Fire Pun Goes Here

August 30, 2009

I’ve been exceedingly lucky during my life – getting into Northwestern despite an SAT score a mule could have recorded, meeting the people I did at NU, getting the opportunity to write this blog by ending up in Japan. But none of that compares to my greatest bit of good chance – I’m very fortunate to avoid fires.

I’ve been caught in floods, blizzards…geez, Chicago experienced its first earthquake in like 50 years while I lived there. Yet somehow I’ve dodged fire. This stands as a particularly amazing accomplishment given that the town I grew up in is only slightly less flammable than a rag soaked in gasoline, Tiny Acton, located in Los Angeles County but miles away from anything remotely resembling civilization, is best known as the shooting location for The Flintstones Movie, Reno 911 and that scene in Little Miss Sunshine where they drive by some rocks while Sufjan Steven’s “Chicago” inexplicably plays. It’s also a very dry place surrounded by brush just waiting to be engulfed in flames.

It has happened before…I just got lucky and found myself out of the area. Acton got national media attention back in 2004 due to a big wildfire, one that got to within four minutes of where my family lived…they were told to evacuate, but insanely stayed. I was safely in Chicago attending a summer program, keeping in touch with my family while showing all my new friends the news, hoping they would finally remember where I was from (“the place that’s burning”). This situation played out once again two years ago, though to a much less dangerous degree, while I was in England.

Well, my streak of good personal luck continues…Acton is currently facing down a massive fire and I’m sitting on the opposite side of the globe. It’s bad enough that Acton made the front of the Los Angeles Times website (never a good sign), though “treacherous fire” sounds a little less hopeless than “unstoppable blaze,” which was the prognosis before I went to sleep.

So, I might be lucky not to be caught in the middle of this…but I’m still freaking out. My family was told to evacuate yesterday (this one was mandatory, so they actually are away), which is a first. Friends on Facebook updated their status from “it’s raining ash here, how crazy” to “hope fire doesn’t get over the hill, my house is right next to it” to “evacuating Acton.”

I have never wanted to be back home more in a very long time. Japan’s great and safe (except Tokyo’s going to get hit by a typhoon) and all, but I’d feel a lot better if I could actually be around my family and friends. The time difference is an absolute nerve-wrecker during a situation like this – I found out about the evacuation right before I went to bed Sunday night and all the LA newspapers weren’t updating at that hour. Since the “old media” sort of completely failed me at that moment, I had to turn to (gulp) social media. Twitter results for “Acton” came up with useful tidbits like “being evacuated” or “fire approaching” to the more worrisome panicking of “KFI (shit radio station) said Acton will be wiped out” to a subway closing in London. So, more useful than a newspaper at 4 a.m. California time but not by a ton.

(I’ll also be honest and say I have a morbid interest in these type of things – I think it’s the journalist in me wanting to be at newsworthy events. Not the most noble thing, but hey, being truthful.)

In all honesty, I don’t think anything too horrible will happen, at least for my greedy self-interests. My family and friends are all safely out of town, and for the fire to reach where I live it would have to completely torch 60 percent of Acton. If Acton makes national news…well, then we’ll have a problem. Still, this is the first time I’ve felt completely hopeless about being away from home – at least Chicago is in the same continent as LA – and am seeing just how tricky distance can make things. I’ve tried to get it all off my mind – got up extra early to run and watch a baseball game, but hard to shake it from your thoughts.

Well, I guess work will distract me. If I can stop from looking at my iPhone every other minute…

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I’ve written about a lot of bizarre subjects during my life, but one thing seems consistent – I always end up writing about the terrible things I eat. Stupid? Yes. But hey, everyone loves food journalism, the only difference between that and what I do being I eat utter garbage. Japan offers many strange foods to consume, and that means all sorts of opportunities to write about eating it. Today marks the first entry in our new series “The Adventures of Fatrick,” my infrequent posts about eating food. First up…the Tamago Double Mac.

OK, for the record, I had a coupon for this and I probably wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. But it was a pretty decent deal…saved 60 yen, not too shabby, that’s a pack of gum right there! Plus, it gave me an excuse to eat the first item in the “Nippon All Stars” menu a.k.a. “An American Corporation’s Take on Japanese Cuisine.”

A quick Goggle search reveals tamago is a type of egg that goes well with sushi. “The only problem is that the tamago is so good that once you try some, there might not be any left to make sushi with!” I’m sure it is, but the Tamago Double Mac won’t be my gateway into this treat, as McDonald’s decided to just use an Egg McMuffin patty-thing instead. Very exotic. Otherwise, the burger boasts two patties (which appeared to be seasoned specially), some bacon, cheese and a sauce I’ve never seen before in my life. Fingers crossed for my already doomed arteries.

A quick disclaimer – I don’t like eggs at all. This usually draws some strange looks around the breakfast table, but I just can’t get into the stuff. You think this would deter me from the Tamago Double Mac, but keep in mind this is McDonald’s, so the egg on this burger is as authentically an egg as much as the coin-operated rocket rides outside supermarkets represents the NASA program.

So, how is it?

Should be deported for writing more than 600 words about this

Should be deported for writing more than 600 words about this

Surprisingly, not bad. You can barely taste the egg because, well, it’s McDonald’s. The only reason the creepy McEgg is even on here seems to be to make the whole burger a little bigger. The real shock about the Tamago Double Mac is how tasty the sauce makes this thing – it is really zesty and gives the food item a real, unique taste. This stands as a massive departure from all other items on the McDonald’s menu which can best be described as “tasting vaguely meat-like.” I clearly don’t have any sort of taste, so when I say “this is kinda good” take it with huge caution as it’s coming from someone who thinks a box of Cheez Its and a Coke Zero is fancy living.

So a good McDonald’s item (the lukewarmest of praise), but not remotely representative of Japanese culture and more of American capitalism trying to make a buck. Shocking, McDonald’s isn’t the United Nations. This item leaves the Golden Arches menu this Wednesday to make room for a new Nippon All Star, a true blessing because it’s one of those horrible foodstuffs I know I should eat only once but could easily be swayed into ordering again if I had just enough change in my pocket and I was feeling lazy and I was conveniently near a McDonald’s franchise. Oh, hey, the McDonald’s is right near where I work, morbid obesity here I come!

