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.