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.