In order to offer more evidence of the Tamago Double Mac’s existence while also trying to prove I’m not alone in the pathetic, pathetic pursuit of documenting what I eat at American fast-food chains, here is a short video of someone eating the Double Mac and an item I’ll never touch, the Fillet of Shrimp. Shrimp is almost as overrated as eggs in my world.

(Finally, you all should read Seoulful Adventures, a blog started up by my friends Andre and Anna who are teaching English in South Korea. They plan on blogging about food in South Korea, and I’m sure they’ll eat much more interesting things than a glorified double cheeseburger. Check ’em out!)

Nabari Belongs To Me

August 28, 2009

Nabari

Nabari

Nabari strikes me as one of those pleasant places you try your best to get away from. I could specifically see growing up here and wanting to bust out. It resembles a decent-sized city in the Midwest, the type someone moves to in order to raise a family away from the buzz of a big city. A setting perfect for prompting a kid to want to break out and go somewhere more vibrant. That’s Nabari.

Nabari

Nabari

This became clear even before I flew over to Japan. When asked what the selling points of Nabari are, most people praise the proximity to Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. An excellent point…but nobody mentions any highlights in the actual city. That’s because Nabari isn’t an action-packed city…it’s very serviceable.

Nabari

Nabari

The twist, though, is that I’m not a rebellious teenager looking to get away from anything. College life left me burnt out, so Nabari’s peacefulness is right up my alley at the moment. I can easily get out if I feel a jonesin’ for big city life, and the rest of the time I can relax in a very nice, very pretty city. They’ve got a bowling alley, a batting cage and an arcade…what else do I need?

My apartment complex

My apartment complex

The local arcade I haven't been too

The local arcade I haven't been too

I’m underselling this place drastically. As hinted at, it’s gorgeous…I compared it to a Midwestern town, but it really resembles North Carolina. Mountains surround the town, and said mountains contain nothing but trees. We’re apparently surrounded by the “blue-green” mountains, which only help strengthen the Southern comparison because it always reminds me of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Which always reminds me of Fleet Foxes, but that’s unrelated.

Mountains

Mountains

Plus, there are all sorts of odd quirks just waiting to be discovered. Photo time!

Manhole cover, with Nabari mascot on it

Manhole cover, with Nabari mascot on it

Cat on see-saw statue

Cat on see-saw statue

Dog sure is happy to be holding his own waste

Dog sure is happy to be holding his own waste

Hells yeah

Hells yeah

All new teacher in the Nabari area went on a bus tour of historic city sites recently, to help us know the city better. Within ten minutes, the city doubled in size for me…the bus drove into a part of town I had no idea existed, offering all sorts of discoveries (look, a hardware store! A third McDonald’s! “Sports Depo!” There spelling, not mine) Soon the buildings went away and the bus entered the rural part of town. Only a few scattered clusters of houses and a pachinko parlor popped up – otherwise, it was just various shades of green colliding with one another.

Bet these are starting to blur together

Bet these are starting to blur together

We spent most of the day visiting collections of buildings that resembled a back lot at Universal Studios. Everything was set up to indicate people lived in them, but I couldn’t see a soul around. There was a dog just hanging out on a deck, wagging his tongue at us visitors with mild interest. But besides that little guy, not much activity.

Not visible: vending machine with Pepsi Twist

Not visible: vending machine with Pepsi Twist

We did visit a special school out in this area catering towards kids who are part of a group of Japanese people who are discriminated against by, uh, other Japanese people. I’m a bit sketchy on the details, but my de facto translator said they were treated differently because of the area they are from.

Said school

Said school

The school emphasizes (again, this is all via translator) lessons on discrimination, using very adorable props pictured below. They also have lots of student drawings posted in the halls, 60 percent of which seemed to be of marshmallow-look-a-like Kirby. Nintendo character aside, this served as an interesting opportunity for an outside like myself to get a small glimpse of a very Japanese problem.

Social problems in Japan are still cute

Social problems in Japan are still cute

The day ended with a small walk into the Nabari wilderness. The amount of mosquito tripled while the cicadas buzz grew louder the as we walked into the forest. The tour that exposed so much more of this place to me ended in a good place, a tranquil place.

Some type of Japanese theater was invented here

Some type of Japanese theater was invented here

Lot of leaves

Lot of leaves

Nabari isn’t the most exciting place I’ve ever lived. They have six supermarkets but no movie theater. It’s very humid. And the biggest positive is, yeah, being very close to three of the biggest cities in Japan. Yet I couldn’t think of anyplace I’d rather be at the moment.

(Japanese Fun Fact #11: The Japanese are very considerate drivers. They don’t honk their horns when they want to rip your face off – they do it to thank another driver for being aware of them. They also never seem to speed – heck, the ambulances here never break the law [obviously, this is a slightly disturbing realization]. And I haven’t witnessed any driving abominations yet, aside from a “Child On Board” sign. So, what I’m trying to say, everyone here drives better than everyone in the Chicagoland area, who truly suck.)

Only two types of people come to my apartment – delivery people and salesfolk. I’ve had a good number of boxes come from America, so that makes sense. As for the people selling things – well, one time a lady and her daughter came to my door selling tickets to some sort of festival, and I think it supported a school or something so I bought one (still sitting on my fridge, I’m pretty positive the event already happened). The other time, a man from NHK (Japan’s BBC, if you will) came and I had no idea what he wanted. I had to call another ALT to try to figure out if he was installing something or hawking something, but the guy realized I was hopeless and left. Strange times.

When I heard my doorbell today I assumed it was the mail. I’m expecting a package from home containing the most vital of items – Chex Mix – so I dashed over to answer it.

To my surprise, I was greeted by two Americans. My excitement quickly dissolved when I noticed they were wearing white button-up shirts tucked into black slacks and holding little books.

Mormons.

Instead of thinking up a convenient excuse right away and bolting my door shut, though, I talked to them. The chance to have a real English chat with someone excited me, even if said people were trying to convert me to Mormonism. We started with small talk – “how are you” and “where are you from,” so forth. Except I was more than happy to tell them my biography.

They did a great impression of listening and laughed at various things (oh, laughter not associated with me knowing no Japanese, how I missed you!). It eventually dawned on me they were just waiting for the right moment to go into the religious stuff…or for me to invite them inside. Which, as much as I liked having surprise Americans to talk to, was not happening. I told them I was just on my way out to run some errands – which, shockingly, was true. I ran to the local ampm to get something to eat, primarily strawberry Pocky. Man, that stuff is good.

