle mock-up.

"First they took me in their ship, then they probulated me, then they removed my neck, Agent Chartreuse. I count myself lucky though--Norman doesn't even have a head anymore and as for Craig and Hortenz back there, well, they've been turned into what look to be characters from early Russian cinema."

So by 2PM we'd hit the park's two main operational coasters, but there was a third one that looked, frankly, astonishing despite not being open. It's called the Titan V and it was a sort of cross between a steel coaster and an old wooden one in that it was made of metal, but relied only on drops and rises for exhilaration. I've always dug that kind of thing, I think because of my mother's insistence on riding the Big Dipper every time we headed to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and I felt cheated it was closed down. The track was incredibly long, running the length of one entire side of the park then taking a right turn onto another side, forming an overall L-shape. It was incredibly tall and had a superbly steep initial drop as well, the steepest and tallest in the world when it was built in the mid-90s according to sources. Apparently there were two incidents in the past ten years, however, and the ride was closed for examination. Nobody even died in those incidents it seems. Looking over the amount of injuries and deaths at Great America...well, let's just say that if that park ran on Japanese standards the place would have closed in the 80s.

Near Titan V was a sort of kiddy land play area thing that was pretty cut and dry and dull...except for the giant pair of silver space tits growing out of the Earth. You heard me--space tits. I guess it was a kind of moon walk thing, but they had two inflated mounds of silver fabric many meters wide popping up out of the ground with kids jumping all over them. The sight was disturbing and perfectly explains so many woes in Kitakyushu's youth.

And what trip to any theme park would be complete without the obligatory trip through the haunted house ride? Jesus H. Christ, do they really have these things at theme parks still? Well, it was a haunted spaceship to be perfectly accurate and dear lord did the line take forever to get through--about thirty minutes to get ten meters. The English section of the warning sign was quite amusing, ultimately ending in a threat of park expulsion if we broke any of the above rules. I don't think I've ever seen such strong language from a Japanese person, let alone a corporation. Kudos for growing a sack, even if it is expressed through crude English and situated on a well-intentioned, but lame attraction. Well, there was a cool false mirror thing where an actor wearing a skull mask and "scary" jumpsuit clutching chains did a little jig for us. That was pretty cool. Oh, and I got some interior decorating ideas from in there, though that doesn't fall under the "spine-tingling terror" category methinks.

Well, I think I got my system flushed of any theme park hijinks for a good long time, though the desire to feel the cuteness power (or perhaps misery) of Harmonyland in Hiji, Oita has been simmering for some time. I mean, who doesn't want to spend an expensive day in the presence of walking, talking, giant-headed animal-themed characters that started out as stationary mascots? Who I ask you, WHO?!

--Matt, Romantic Yet Powerful

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Something in the Air --or-- The Kids Are Not Alright

(This post may contain language that is inappropriate for minors. Viewer discretion is advised.)

It's fair to say at this point that things have gone beyond "boys will be boys" around these parts and the discipline situation at Kusu and Mori JHS, the two largest schools in town, has gone straight to hell. For the past couple weeks teachers and parents have been in meetings at school concerning the issue lasting from early evening to near midnight, with Sunday--yes, SUNDAY!--and Monday breaking the midnight barrier. Mercifully I'm excluded from these meetings, but I still have to deal with the little shits at school that sparked this BS. Besides, if I were at those meetings I'd bring a 2x4, pliers and a cinder block or two...and I'd use them.

Oh lawdy...where to begin.

I may have mentioned it in a previous entry (or not) that Kusu has somewhat-recently had to open a special school just for students from elementary to junior high that don't come to regular school. It's called Wakakusa Gakuen and is based out of a small vacant elementary school that closed some years back. Its roll sheet is growing steadily week by week.

Who are the students of Wakakusa? They were originally the students with mild social disorders that prevented them from functioning normally at a regular school. For example, the first student I met from Wakakusa was an agoraphobic shogi savant fascinated by the Rube Goldberg machines from the Japanese educational show "Pythagoras Switch". But recently the school's seats have been increasingly filled by the bullied, the picked-on, the class scapegoats. Nobody seems to be doing a goddamn thing about it and it's pissing me off like you wouldn't believe.

It would be prudent to list some of the situations in recent memory that have got my blood boiling:

--Ate lunch in 3rd year, class 1 at Mori and noticed seven students absent. "Is everyone sick?" I asked Ms. Inoue. "No," she responded, "it's like this every day. Those are the students who don't come to school anymore." Seven student in ONE CLASS?! Un-fucking-believable. Seven students deprived of their education and a normal school life. Seven students that can never go back and get it again. Seven victims.

--Kusu JHS, 1st year, all classes, the students don't answer questions and just stare blankly at me or their desks when asked the simplest things. They're basically under orders. Three ringleaders are the only ones who talk and usually with flippant answers. Those ringleaders, and friends of them, move about the classroom with impunity and sometimes leave the room to wander the hallways too, always giving some shallow excuse seconds before walking out of the door.

--In the hallways at both schools kids are getting physically harassed by bullies in front of the eyes of watchful teachers. Yes, we're watching them do it, but here's the catch: the bullied kid never accepts help and is actually smiling while the other kids pick on him. Why? He would get harassed even more severely were he to say anything to the teachers. Sick and twisted.