Before I fled, though, I did do something I haven’t done in a bit – pretend to be a journalist. I actually asked them about there life in Japan, and got enough info to probably write, like, four Twitter updates. The most interesting tidbit came when they told me talking to English people had become slightly more difficult than chatting with the Japanese – they’ve gotten the Japanese speech down so well that talking to someone like me sort of throws them off. Huh.

The lesson here – I’m going to learn to look through the little key hole on my door before I just fling it open.

The face that will tear Japan apart

The face that will tear Japan apart

Oh, the simple wonders of not having an Internet connection. I’ve been to McDonald’s way too many times since coming to Japan and I watch a lot of TV, so I’ve seen the face at the top of this post tons of time. He struck me as a kinda-goofy lookin’ dude hawking the chain’s “Nippon All-Stars” menu. I figured he was some sort of comedian. Whatever he was, he wasn’t convincing me to order a “double mac” with an entire McMuffin egg on it anytime soon.

Now that I’ve finally been blessed with the Internet (oh thank heaven!), I’ve since discovered said nerdy dude isn’t a Japanese comedian but actually an American. He’s named “Mr. James” and he’s currently at the center of a mini-controversy.

Mr. James is a foreigner who apparently speaks very bad Japanese (I thought he sounded really good, and would give a small toe to sound as “annoying” as he does) and just loves Japan, so much he makes it a priority to eat at McDonald’s. He keeps a blog (ohhhh, viral marketing) where he posts pictures of him going to places all over the country. He also looks like a dweeb (ha! glasses! How lame!).

Foreigners in Japan are none-to-pleased with such a geeky representation of them. They’ve drafted up a complaint letter and launched the “I Hate Mr. ジェームス(Mr. James)” Facebook group (90 members, which explains the mininess of this controversy). The charges: Mr. James speaks bad Japanese, and this implies Caucasian people can’t speak Japanese; that he promotes “the stereotype that foreigners must be called by their first names only” (because nobody in the Western world has the last name James, especially not the biggest basketball star on Earth), and because he’s a nerd. Those darn glasses!!!! Watch Mr. James try to say Japanese phrases for two minutes.

Besides the obvious offense to comedy for drilling a joke way past it’s expiration point, I don’t see anything particularly offensive about Mr. James. But that’s just me – if you see something about it that offends you, it offends you, and you obviously have all rights to say something about it. And hey, I’ve been in Japan only about a month (aside: whoa) so I probably am too inexperienced to know if this actually is some weird discrimination stuff going on. Still, I watch these ads and…they just don’t seem that bad for the reaction they’re getting.

OK, so the dude can’t speak great Japanese and can’t dress himself. But he still seems so tame – hasn’t the stereotype on Americans for the past eight years been we are all a bunch of fat, loud, arrogant, Bible-thumpers who are total asses when we go to other countries? Mr. James practices Japanese at home and sees a burger in the sky. I’d call that progress (just what white people need!).

I definitely wouldn’t call it something I’d actively demonstrate against, as some people on these message boards suggest. And some of the comparisons, geez. The complaint letter compares this to the “ching-chong Chinaman” (more on that in a sec), while an earlier draft said Mr. James could be compared go a blackface actor. An especially audacious claim given Japan still slips into Minstrel Show mode, and that junk is a billion times more disturbing than khaki-pants bro here. One commenter on the complaint letter page actually brings Rosa Parks into the discussion – even I can safely say modern-day Japan is far from being nearly as terrifying as the ’60s in the South.

Wake up white people!

Wake up white people!

The counter opinion comes best summarized via Disgrasian. Besides the “karma’s one wacky bitch” line that nearly derailed the whole article for me (this post on their blog outlines what they meant in a much better, less asshole-ish way), this Huffington Post piece raises two very valid points. First, the “ching-chong Chinaman” characterization can definitely be spotted way-too often in American advertising (peep the links in that article, yikes) and I feel those are a lot more backwards than whatever is up with Mr. James.

Second, and the thought I had when I discovered there was any sort of uproar about this: the Japanese love foreign people. OK, they love looking at foreign people, and those people tend to be celebrities. But still…you see them everywhere and they are far from made fun of. Brad Pitt has a new commercial (soundtracked by fellow white people Department of Eagles) and I constantly see Beyonce dancing around to promote Crystal Geyser. Richard Gere stars in one film here (with a cute dog!) and he never looks like a doofus. Heck, they don’t even have to be famous – a bunch of businesses in Nabari have picture of white folks plastered over the outside. Unless the owners are just lazy Google Image Searchers, I think this is intentional.

Maybe they sell white families?

Maybe they sell white families?

And I’m not even going to try to dissect the trend that people who have lived in Japan longer than I have told me about, where people want to be lighter and thus carry umbrellas and wear armbands to keep the sun off them. A bet there is a good term paper somewhere in there.

Anyway…Mr. James might be a dweeb, but he also is very (sorry) vanilla and a rare example of a goofy foreigner in a place where all the models at the local clothes store are foreign and pretty.

The real issue here – who would eat that burger????? Actually, compared to the new Double Down Chicken sandwich in America, this looks like a Jenny Craig dinner…

I finally made it out to a summer festival, this one in Iga, a city super close to Nabari. It’s also the birthplace of the ninja, which explains why they have not-so-intimidating ninja dudes all over their trains.

I don't think you can be a very good ninja when you're as big as a house

I don't think you can be a very good ninja when you're as big as a house

You don’t get very far into the festival before coming across a bunch of people crowded around the street where various local groups wearing neat-o get-ups perform dances and songs. Very entertaining, and usually you got to see a bunch of little kids trying their darndest to dance and/or wave a flag around.

Uncle Sam spotted!

Uncle Sam spotted!

Raise the roof?

Raise the roof?

The highlight performance, though, came courtesy of a bunch of adults dressed as cars. I feel all modern dance should aim to duplicate what these folks did.

They had a “race,” which mostly consisted of them running around in circles and occasionally bumping into one another. All set to music using the words “car” or “race.” It was cute.

Note the little arms at the steering wheel

Note the little arms at the steering wheel

Then they went and upped it a grade. Out came the Koopa shells and stuffed banana peels. The show went from a race into full-blown Mario Kart chaos. The inner kid in me geeked out bit when they started chucking the stuffed shells at one another.