--On Saturday and Sunday at the Marukyo supermarket parking lot two brothers from Mori, 1st and 3rd-year students, jumped a 2nd-year classmate that they'd been picking on for the semester and wrecked his bike. They broke his wrist or finger or something. Naturally he told his parents who told the school who told the other kids' parents. I don't think those boys' parents did a damn thing to punish them though because they were strutting around the same supermarket today after school. Well, to further degrade the 2nd-year boy the two brothers ordered all the students in school not to talk to that kid yesterday. Imagine you're at school at that age and everyone treats you like a ghost, like you've just never existed. Imagine that. The boy was bawling. His parents are contemplating a lawsuit against the other boys.

--3rd year, class 2 at Mori, acting on orders from the ringleader students that class wouldn't answer questions or address Ms. Inoue or I during class. Everyone in class had their heads down looking at their desks while we try to do warm-up exercises and generally talk to brick walls like asses, cowed by the two jackasses smiling and staring straight at me. I lost it and chewed out everyone for this pathetic display. This more than any other event made me realize I'm not of the right mindset for teaching little cretins like this. My hands were shaking in rage and I almost acted on the urge to overturn the teacher's pedestal just to vent. If I ever meet these boys in a dark alley...

I'd like to say something simple like "the teachers have lost control of their classrooms" and just squarely lay the blame on them, but it's much more complicated than that. I don't know what percentage of the pie chart each would be, but the culprits for this--and many other woes in this country--are twisted Japanese educational laws, Japanese customs, parenting/the modern Japanese family unit, the teachers and, finally, the kids themselves.

Japanese educational statutes declare that all children must be given a free education from elementary through JHS. The Japanese consider this a basic "human right", which sounds all great and fuzzy, but when that term gets bandied about the way it does here, trust me, it loses all meaning. If you want to be technical, these are human rights. I am not violating a student's human rights if I want to pull their asses aside to chew them out for running down the hall to talk to their friends during class, or if I stop them bullying another kid in the halls. Or am I? In Japan I am according to my colleagues. If a kid is to be disciplined it must be in complete secrecy so that their peers never find out. No pulling out of class, no suspensions or expulsions, no conspicuous detentions or extra homework. Mostly just no punishment. At all. You see, to punish is to humiliate and rob a student of pride, which is a violation of human rights.

But we run into a bit of a paradox here when this farcical take on human rights is applied to the bullied. The victims here are being bullied in public view, their dignity is being stripped away while others look on. No secret that so-and-so is being bullied, no siree. The victims here don't even feel safe coming to school anymore and they flee to Wakakusa or just stay home. Doesn't that take away their HUMAN RIGHT to a free, normal education? So by this logic it's OK for a student to be humiliated and beaten at school, but it's not OK to conspicuously punish the wrongdoers. It's OK for students to be psychologically run out of school on a rail, but it's not OK to stop the wrongdoers from coming to school.

What insane version of "human rights" is this?!

Parents here are something else too. I see parents hitting their kids and telling them to shut up in public from time to time. Due to the declining birthrate in Japan and all the problems associated with that there's a big push from the government for "birth-giving machines" to start pumping them out. Yes, that's what the health minister called women last year. Hell, there's even a new cabinet-level minister in charge of the declining birthrate, Mrs. Yuko Obuchi. My point here is that people are having kids here without thinking what it really is to have kids, they find they're not ready and they treat the kids like crap. Either that or they overcompensate and never say 'no' to the kids, showing them no boundaries. I don't know...I'm not a parent, but these things just seem logical to me: don't have a kid until you're sure you can give them the time and attention they need and deserve to become good human beings.

With the teachers, I feel they're like the overcompensating parent spoiling the kids and never saying 'no'. There are mostly no boundaries in the classroom thanks to Japanese law, but if a kid is reading a comic in class or throwing something the teacher does have the right to confiscate it. But they don't. They want to be friends or they don't want the responsibility and hassle that comes with telling a student 'no more'. Well, tough shit teachers, you're committing a dereliction of duty if you let a tiny handful of students completely ruin the classroom education of ten times as many other kids, so you better sack the fuck up and take that comic, toss those eraser projectiles out the window and stop letting the little urchins go for, like, ten bathroom breaks.

And then there's the kids themselves. I'm a believer in nurture over nature when it comes to this kind of behavior, so I don't know how much I can blame the kids knowing what I do about their ridiculous home lives, the laws of their nation, their parents and all the other toxic things that made them what they are today. But really, at what age does one gain common sense, a moral center and the wisdom to see that failing every subject can't possibly lead to a spot on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? And of course there's the majority of kids who stand by and watch their friends, people they've known since elementary school or even beyond, get bullied to the breaking point. Kids who sit in silence and don't respond to teachers, afraid their actions will bring hell raining on their heads. There are so few shining stars in this pitch black void anymore I'm really not caring about my job anymore at those two schools except to talk to the kids who want to learn more individually. They usually come in secret between classes or meet in the library after school. Places away from the eyes and ears of the class ringleaders.

Ugh, there's more yet to tell. Can you believe this is the condensed version? I left out some of the finer, more subtle points in the interest of space and not exploding my mind. Time for bed...


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"Boy For...I Mean, Bananas For Sale!"

“Maia and I needed some bananas in bulk, so we thought we'd head to a banana auction at Moji Station and snatch up a bushel.”

...Is how I'd like to begin this post, but it's just short of the truth and my conscience gnaws at me, so none of that. Well, the banana auction bit is true.

Maia and I traveled the rails last week none-too-far from her new home in Kitakyushu to the old port town of Moji, now a bustling tourist trap. This is the same Moji I mentioned in a previous post with the station—the northernmost one in Kyushu—that is a replica (of a piece) of Rome's Termini Station. The station and a handful of surrounding buildings form the core of “Moji Retro Town”, a sort of softcore attempt to replicate the setting in the town's heyday of the first couple of decades of the 20th century when troops departed here to pilla...I mean liberate Korea and Manchuria. It also hosted Albert Fucking Einstein in the 20s for a brief time. It's a nice place and would have been nicer had we not come on a day when the rain WOULD NOT STOP FOR A DAMN SECOND! Oh, and the retro mood was a little bit ruined by the, uh, 35-floor ultra-modern skyscraper in the middle of the town.

Food-wise the area boasts more types of yaki-curry/ than any place in Japan. Yaki-curry, in case you're wondering, is just plain, banal curry n' rice served in a superheated stone bowl with a raw egg cracked on top. For curry lovers the dish is anything but banal though as it allows you to either leave everything be and let the bowl keep your dish hot, or mix it all up and eat a sort of curry/rice/egg goulash, or you could mash the rice hard against the stone walls and toast that to a burnt, crusty consistency, or you could...actually, that's about it unless you count tossing it all onto the floor as an option.

And then there's the bananas. According to lore, Moji was the primary entry point for bananas from Southeast Asia for many years, or enough for them to make a song about it, “Banana no tatakiuri” (“Bananas for sale”). Can't say for sure if bananas still come in through Moji, but October brings a month-long banana festival that we caught a taste of. Exiting the train we were met by a terrific cacophony from the station's entrance that turned out to be a banana barker hawking huge bushels of bananas that nobody short of a Jamba Juice franchise could possibly use before they spoiled. “Auction” might not be the best word to describe the activity though as there was no bidding war, the barker would just sing the “Banana no tatakiuri” song while banging a bat on a table then stop suddenly at a random verse and yell out a price, the first person to raise their hand being the winner.

Moving on from that we found a dance competition in the town square going on with booty shakers of all ilks mingling to the fresh beats of...Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters? Yeah, we happened to stumble by when a couple of dancers were doing a routine to the themes from both movies. We were hoping for some Top Gun “Highway to the Danger Zone”, but alas it was not to be. Instead we entered the skyscraper and went up to the top floor observation deck for drinks and the view.

Moji lies at the mouth of the Kanmon Straight, which, at its narrowest point has only about a kilometer gap with Honshu. It's so narrow they tunneled under the sea to connect the two with a roadway and footpath, apparently the only underwater footpath linking two such islands in the world. Guess where we went after the skyscraper! It takes about ten minutes to walk from one side to the other and, boom, you're in Shimonoseki on Honshu. We walked there, left the station, looked around and realized there was absolutely nothing to do on that side and promptly walked back through the tunnel. Total time spent in Honshu: three minutes.

The weather was miserable so we decided to head home, but we'll be back to explore Retro Town in full when the heavens stop pissing on us—literally and figuratively.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

You Know It's Fall When...

The Japanese folks here in Kusu have a very strange way of recognizing the changing of the seasons. Instead of noticing things like, oh, I don't know, the falling leaves and plummeting temperature my coworkers have instead grasped upon seasonal commercial trends and student attire. A few weeks ago it was "Well, Lawson has oden out for sale again. Must be fall", and today I heard "Well, the students are out of their white summer uniforms and into their black winter ones. Must be fall."


Uh, did I ever post the above pictures from the Yufuin Summer Camp extravaganza? I don't think I even posted about that...
Well, here's the Cliff's Notes: back in August an English-language summer camp was held in Yufuin and I volunteered to be a team leader. Really I just wanted to get out of three days of sitting in the town hall--and I got 8,000 J-bucks for it! Anyways, one of the activities was an art class where the students had to make Wild West wanted posters. I couldn't directly work with/for them on the project, my job as team leader was to push them in the right direction and help them with good language use and whatnot. Deciding who was "wanted" and for what was eating into our work time, so I made a casual joke/suggestion that maybe it could be something like Anthony, a fellow team leader and from Brooklyn, stealing my heart. They ran with it and with incredible results.


Sara, Pat and anyone else who reads this and may care, as of yesterday I have officially suspended my WoW account with no intention of reinstating it, regardless of what WotLK may bring. It's just time I moved on from that...especially since I haven't played in countless months. Sara, sorry our Book of the Month Club arena team has to end like this. I'll never forget our abject mediocrity punctuated by puffs of brilliance--like working 9-5 for a telemarketing firm before retiring home for a bowl of fruit loops, an episode of The Simpsons and a line of coke.