Would pay stupid amounts of money for that prop

Would pay stupid amounts of money for that prop

Yessssssssss

Yessssssssss

Sheer awesomeness. Past the performances, the festival is mostly just two endless columns of booths. Half of them offer up fair food – unlike the American incarnation of the fair, the Japanese don’t go for the “whoa, I didn’t know you could deep fry that, gross!” factor and instead just offer up seemingly every variation of meat known to man. You got your fried chicken on a stick, your steak on a stick, your giant sausage on a stick, your entire fish on a stick, your pita filled with whatever happens to be on the grill covered in mayo. The list goes on and on. And it’s all cheap! Dangerous times. Plus, the Japanese custom of “don’t eat while walking” gets chucked out the window, so you can trot down the street AND scarf down donut-things shaped like Pickachu at the same time.

So greasy, so goooooood

So greasy, so goooooood

They also sold octopus balls. Blaggggggh.

Really just wanted an excuse to post a pic of this little guy

Really just wanted an excuse to post a pic of this little guy

The other half of booths sold various items, ranging from Hello Kitty balloons to purses to, uh, air rifles. You could even pick up an armored beetle to keep as a pet. Or, if it’s more up your alley, some Grateful Dead apparel.

Since Animal Collective likes them, I guess I have to?

Since Animal Collective likes them, I guess I have to?

The night ended with a trip up to Iga Castle. See, I can write a post that’s under a trillion words and not full of melodrama!

This looks kinda cool but that's really just my bad photo-taking abilities

This looks kinda cool but that's really just my bad photo-taking abilities

(Japanese Fun Fact #10: Drugs are a huge no-no in this country. Find anything on you, and us foreign types are promptly deported. The big news story right now is that some J-Pop singer got busted doing some drug [they won’t even name it!] and her life is over now, according to the news. So, for a country super antsy about it, the Japanese sure love wearing shirts with weed on them. Marijuana leaves appear on everything from t-shirts to hats. I saw an eight-year-old boy wearing shorts covered in the dankest herb. One guy just had a tee on that said “ganja” on it. I assume they just don’t know what’s going on in regards to what appears on their clothes. Though I have to admit, the Rasta Mickey shirt on sale at the festival looked pretty cool.)

(This is long)

Kintetsu Line train ticket from Nabari to Osaka

I Heart My

I Heart My

The massive Osaka Namba train station cleverly dumps visitors right into the heart of Osaka, a trick that leaves one feeling like a seven-year-old who went to bed and woke up the next morning in the middle of Disneyland, your first time there. You don’t get a chance to set expectations, and everything sort of blindsides you at once.

The main part of Osaka (or, maybe more accurately, the main tourist part) looks like Times Square gone hyper. Video boards and stores and signs and throngs of people and the color, so much color! A lot of the streets and shops are housed under a canopy-like thing reminiscent of the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. The ones in Osaka are a lot more narrow and don’t show an animated disco dancer groovin’ to the Bee-Gees above you, but the same “I’m outdoors but I’m kind of not” exists.

Inside...or outside???

Inside...or outside???

As I’m prone to do, I tried to find a comparable city for Osaka. And came up empty. I could pick up little details that seemed familiar – the sheer size of a New York/Tokyo, the flashiness of Las Vegas, the late-starting lifestyle of Paris – but none gelled together into a complete comparison.

Man, what is that one girl looking at?

Man, what is that one girl looking at?

The place that comes closest is, conveniently, its American sister city – Chicago. And that’s really only because the main street in Osaka is a deadringer for Michigan Avenue: trees covering the sidewalks, lots of major-chain storefronts, dudes just selling apple juice out of a van (uhhhh, I guess that doesn’t really happen on Michigan Avenue, still cool). Plus, there was an Apple store.

Still, all the small similarities aside, Osaka really seems to be in a category all it’s own. Or maybe I’m not as well traveled as I think I am and it’s just totally biting Atlanta’s style.

300 yen discount card from Mexican restaurant Brody

Two other JETs in Nabari gave me a can of refried beans for my birthday. “Trust us, you’re going to want this.” Being not much of a bean lover, I went home, put the can among the jumble of other foodstuffs scattered about my kitchen and thought “these are just beans.” Less than a month later, I now view this small gift as a sort of holy figure, visualizing the cold day in December when I finally prepare them because Japan has next to no Mexican food, and I find myself jonesin for a quesadilla way too often here.

The Japanese take stabs at all sorts of foreign food. Italian eateries pop up all the time offering up crude variations on “lasagna” and “pizza” (my favorite Italian place in Nabari is simply called Pasta, leaving absolutely nothing about it’s menu to the imagination). Nabari even has an Indian restaurant where they have a viewing area to watch the authentic Indian chef working (“guys you know our food is good, we have an Indian making the Non! Here, stare at him!”). But Mexican food…not nearly as prevalent. They can’t even spring for a Taco Bell!

There exists hope, however, besides my can of beans. Osaka houses several Mexican restaurants, and one of the key motivations for this trip into the city was the promise of burritos. One question weighed heavy on my mind as the train rushed towards Osaka – how do the Japanese approach Mexican food, when they put corn on their pizza?

The answer would come at Brody, a small Mexican-themed bar across the street from a 7-11 somewhere in the labyrinth of alleys making up Osaka. Brody (not possessive, just Brody) doesn’t stand out – if it weren’t for the collection of fake cactus and convenient sign next to the door it would be very easy to confuse the entrance for a roof access. Go down the stairs past walls decorated with wrestling masks and you end up in the bar, not a warehouse out of Resevoir Dogs as I had originally feared walking down the dimly lit area.

Brody probably can't go within 100 feet of a playground

Brody probably can't go within 100 feet of a playground

The main area continues with the wrestling-heavy theme first seen going down the stairs – masks all over the wall, along with an assortment of other knick-knacks one could call “Mexican” if there entire history of the Mexican state came from a Speedy Gonzales cartoon. Sombreros and cactus and a Tecate poster. The music played seemed pretty true to the theme at first (stuff sung in Spanish, Johnny Cash) but eventually the people manning the soundboard got tired of consistency and just played Joy Division. Very uplifting dinner tunes.

Brody only had two employees present that night, two Japanese folks. This meant I’d be getting the true Japanese experience, no imported Mexican chef to trot out and have us gawk at. This meal would be Mexican food prepared by Japanese people.