Monday, September 29, 2008

In Goo We Trust

In my recent wanderings two separate phenomena have caught my eye in the shop windows and on the roads of Japan. The first is the Goo Phenomenon, where the word "goo" is popping up attached to virtually everything. There's a home improvement store (like Home Depot or OSH) called GooDay. I can understand that maybe the 'd' in there serves to link the words "good" and "day", but then how do you explain the instant cup noodles I saw last week at one of my schools called "Noodle Goo!"? Or the Kawasaki motorcycle promotional event with posters of a bike and female model beneath the word "Goo!"? There's an auto parts magazine called "Goo" and a "Bike Goo" for motorcycles, even NTT's Yahoo!-esque homepage is called simply "Goo". And the list goes on... By the way, it's not short for "goods", as in goods and services--there's a separate spelling for that in katakana.

The next exciting tale of exciting mystery comes from the ass-end of Japan's many automobiles and all the time I've been spending behind the wheel lately. Japan would be a numerologist's wet dream judging by the incredible amount of coincidental license plates and no real explanation for them. I think it first came to my attention when Maia pointed out a 666 license plate a while back and sort of snowballed from there. Now I'm actively searching for weird numbers in plates and can be sure of finding them on what seems like every other car. Palindromes (ex. 54-45) and successive number (25-26) plates are the two most common, but the taboo 666 plate has also been spotted by us at least twice in recent weeks. What's odd about 666 is that I haven't seen any other triple-digit plates except that one. Ever. My little Honda "Cartrain" Logo's plate is 72-72...

So far the internet has turned up nothing on both phenomena, so it's time to pound pavement and talk to the man on the street about this. Someone's bound to know.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want To Get Off!

So I suppose it was about an hour and a half ago that the Fed decided to take a hatchet to the spinal column of Lady Responsibility and Viscount Fiscal Integrity by bailing out AIG with an $85 billion "loan". That's a funny word, really. Loaning typically means to temporarily give with the expectation of receiving the sum back in full or with interest. But AIG has no choice now but to liquidate their assets to pay back the Fed, and it's the opinion of Wall St. big wigs that AIG won't be able to do so in full. This and the S&L scandal of the 80s, coincidence that both happened under Republican presidents?

Hooray for the invisibile, infallible hand of the Free Market! Hooray for unchecked capitalism and greed!


They're Not the New York Times, But Still...

Sorry to delay the Ballad the Billy Joe, but can this article be serious?

If so, it's such an absurd waste of tax dollars. Wait, no, if my tax dollars are making me laugh they're doing their job.


Monday, September 15, 2008

The Ballad of Billy Joe

I almost feel like I need to give you, my readers, a special assurance that the following is true, because one doesn't usually meet characters like this in the US, much less in Japan. Well, after picking up Kate and Lindsey on Sunday and spending the day gallivanting about Sasebo with them we planned to meet with some of Kate's friends in town and head out drinking. Maia had been feeling bad that day and a bit the night before, so she elected to stay in for the night while I went out, promising to come back in an hour and a half or so and bring some snacks. While I was getting the snacks from a Daily Yamazaki conbini (the best!) I stood in line with a fat, balding, 5 o'clock shadow-sporting man wearing a “FS” hat and clutching a free Japanese employment newsletter. The people ahead of us were taking forever so I made some uncomfortable small talk with my American “buddy”, asking him if the “FS” stood for “Fresno State”. In a thick southern accent and with a curl of the lip in what must be disdain for any mention of we godlesscommieliberalfeminazis in California he responded “Oh fuck no, it's Florida State football. Guess you didn't see the other side.” He showed me the other side bearing just the embroidered name of some Florida State quarterback I'd never heard of and I wondered to myself how seeing that would have tipped me off. I guess he feels every red-blooded American watches college football. “Ohhh...right. Yeah. Definitely not Fresno State”, I said.

He offered to let me go ahead of him in line, but I politely declined. He said he only had to ask the cashier if the employment newsletter in his hand was the newest one. A cursory glance at the thing said it was, but in Japanese. So this man was looking for work in a Japanese-only employment newsletter with no Japanese under his belt at all. “I don't know if this dude will even understand me” he said. Lo and behold the 60+-year-old cashier didn't understand a word and I stepped up to translate, confirming that it was, in fact, the newest one since the publication date said it had printed that morning like I told the guy a minute before. My new friend gave a mangled thanks to the cashier (“airy-gay-tow”) and left the store, waiting for me just outside. Dear Jeebus, what have I done...

He thanked me for the help and said he should “get on learning Japanese” to which I gave the perplexing response of “Oh, no problem. We have to watch out for each other and all that.” What the hell did I mean by that? Who are “we”? We men who watch college football? Whatever, it was time for his sob story as he followed me down the shopping arcade towards my hotel. According to my uninvited companion he had recently been discharged from the Navy not exactly dishonorably, but for something he was reluctant to go into. He was deposited in San Diego, given his pay and promptly bought a plane ticket back to Japan to live with a woman he has been seeing for two and a half years that I assume was his girlfriend. With so much prostitution around Sasebo though one can never be sure if he confused the deal. His efforts to get a job on-base in one of the contracted service corporations (Halliburton, for example) that pretty much compose the nuts and bolts of the military were not exactly turning up roses and his old friends in the service were slowly abandoning him or shipping out for duty. He was out of money at the time and had two bills that needed paying and his pre-paid cell phone was dry. That being the case he asked to use mine to call his girl, which I couldn't think of a lie quick enough to prevent getting Southern Man Cooties on my baby. She didn't pick up anyways.

The depressing tale of this misguided soul was harshing my 3-beer buzz and I quickly looked for an alley to duck down. When I found one I interrupted a tirade about the inequities of the world and said my hotel was down this way, but good luck to him. “Well, thanks for your help back there. And by the way, the name's Billy Joe.”

Billy Joe...I thought that name only cropped up in the movies or parody sketches of the Deepest Darkest South. How could parents do such a thing? What kind of beer, turpentine and NASCAR-fueled haze must mom and dad have been in to name him this?

On the way back I debated with myself whether or not brushing him off like that was the most moral thing to do, but really what other option did I have? No amount of money short of a plane ticket back to Pensacola could help him and no amount of advice about where to search for jobs would have done a thing with no college education or Japanese to back it up.

So godspeed, Billy Joe, wherever you are out there. Maybe there's a market for college football-themed English conversation classes there in Sasebo. And maybe not.


Fear and Loathing in Sasebo

(Disclaimer: This may come off as an excessively negative post, but believe me I had a fantastic and informative time in spite of, or perhaps because of, the adversities placed in our path)

I have gazed through the looking glass into a nightmare world of American imperialism, 46 in. waistlines and exported stereotypes and it is called Sasebo, Nagasaki. If there's one place in all of Kyushu where good ol' Japanese “mask” of amicability towards foreigners just falls away it is here.

This trip traces its roots back about a month, when Lindsey invited Maia and I to Miyazaki City for sailing with her and Kate (in Nakatsu, from the UK). Yes, they were going to rent a yacht and sail the Hyuga Coastline while Maia and I sat back in white turtlenecks, navy straight-leg slacks and pea coats sipping the finest, cheapest champagne out of monkey skulls like true blue bloods. Since I'm the only one of the group that has spent any significant amount of time in Miyazaki I was to book the campsites and all that jive, which was fine with me. Somewhere, however, the plan took a left turn at Albuquerque.

About two weeks ago Lindsey mailed me and said plans have changed and we're not going to Miyazaki but Nagasaki's Kujukushima (99 Islands), and we're not sailing but kayaking, and we're not alone but with a bunch of people from the Hita City educational office. Maia and I were shaken by this, but not entirely turned off since I was told we could rent our own tent at the campsite and we'd just go off during the day and do our own thing instead of kayaking.

Things didn't start so well the Saturday morning we embarked. First, it should be illegal to plan any activity to start at 7:30AM on a weekend, that's just flat out cruel. Next, if you must start at that time and you're going to be driving for two to three hours in Japan, for the love of the FSM, please stop at a proper rest stop for food, drinks, toilet breaks and stretching. Please. Then, when I try to introduce myself it would have been smashing if you could have reciprocated and not just treated me like a third wheel. And finally—and this is an issue that would crop up all weekend—I speak passable Japanese and I am not a child (and my girlfriend is even better), so do not lie to me about what a road sign does or doesn't say and please respond in Japanese as it's taken ever so much effort to learn your language.

So, yeah, one of the Japanese folks said we'd be stopping at a rest area along the way (or “Highway Oasis” as they're called here) we passed one, two, then three and Maia and I, starving as we were, woke up a sleeping Lindsey in the back seat to email her friends and ask when our caravan would be stopping for breakfast. The next rest area, came the reply. But the next area is a crummy parking area with nothing but a toilet and a vending machine, the real “Oasis” wasn't for another 10-15km according to the signs. “No, there are no more rest areas, this is the last one”, lied our Japanese guides, “but here's a rice ball from our cooler (as a consolation prize and to shut you up).” Livid, I drove on behind them until we came upon the proper rest stop after 15km, where the signs said it would be. Caught in their lie they stopped and said nothing. There were two more such rest areas before we reached Sasebo.

At the campsite we were still given the third wheel treatment and then found out that there were no tent rentals and we'd be sleeping in two big gender-segregated tents with these complete strangers who would be, by that time of night, completely shitfaced drunk. The decision to flee came suddenly. With as much tact as I could summon to do such a deed I told everyone we were taking off to do our own thing and would be back in the morning to pick up Lindsey and Kate. While I'm pretty sure I burned a bridge with Lindsey on this I feel more than justified in walking for the night. Like Lando Calrissian did after getting shafted by the uneven bargain Vader forced upon him I turned the tables and proverbially said 'No. No more stormtroopers in Cloud City.'

We drove around the 99 Islands area looking for fun and lodging hoping to stay close and pick up our two companions the next morning. We found neither. In the end I suppose Maia and I live in the countryside so we don't really intend to go there on vacation unless there's volcanos (Kirishima)or spaceships (Tanegashima), so we headed back to Sasebo. For anyone who has never heard of Sasebo, it was the HQ for the Imperial Japanese Navy from the early-20th century until WWII when the Americans moved in and it became one of three Japanese cities (the other two being Yokosuka, near Tokyo and Naha, Okinawa) to house a US military base, in this case “US Fleet Activities Sasebo”. The Americans have certainly left their mark in good ways...but mostly bad, surprise, surprise.