The menu seemed extremely promising – minus the offering of “nacos” – with all sorts of honest-to-God Mexican food. Words I haven’t seen in a month suddenly entered back into my life – chorizo, enchilada, carne asada! Like meeting up with an old friend who also is great to eat. I ordered the two-taco plate and a margerita, along with an order of “nacos” for the table.

The Japanese-Mexican-food experience got off to a good start with the drink (nailed it!), but the true first test came with the nachos. They looked like nachos and didn’t appear to be glazed with mayo (a very real threat anywhere here). And they tasted good! Just like nachos you would order as an appeteizer at a non-Mexican restaurant (lookin’ at you Chilis).

Next came the tacos. They were very tasty – oh cilantro, how I missed you! – and seemed pretty true to what I’ve eaten in the past. They were, however, on the very lean side. Maybe I’m just being a fat American here, but they didn’t put much meat inside the tortilla and said tortilla seemed super small. Great taste, not filling. On the taco authenticity scale I just made up, I’d put Brody tacos ahead of Chipotle but a little below the much-more-filling-and-cheaper Jack In The Box offering. A good showing, Japan.

As mentioned though, the tacos didn’t come close to filling me up. So, joining in with everyone else at the table who also craved more, I ordered a quesadilla. I asked for beef in it, but it came meat-less. A ticky-tack thing as cheese, another item not readily available in this country (why Japan, why????), was delicious enough. This second meal brought me much closer to being satisfied – at least for like 45 minutes.

I hate blogs that are nothing but pictures of food.

I hate blogs that are nothing but pictures of food.

Final verdict on Mexican food in Japan – it was good, and I wish more Japanese people would take a gamble and learn to prepare a tostada so they could open more Mexican restaurants. Or at least get a Jack In The Box over here.

All the money I saved not buying stuff at Japanese department stores


Japan sure sells a lot of wacky crap! Here are some photos with obligatory commentary.

Change we can frighten children with

Change we can frighten children with

Why does Mr. Obama look so angry???

So Many Totoros

So Many Totoros

Japan loves them some Totoro. Not pictured – sea of Ponyo merch and all the DBZ action figures you could dream of.

Still better than anything on Threadless

Still better than anything on Threadless

This shirt features the Pan-America airlines logo along with what appears to be the Wikipedia entry for said airlines. Who wants to wear a Wiki page on them? The Japanese, actually.

"Got a dark skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson/ got a light skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson"

No words, now, onto my favorite item…

Turns out <em>Up</em> was just predicting the future

Turns out Up was just predicting the future

Bowlingual Voice! This device seems to translate your dog’s barks into sentences, and tells you how they are feeling. Unfortunately, all the translations come out in Japanese so I’ll never know how my dog really feels when she chases after a chew toy.

A Balabushka business card

I do not recall the specific reasons responsible for me entering into a beer pong tournament at a bar called Balabushka. I remember the group going into the bar half full of foreigners and half full of native folk, realizing they were having a beer pong tournament with a $300 prize that night only and being somehow swayed into participating. I blame destiny. Or, I actually blame the fact said drinking game tournament served as a convenient excuse to miss the last train back home, thus forcing us to spend the entire night roaming the streets of Osaka. Thanks beer pong.

The 12-or-so groups consisted of two types of people – Japanese people who had never seen this “beer pong” (it just doesn’t exist here) before and Bros. I’m aware the idea of the “Bro” has been completely mined by the media and has just become an ironic attitude, but I think all the real Bros relocated to Japan. These guys fit all the classic requirements – backwards baseball hat, those weird shorts and sandals, and of course the goldmine of saying “bro” every other sentence without even a drop of irony. It looks like the Peace Corps, the Bros of America deployed to a far-off land to teach the natives the basics of beer pong, which they did extensively before the tournament started with cups full of water and recitations of the rules.

(There was also a scattering of American girls, either with Bros or as an independent gaggle. They were all extremely good looking and very talented at beer pong. One even looked near-identical to a girl I recently had a crush on, so there were a couple of minutes of “awwwww shucks”-ness, but then beer pong mania gripped me like a mugger. If you thing the melancholy ends here, watch out for the next adventure!)

The rules for this particular tournament featured some interesting twists I feel the need to point out. I’m not saying these caused my team to exit when it did, but I think they sped it up. For sanitary reasons, players threw the ping pong ball into cups of water and the beer was lined up along the edge of the table. All fine and dandy…except the cup the ball landed on wasn’t the one removed from the table. The official (yes there was a beer pong referee, these things are important) just took a cup from the back and worked up. As any seasoned ponger can tell you, this removes an element of strategy from the game. The other major change…bounced balls counted. You couldn’t swat them away like you could in the good ol’ USA (where folks know there beer pong).

And yes, I did just spend a paragraph semi-venting about the sanctity of beer pong. Judge me accordingly.

God bless globilization

God bless globilization

Our team went second. Our first round opponents – a Japanese guy and girl who had not only never played beer pong before, but very possibly may have been unfamiliar with the concept of throwing something into something else. They weren’t good at all. I’m talking some serious North Carolina-Montana State stuff here. BUT because of the bounce rule, they were able to get a lot of lucky “shots” in. The game became way tighter than it had any right to be.
We still won though, well before the 15-minute limit finished up. I had a decent showing (I think four shots made? I’ll check the stat sheet later) and hit the last target. We were on to the next round to face…

The Broiest Bros I may have ever layed my eyes on. Time…for the Brodown.

Ehhhh, OK that line is max hyperbole, I’ve seen way bigger morons at Northwestern. But these guys seemed above-average Bro. Wife beaters and backwards baseball caps and I think one of them quoted Family Guy (oh the humainty!) There beer pong skills, though, shined brightest.

Now, I’m no beer pong fanatic – I played every once-in-awhile in college and wasn’t an all-star (I at least never got selected for the team, which I’m just assuming exists somewhere in the world), but I could hold my own. I even have a highlight that would probably finish three or four on a hypothetical Sportscenter “Top Plays” where beer bong is considered a sport (hey, if poker can do it!). I nailed the “save cup” (excuse my mastery of technical terms) with an arcing shot that would make Robert Horry proud and gave my team new life. Except everyone decided they didn’t want to play anymore so we went to Burger King instead. What I’m trying to get across here is that I’m not a great beer ponger but I’m also not that bad. Also, most of my nights end in fast food trips.