Kudos to the American presence for spurring a more varied selection of international cuisines than many Japanese cities twice its size. There are three Indian joints, two Mexican, a Thai restaurant and a (very bad, but campy fun) NY pizza parlor! And, uh, that's about the extent of good things my countrymen have brought, for the other bits that have followed in their wake are obesity, an unreal level of prostitution, fear and suspicion from the locals, increased scrutiny from the local fuzz and, while we were there, a really really horrible abortion of a 9/11 memorial festival/celebration of the cowboy life called the “Heart and Soul of America”. Sitting at Starbucks sipping iced coffees, Maia and I were present when some yahoo promoters in cowboy getup and Indian outfits tried to whip up interest by cracking whips and lassoing concrete posts, only to be halted by the cops about, oh, fifteen seconds after the first “yee haw”.

Then the Mormon missionaries started rapping with the Indian about Jesus. Classic.

The obesity in Sasebo is noticeably higher than our corner of Japan for reasons that must be all too obvious by now. On the ground one can specifically quantify the phenomenon, what with the two Mister Donuts shops and two McDonalds within spitting distance of each other, plus the plethora of “Sasebo Burger” joints. I didn't get around to eating at one and am feeling it may have been for the best.

And then there was Billy Joe...


Monday, September 8, 2008

Tagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture: A Trip Down A Scummy Rabbit Hole

The Greek historian Diogenes Laertius tells us that Socrates once said "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance". My own ignorance recently stared back at me when I discovered a fourth train line running through (a small bit of) Oita Prefecture where I previously thought the Nippo, Kyudai and Hohi were the only three. Not surprisingly most Japanese folks I tell about this line also express ignorance of it, but that's a running theme around here. Yes, that was a bit of a dig at my townsfolk, many of who oftentimes don't know a place exists unless it comes announced by a glossy pamphlet or bikini-sporting TV announcer.

The line is called the Hita Hikosan Line and it runs from tiny, practically nonexistant Yoake Station on Hita's Fukuoka Prefectural border north for a few stops before leaving Oita through steep mountains and heading on to Kokura. To actually get to Kokura though, one has to transfer at Tagawa Station and that ended up being Maia and my limit as we explored this strange old mystery line. It's great to have a travel companion now to share the highs, and in this case lows, of exploring our fair Kyushu--kinda makes me feel like Dr. Who.

At what point do these signs get replaced? I guess it is technically still standing and not rusted through, but some kids are going to come along and have a lead paint smorgasbord on that thing.

The train to these parts comes only once every hour or so and meanders through some lovely valleys and mountain farming communities as it winds its way north. Just to the side of one station well into Fukuoka we spotted a michi no eki with what looked like a small amusement park at it. Sadly, an adventure for another day. As Tagawa approached the towns began to look progressively sketchier and sketchier--a portent of things to come. I think our realization of the questionable taste and sense of the folks in this part of Kyushu really came to a head when we passed a station bathroom with a tiled mural of Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop holding hands on what looked like a date. I wish one of us had been quicker on the draw with our cameras!

Stepping off the train in Tagawa we encountered the nicest stationmaster either of us had ever met then consulted the local attractions map in front of the exit posts. "Attractions" is a stretch of vocabulary, really. Concrete factory? Coal mine museum? An antique derrick of some kind? I guess the coal mine museum did pique our interests--I do owe Maia a canary (yes, a canary was the wager) as the loser of a bet concerning whether or not the next song on the radio would be another sea shanty, and where else could I find one of those but at a coal mine?--but the place was miles from the station and we were already wondering whether or not Tagawa could hold our attention for even the hour and a half it would take for the train home to come. In the end we decided to walk towards a part of town that translated to "Big Black Town". Big Black Town...

That Brother...what a jerk. Is he still mad at me for that thing with the marmot and the pants and the biting and the betting in Chinatown cellars? Get over it.

Well, Big Black Town delivered little more than street urchins with black hands from playing in mud all day, and they didn't live up the the "big" part as they were rather small. We got to a river and looked over at the concrete factory area or town that was just a skyline of esoteric smokestacks and piping reaching for the sky against the backdrop of the unforgivable blight of mountains sheared away to get at the...whatever the hell it is they use in concrete. I think it was that sight that finally broke us and we just wandered aimlessly through the streets just to kill time before our train back to Hita. One thing we noticed was the high percentage of households with kerosene cans in front of their houses. Naturally we came to the conclusion that the people of Tagawa, out of deep, deep boredom, conceal themselves in front of their houses and douse passerbys with kerosene and light them on fire for amusement and heat on cold Saturday nights. Luckily it was Sunday and warm.

Nobody's doing any gardening/landscaping anymore. Nobody cares.

Tagawa put things into perspective for the both of us--no matter how podunk we may ever think Kusu and Hita, are respectively, they will never be as boring as this utterly forgettable town.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ In Spoons

I'm continually surprised by what lies within an hour drive of my humble abode here in Kusu and how I seem to have overlooked this and that for so long. Case in point, two weeks ago when Maia and I randomly pointed CarTrain (yes, that's my car's official name...a story for another time) towards Nakatsu to see what we could find along Route 212. I've been up and down the road at least three times, but always going somewhere at one extreme end or another and never stopping at much more than a convenience store along the way.

The washed out sign on the pylon tells riders not to sit sidesaddle. Hear that, Maia, you rule breaker!