But these dudes…these dudes were the Cassius Clay of throwing ping pong balls into cups. My side started out hot (me in particular) but cooled down fast. The guys on the other end of the table…on more or less the whole time. They didn’t even get lucky by bouncing it…they threw the ball every time, and made that little white ball look like a smart bomb. We wittled them down to four cups, but they drilled our last cup and our run was over.

Also, even with all the “Bros” being thrown around here, I have to come clean and say these two guys who vanquished us were actually incredibly nice and cool. Maybe (PSA incoming) we can’t just judge people by how they talk or what terrible clothes they wear. Or, more realistically, I’m high on them because they were both Angels fans, and finding Angels fans in Chicago is hard enough, imagine Japan. They could have been choking people out and I’d be next to them going “man, Aybar has really turned it on this year!”

Our names scratched from the crude bracket the owner drew up, we ventured out into the night, with six hours to kill before the first train pulled into the station.

A punch-card from Capsule Hotel Asahiplaza Shinsaibashi. Three visits nets you a free breakfast!

There is no worse place to be by yourself when you’re feeling all confused than in a room the size of a fancy coffin. Yet there I was, crammed into a capsule at four a.m., my mind buzzing like mind but my body ready to curl up into a ball.

For those who didn’t spend prolonged periods of summer break watching Travel Channel shows about Japan (hey, it was high school), a capsule hotel is a Japanese establishment similar to a hotel, except instead of rooms you get your own hole in the wall, dubbed a capsule (not much different than what most vending machine toys come in). You go in, slip your shoes off into a locker, pay for your very own temporary crawlspace and then go off into the building to find said space amonst the rows and rows of other capsules. The feeling of walking by a bunch of mini-beds similar to a human test tube was unsettling enough, but that multiplied ten-fold when a friend told me you can drop some Yen into the TV and get 10 minutes of porn on the in-capsule television. Not knowing what the hell happens inside those things as you walk by is…creepy.

I crawled into my capsule wearing the clothes I’d worn all day (I passed on buying a pair of hotel pajamas, though the next morning I realized I might have literally been the only person not to spend the extra dollar on brown PJs) and collapsed onto my pillow. I didn’t realize the hotel provided a blanket underneath the pillow – I had too many other thoughts on my mind to investigate my tomb.

The prior four hours post beer pong bouncing were mostly spent at a bar doubling as some guy’s living room. Very small place and kind of weird, but the dude gave us free cheese so I’m not complaining. The rest of the details aren’t blurry as much as they are hazy – I distinctly remember, but I’m all for having it covered up.

The twist is, as depressing as that sounds, what happened (which, if you haven’t picked up on, I’m going to leave a mystery. Get sleuthin’) would be construed by most people as a positive. Nothing too serious at all. Hell, I feel a little bit more confident about me than I was the day before, and here I am moping. But here’s the thing – told via simile introduced earlier what – it’s a feeling like that dinner at the Japanese Mexican restaurant: satisfies right away but quickly goes away and you’re left wanting something a little more substantial. Like a Chipotle burrito.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. It’s more like – if you’ve figured out what’s going on, prepare to get a glance into how lame I am – the third or fourth time, depending on your view of Truth or Dare dares. And each of those times, I felt the exact same confusion. Confidence turns to emptiness
pretty quickly around these parts. But I’m human, and it’s way too easy to not think about future thoughts when your caught up in the present.

So, sprawled out inside that capsule, I’m replaying the night over and over again while also pondering what things (or, what people I’d just like to hang out with for like an afternoon) I’d trade the so-called highlights of my night for. My first night in Osaka, though, was amazing overall (definitely my best night in Japan thus far), I just think too much. Especially inside a tiny hotel room.

Thankfully, my physical being only worries about the total lack of sleep, so I pass out soon after. The next morning, I wake up and head to the cafeteria. You can buy breakfast via a vending machine there – you pick what dish you want (toast and an egg, traditional Japanese breakfast, what appears to be an omlette) and the machine dispenses a ticket. You present that to a cook guy, who then makes it for you.

I bypass any human interaction and just buy a water. I sit down amongst a bunch of Japanese people wearing brown pajamas. It’s much more comforting to be surrounded by strangers than cooped up in a capsule. Even if I have no idea what these folks were up to in their room last night.

(If you made it through all that drivel, here is a bonus Aflac ad from Japan featuring dancing animals.)

The Way They See It

August 24, 2009

Since I’m frequently wrapped up in my own observations of all the places and people around me, I often forget to consider a very important question – “what do all these folks think about me?” Based on the stray glances I catch on a daily basis, I already know the answer – they think I’m interesting.

If “interesting” sounds too negative or too boastful, you got the wrong idea. There are a total of seven foreigners in Nabari. Compared to somewhere like Nagoya, where I saw dozens of American and Brazilian people in the train station alone, that’s a tiny number. Heck, Nagoya boasts an authentic Mexican restaurant, while trying to find refried beans in this city is as pointless as a Yeti hunt. Outside of city hall, people in Nabari don’t see foreigners very often, so when they see me on a daily basis, I’m “interesting.” Really, “different” would be the optimal word here – except that carries a lot of negative connotations. The people here couldn’t be nicer about it.

Being stared at doesn’t sound like the most welcoming gesture, but it isn’t so bad. I mean, wouldn’t you stared if you saw something strange jog by your favorite arcade every day? And it isn’t like they are firing bullets at me with their eyes, mostly just a quick glance that might linger a few seconds long. This happens a lot on the train and at McDonalds, where all the junior high students seem to hang out. You catch them peeking at you a lot from the next booth over between bites of your Big Mac. Maybe they just want to see what an American orders at Mickey D’s.

The most interesting interactions happen at the cash register. At first, I felt absolute terror buying a soda or ordering dinner to the point where I lived off the puny amount of American snack food I brought from America (mmmm, nothing like Chex Mix for dinner!). I know three phrases in Japanese: how to say “hello,” how to say “thank you very much” and how to say “goodbye” for extended periods of time. I can bookend the cashier experience with two of those phrases (I think “sayonara” might be a bit too dramatic for the lady at Circle K), but everything in-between is a total crap shoot.