We stopped off at the town of Yabakei's michi no eki that was inexplicably called "Yapatopia" for a lunch of handmade soba noodles and continued on down that side road to the amazing Rakanji, a Buddhist temple I'd never heard of and that nobody in Kusu seems to have heard of either. Really, I raved about it the following week and everyone scratched their heads. Whatever, we found it and, and...proceeded to scratch our heads at the ski lift we were presented with. Apparently the temple was so far up the hill and nobody could be bothered to climb it so they built the lift. Excessive, but who was I to argue when it was pushing 90 outside. Getting off at the first of two lift stations we found a shack masquerading as a greasy spoon snack stop that we both agreed to be the single shadiest eatery or approximation of one in all Japan. If the cockroaches there didn't get you then the precarious cliff side perch would when that goes.

It's like a strict mom's heaven or a brat's worst nightmare. Our spoon is just off to the left of this shot. Next, the pagoda thing carved out of a grotto. Magnificent!

If one can resist the charms of that snack stop you'll find a gorgeous rock arch that acts as a sort of natural gateway to Rakanji itself, a temple carved into a cliff face overlooking the entire valley. Stunning hardly begins to describe it. There are thousands of carved Buddha statues of various shapes and sizes lying around everywhere, water cascading down the cliff at various places from some unknown source above and countless spoons hammered into anything made of wood. Yes, spoons. Neither of us could decipher the religious script to understand what the spoons were all about, but we bought one and left our own sage wisdom to the ages. No, you don't get to see what we wrote. Past that was a squat pagoda of sorts and some other temple structures, a vista point and a mountainside garden.

Yes, we both enjoy a good castle keep, but cats...we liked them more.

Since we'd paid for the ticket we rode the lift to the top of the mountain, but found nothing of note there and it had started to rain in a classic Japanese kitsune yomeiri ("Fox's Wedding") sudden summer shower, so we hightailed it out of there. Next stop: Nakatsu and hands down the best Indian restaurant in Oita Prefecture and possibly all of Kyushu. But before that we made a little stop over at Nakatsu Castle, a jewel of a keep that, while rebuilt and remodeled, is still nonetheless a sight to behold. Alas, the castle was no match for the rather large family of stray cats living just outside the gates also competing for our attention and we ended up spending most of the time feeding them and trying to catch them to take to our underground make-up testing...I mean, to cuddle and cherish. The Indian we had for dinner capped off a day I thought would be pretty humdrum, but turned out instead to be full of surprises. This prefecture's still got some tricks in her yet, no matter what the naysayers might mutter.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Neo-Cons, Meet Your Japanese Counterparts, But With More Crazy

Have I ever posted a picture of the main reason I love Kagoshima so much? What if you could wake to this out your window every morning?

Last Friday saw me return from yet another trip to Kagoshima, but this one being a mere overnight affair to help out my old friend Mayumi. And I did only help her out, just to get that straight since there's been a fair amount of speculation about what her relationship has been to me.

But back to the matter at hand, we met in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture on Thursday morning, at a point equidistant from each other's house and flung ourselves down the Kyushu Expressway at breakneck speeds, feeding on an eclectic mix of morbid conversation (by Japanese standards), prejudiced snack foods ("Men's Bikkle"!) and each other's off-center taste in music. She introduced me to Japanese funk, I blew her mind with French indie rock, international friendship rolled on like the wheels under our feet and we were in Kagoshima by 2PM.

Now, I thought I'd said pretty much everything there was to be said about Kagoshima before--big active volcano looming over the city, fairly good nightlife, fantastic weather and a chill J-hipster scene--and to be honest there was some debate going on as whether or not to even post about the trip. Kagoshima and her neighboring environs, however, surprised me yet again, but this time with bad to temper the good. All things in balance, eh?

Our first taste of Kagoshima was unfortunately bitter and reminded me that we are, in fact, in Japan and not some la-la-land where nothing can possiblay go wrong (sorry, Simpsons gag). It was the simple task of finding parking for the Sakurajima ferry that got my blood boiling and my hands clutching the steering wheel at 500 psi. You see, the Kagoshima Aquarium and ferry ports both share parking areas since they're adjacent and this day was a particularly busy day for both places what with Obon festivities happening, so after being shooed away and redirected to an annexed dirt lot the city attendant insisted was "free" we thought we'd hit parking pay dirt--that stuff's never free in Japan! We arrived at the lot to discover it was free...if you get a validation card that goes along with an aquarium ticket. "But we're taking the ferry," we said to the attendant, to which he responded "Oh, then you can't park here." "But the lots are linked. The guy over there told us and there's a sign that says `Ferry and Aquarium Parking`." The two attendants here were obviously befuddled by our argument and we went around and around for five minutes, even asking about an hourly rate among other proposed compromises before Mayumi acted the good little Japanese girl part and told them we'd go to the aquarium. To cave after our good-natured attempts at reason with two little weasel-men instead of just leaving and looking for other parking was staggering to me, and while I can say it's not something I'd allow to ruin a friendship it is a memory that won't fade away in the near future. Had I been behind the wheel those jackasses would be pelted in dust and gravel from our spinning tires and they'd be lucky if I didn't run down their fold-out chairs and water bottles. Fucking Japanese inflexibility. The aquarium ticket cost 2000 J-bucks. 2000 J-bucks for an hour-and-a-half of parking. Staggering.