Thankfully, I’ve toughened up a bit (and ran out of Goldfish crackers) so I’ve turned store runs into little comedy routines. After the usual “konichiwa,” I slide whatever items I want towards the salesperson. They scan them, and then start speaking a bunch of Japanese words I have never heard before. I make a confused face that breaks through all language barriers (BARRRROOO?) and we share a laugh at how ridiculous the situation is. I then pull out money and give it to them, as I’m fully aware most problems go away if you throw money at them. I get my stuff and leave. Smiles all around!

Sometimes, though, the situation doesn’t follow the script – sometimes, the cashiers want to speak English. I don’t have to administer an exam or anything, but they like to throw out a few words for fun. “Hello” and “how are you doing” and “thank you very much!” At McDonalds (as you can see, this fast-food establishment plays a large role in my life regardless of the city/state/continent I am in), they seem especially enthusiastic. They don’t just like giving the basic stuff a whirl, but they also enjoy going over my order – in English. Most places, I just point at the picture, the waiter goes off and whatever I jutted my finger at ends up in front of me. At McDonalds, I point to an item and the cashier goes over everything. “Big Mac?” “Fries?” “Coke?” Nothing connects people like the corporate goods we buy.

(In case this all looks a little too rosy, not everyone in Japan is as enthusiastic about us foreign types. On the train back from the beach, two friends from Nabari were a few rows ahead of me having a conversation about apartheid [uhhhhh, don’t ask]. For most of the hour-and-a-half journey, no problems. But with 15 minutes left before we hit our station, the guy sitting across the aisle from them who had been reading his book quietly the whole way, just snapped and yelled “STOP TALKING SO LOUDLY.” I mean, shouldn’t he have said something a little sooner? But I digress…)

The one group of Japanese people more excited by my existence than cashiers are children. Adults seem reserved about their curiosity. Kids flip out when they see you. I’ve had six-year-olds yell and wave at me as I ride by on my bike. They point and look excited. One girl, who couldn’t have been older than five, came up to me at the grocery store and just started talking to me in Japanese. I just stood and smiled, and then waved goodbye.

My favorite instance of all this attention came recently. I was outside of Kintetsu, a big department store that’s kind of like Wal-Mart in that they have everything you need inside but a whole lot less soul-crushing, when I walked by a bunch of kids just hangin’ out on their bikes. It’s still summer break, so I guess these (I’m guessing) eight-year-olds were just riding around town. I walk by, and this one kid who looked remarkably like Squints from The Sandlot, comes up to me and just says “hello.” I say “hallow back. Then, the rest of his friends come up and each individually say hello to me. And they look so happy to be doing what basically amounts to practice for a school subject. But whatever, it totally made my day.

(Japanese Fun Fact #9 – There are elections going on right now in this country. One method still apparently popular – those vans with huge bullhorns attached that drive around a town spewing out some message. You know, like the one in Nashville. For some reason, one candidate thought it would be a good idea to do this at eight in the morning today. Wow, was that an unwelcome surprise. And it didn’t help after I read about Brett Favre signing with the Vikings. Hate that guy. Uhhh, but yeah…vans with bullhorns on them, they exist here.)

A TV station in Los Angeles showed J-Dramas (or maybe K-Dramas, the Korean equivalent, I couldn’t read the subtitles) about once a week, usually on Friday. Being a shut-in who also happened to get bored of the other programming super quickly, I frequently ended up watching said shows because they were something different. Plus, I totally matched up “Mogwai Fear Satan” to one drama and it worked (OMG both the music and actions on-screen are getting slightly more intense!). And yes, I didn’t do drugs, just happened to be a big loser.

Big-old loser me did pick-up on one important lesson though – J-Dramas absolutely sucked. They are basically the Asian soap opera, except instead of going back in time and having affairs with Abraham Lincoln they all just sat around shaming their families. Boring. I eventually stopped watching because even I have my limits.

Unsurprisingly, now that I’m in Japan, I can’t escape J-Dramas. One such program seems to be TV every minute of the day. If you somehow don’t notice that your favorite samurai love drama is on, commercials pop up plenty to remind you. The situation is so bad J-Drama actors appear in other TV shows…well, mostly talk shows , game shows and those strange variety shows where celebs watch various videos and react to them in a tiny box in the corners of the screen (uhhhhh, YouTube it). The public here can’t get enough of these shows…or, more accurately, the people on them. The audiences for these interview shows with J-Drama stars (mostly men) tend to be almost entirely female.

Since they don’t show cartoons 24-hours-a-day, I sometimes find myself watching J-Drama. Not much has changed since the LA station days. There are two dominant genres of J-Drama: the ones that happened 500 years ago, and the ones set in modern times. The prior capitalizes on Japan’s fondness for their own history, setting the show back in the Tokugawa Period when everyone wore robes and toupees. These programs are always terribly boring. The other dominant type of drama, set in the now, replaces the exchange of scrolls for SMS, but retains all the boringness. Both genres deal mostly with romantic plots, which follow your usual American soap opera trajectory. So, bland and terribly unrealistic.

(Some dramas dabble in something else – insane action. One show on every Sunday here follows the adventures of a businessman who doesn’t just see action in the office…he also gets in street fights, high speed chases and karate showdowns. One episode saw his entire house explode. I think this show is supposed to do to businessmen what that recent Russell Crowe movie did for journalists – make the job look high-octane and constantly interesting when, in fact, 95 percent of the time it’s boredom. Important, but boring.)

Basically, I think all J-Dramas suck and try my best to avoid them…save for one, which I now watch on a regular basis and actually wait all Monday to come on. It’s not good, oh lord no, but there is something very perverse about it. It’s like watching someone you love being bitten by a mosquito, and as they lose blood they slowly lose every attribute you appreciated in them until they are but a shell of their former self.

Say hello to Buzzer Beat!

Buzzer Beat merges the world of J-Drama with professional basketball, to hypnotically turgid results. I first heard about the show in America, actually, after my favorite basketball blog Free Darko posted the opening theme on their Twitter, noting how over-the-top said theme (featured above) was. And boy, are they dead on. Once you get past the eye-destroying uniforms and ball colors, try to catch every sports cliché jammed into this thing.