But Sakurajima was stunning as always, the weather was gorgeous and we came back to do some work and get some beers and that all served to push the unpleasantness out of my head for awhile. When out late dinnertime finally came Mayumi insisted on any restaurant that specializes in Kagoshima's famous "kurobuta" cuisine. Kurobuta translates as "black pig" and is the local breed of pork grazing around these southern parts. At the exorbitant cost of at least 1200 J-bucks for a mere bowl of katsudon it's simply never been within my budget to partake. That and I didn't believe the hype in it. I was very, very wrong. Kurobuta is hands down the most amazing pork I've ever had and its heavenly texture and flavor will win over anyone who's not a practicing Jew or Muslim. Or vegan. Or PETA activist. But everyone else will be enthralled.

It's so good!

From there Mayumi and I hit some bars and I found out she's the quiet, introverted kind of drunk when she shut down almost entirely and stared into her glass or space while her face took on a shade I'd previously only associated with extreme sunburn victims. Our final stop for the night wasn't in the Tenmonkan entertainment district where one would expect to find Kagoshima's young and aimless, but instead several stops down the southern reach of the city's streetcar line, in a little neighborhood called Kishaba. I'd read an article or two about this place before embarking on our little trip and spending what remained of the night in Kishaba taught me that I really don't know jack about Kagoshima outside its city center. According to the locals, Kishaba is where undergrad intellectuals from Kagoshima University come to unwind after their exit essays on new management processes and thinking outside the box get trampled to bits by the Japanese Old Guard in favor of the old ways (no, nobody actually said that, but knowing Japan...). Unlike Tenmonkan, Miyako-machi, Nakasu and all the other "official" entertainment districts there are no glaring strip club signs, titty bar barkers or gaudy shot bars. In their place are either small, hyper-chill, dimly lit lounges and restaurants or well-lit, hole-in-the-wall, Mom and Pop homestyle cooking places. Some of them literally have mud n' straw walls and Hobbit doors to get inside. Any one of these places would make a fortune if they opened up shop in SF on Valencia St. or Hayes and Mayumi and I chose what I think was the king daddy of them all, a second-floor bar/restaurant with a glass facade that looked down over a dark intersection. We were full still, but the food at other tables looked so fantastic we had to order something and weren't disappointed at the shrimp platter or vegetarian stir fry. This place must mug every tenth customer or something to subsidize their food costs because the price was ridiculously low, just over 3000 J-bucks for four drinks and two dishes. Kishaba, I love you.

I can't run as fast or jump as high as all the college undergrad young'uns around me, but I can kick their butts in wistful glances out a bar window.

Friday brought on the weirdness in one big tidal wave that I'm still formulating a lot of "what if" scenarios about. More than Kagoshima City itself and all those charms, what Mayumi most wanted to see was the mountain town of Chiran that lies south of the city. This was convenient for me as it would offer me a long overdue look at nearby Ibusuki, another hotspot in the prefecture for hot springs after Kirishima. Entering Chiran one has many opportunities to see the tea plantations and intact samurai houses it's famous for, but before all that Mayumi wanted to take a peek at the peace park on the edge of town, the largest such park in Kyushu south of Nagasaki. Mayumi, the bubblehead, knew her mistake the instant we went through the gates.

Last Friday was August 15. Hmm...what happened August 15, 1945. Oh, that's right, VJ Day! And who in Japan loves to flood the peace parks on VJ Day and the Emperor's b-day but the "uyoku dantai"--right wing militant activists. There were too many to count, we were blown away. Mayumi's lived in Japan her whole life and I've been to Tokyo's war dead shrine, Yasukuni Jinja, and neither of us have ever seen so many in one place. Well, there's a method to that particular bit of madness. Chiran's peace park is a particularly special place for these nutjobs because it's built on what was the main Southern Kyushu air base for kamikaze pilots. They have four reconstructed kamikaze planes on exhibit an extremely in-depth museum. But back to merely entering the grounds, there were parades going on and everyone was garbed in some kind of paramilitary uniform that was either Mussolini olive drab, jackbooted thug black or simply old school fatigue pattern (none of that newfangled pixelized print stuff). I was spotted at some point and shit just STOPPED. Dead. And people stared with hate-filled little eyes at The Enemy sitting next to a fairly good looking Japanese woman and hopefully drawing all the wrong conclusions about us. The thought was making me very happy. Mayumi, for her part, was freaking the hell out. "Don't stop, don't laugh, don't look at them, don't take pictures, just go go go!" was essentially the tone of her message to me. I would have liked to follow her directions, but these guys were just too goofy. We had to stop. Inside the museum was another legion of the little bastards and their families. The walls are plastered with the pictures and names of every kamikaze pilot that ever lived and died, their letters and effects, all displayed in chronological order of death. As the war rolls on the pilots get younger and younger until they can't even bother putting the boys in military uniforms for photos and just shoot them in their high school attire. People were balling their eyes out left and right at the patriotic display. Surly and weaselly men followed me around, random dudes bumped into my shoulder purposefully and the older folks glared from their walkers.

From here the rest of the trip was almost entirely uneventful. The Ibusuki scenery was breathtaking and I met a cyclist on a brand new US$8000 DeRosa all-carbon frame that I wanted to get naked with instantly. The bike, not the cyclist, perv. We got back to my car in Aso around 10PM and parted ways with subdued hug, emailed each other as soon as we safely arrived home and I haven't heard from her since. Well, if for whatever twisted reason we never speak again I can say she left me with a lot of memories and a weak nicotine craving from secondhand smoke.