When I spotted those goofy pink unis again, this time on my TV set here in Nabari, I knew I had to watch. And I did…and haven’t turned back since. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason I watch this on a weekly basis…it isn’t because I understand what’s going on, or because of any good storylines. Speaking of, let me try to share the plot with you…I’m basing this off of DramaWiki dot com (no Wikipedia page exists for this show eep) so bear with me:

The protagonist , Kamiya Naoki, plays for a pro team clearly cursed with color blindness. He “is unable to show his true skills on the court” because he isn’t the biggest baller and he “cracks under pressure.” I wonder if these problems will manifest themselves in his personal life as well??? He also wears a pink shirt that says “Anaheim” on it. Elsewhere, we have Shirakawa Riko, a recent music school graduate. She one day stumbles upon Naoki’s lost cell phone, and the two become friends and eventually love interests. But wait! Naoki’s already got a GF (a cheerleader! You aren’t supposed to do that! Didn’t they teach you anything at the player’s union???) and he was thinking of marrying her. Man, having to choose between two beautiful women all while being a professional basketball player…what a relatable character. Also, there are a bunch of other people with problems.

This plot, coupled with title episode gems like “The Power of Love Makes People Stronger! A Heron on the Brink of Activation! First Quarter Special Program,” couldn’t do more to push me away. But I’m not the target audience for this show…Buzzer Beat is geared towards the young girl out there who wishes she could find some pro athletes phone on the bus. This Riko lady is a stand-in for every common girl who will never fall in love with a celebrity but knows if they just had a chance to share who they are with them, they could be happy together forever. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the TV book, and it’s obviously not aimed at me.

The reason I watch this show is closer to the reason I watch Greek, another semi-embarrassing program back in the States. Greek started up while I was just about to begin my junior year of college. College was my life, and here was a show depicting everything I knew! How could I not watch, compare and contrast? Buzzer Beat holds the same allure, but with basketball. I really like basketball – I love watching it and it’s one of the few sports I’m actually not horrid at when I play it. Plus, the chance to see how a very non-ballin’ country like Japan handles the sport intrigues me.

Unfortunately, Buzzer Beat barely focuses on the topic of basketball. It barely even features any basketball at all. They played one game (the one featured in the opening sequence, so they fit everything interesting that can happen in a basketball game save a riot into one ten-minute sequence) and went to what appears to be a training facility in the mountains. But they mostly just dribble a ball before staring sadly into a cell phone to see what twist their relationships have taken next. I thought Kobe Bryant walked in at one point, but it turned out to be a taller, bulkier guy who just dunks the ball a lot. Naoki owns a Reggie Miller poster, the only NBA reference I’ve seen outside of Air Jordan shoes and what appears to be 2002 All-Star game jersey, but that seems like the first thing the set crew could find at the recycle shop.

I’m writing this while watching this week’s new episode. There has literally been two-minutes total of basketball action. A pick-up game. You can see a banner that says “Born to Ball” hanging above the players but it seems like they were really meant to look pretty and emote. Otherwise, the only other sorta sports reference came with a close-up of a Nike shoe, right before the main character hurt his toe.

I’m going to keep watching Buzzer Beat, because 1.) there is nothing else on and 2.) I’m guessing by the whole “training camp” thing they got going there might be an actual season of basketball eventually. But this show’s on thinner ice than Greek was ever on. That show eventually hooked me because of surprisingly interesting storylines and likeable characters. I’m just hoping someone does a pick-and-roll at some point in this show. If they do, I’m sure to write about it.

On the plus side. I still got the sound tracking thing down. During a very intense Buzzer Beat scene where do characters were having problems with their relationship, The-Dream song where he goes “Instead of loving you, I was making it rain!” came on and matched up perfectly.

(Japan Fun Fact #8: T-Shirt spotting of the day – some 13-year-old sporting “A Tribe Called Quest” tee. That kid is either all kinds of cool or dumb.)

Ya know, just eatin' snacks and writing about them

Ya know, just eatin' snacks and writing about them

They (“they” being Proctor & Gamble) sell a lot of crazy flavors of Pringles potato chips over here in Japan. The two varieties that caught my eye, though, weren’t bizarre, at least if you work under the premise that “bizarre” here refers to “the Japanese eat it.” No, the two flavors I wanted to try the most – and, coincidentally, two tastes I actually might be able to comment on – were the brand’s “American streets” line of chips.

Keeping the situation simple, Pringles sticks to a Tupac-Biggie angle by only having “Los Angeles Street” and “New Yorker’s Street” chips. Yes, grammar sometimes falls to the wayside here.

I've probably made a similar mistake in this post

I've probably made a similar mistake in this post

New York gets the “cheese dog” which probably exists at some push-cart somewhere. Though I don’t know why it comes served on a piece of newspaper, unless some tweakers by the docks also run a lucrative hot dog cart. Oh yeah, and for the Chicago homers out there – WHY IS THERE KETCHUP ON THE HOT DOG GAHHHH YOU CAN’T DO THAT THAT’S A HIGH CRIME GAHHH I CAN’T HAVE A FUNCTIONING HUMAN RELATIONSHIP BECUASE I’M WORRIED ABOUT CONDIMENTS.

OK, so how does it taste?

If you’ve ever eaten the cheese flavored Pringles they sell in America, you’ve basically eaten “cheese dog.” There seems to be a slight BBQ aftertaste that lingers in your mouth for a bit (so, that’s the hot dog?) and no ketchup taste whatsoever. Pretty good actually.

When I think of Los Angeles, I usually picture delicious Mexican food or maybe hippie-dippy health food. According to Pringles, LA’s big-time food is BBQ Chicken, represented on the packaging by a wrap I think you can buy at KFC for a buck. Not very West Coast. Maybe one of those trendy taco trucks sell them? I don’t know, I’m not cool. Maybe taste can save it?

It taste like a BBQ potato chip but with a weird aftertaste. It actually is a little bit…chicken-y, and that kind of creeps me out. The snack also tastes really smoky, so I give Pringles credit for capturing the Southern California experience – it feels like I’m biting into a wildfire with each chip. Not bad, but I need a full glass of water next to me while finishing up the can.

Congratulations New York, the Pringle flavored after your street wins the Japanese Pringle contest. Celebrate appropriately.

(Japanese Fun Fact #7 – I’m told Ponyo, the anime movie about some fish girl, just came out in America. Well, it’s been kicking in Japan for a year now, and is everywhere. You can hear the music all around town. I could buy a Ponyo-themed bowl at my local convenience store. And good luck escaping the DVD, on-sale everywhere from AM-PM to the supermarket.)