THAT JUST HAPPENED: Monkeys

November 30, 2009

This Monday hadn’t exactly been great by midday. I didn’t get much sleep the night before, I was running slightly late and a vending machine ate 1000 of my yen. Coupled with the fact I didn’t have anything to do at school today (Mondays are reserved for meetings with teachers, no actual classes), the start of this week seemed to be moving at a slug’s pace.

Then noon rolls around, and something awesome happens. Out of the woods that borders my junior high’s dirt athletic area emerges a group of wild monkeys. MONKEYS PEOPLE! About eight or nine of them hopped over the fence and shuffled around the baseball diamond for a few minutes. All the teachers in the office gathered near the window and watched for a few minutes. A few more even popped out to mosey along the top of the fence. Eventually, one teacher went outside armed with a pop-gun possibly kept at school for such primate encounters and scared the monkeys away.

What to take away from this – I do, in fact, live in the boonies, surrounded by baboons. This is probably the most exciting thing that will happen to me all week. And now I feel the need to bring a taser with me to the bus stop.

I’ve come a long way since I first arrived in Japan back in July. I instinctively remove my shoes when I enter a house now. I can greet people in Japanese. I can go to the supermarket without causing a major international incident. These are all accomplishments worth celebrating on the four-month mark of my stay on this side of the world.

With that said, I still absolutely suck at most aspects of Japanese life. Here’s a collection of recent slip-ups. Let’s go to the highlight reel.

– Due to a childhood preference for food best eaten with a fork, spoon or, best of all, out of a trough, I started using chopsticks way later than most people. Like, in college. I felt proud at first as I successfully moved food from plate to mouth. “This isn’t hard at all,” I thought pecking at rolls of sushi, “Japan will be a breeze.”

Turns out I’m a remedial utensil-user after all. My once-triumph of being able to pick up food with chopsticks draws very few “oooooohs” and “ahhhhhhs” from anyone in Japan, mostly because my form is an absolute disaster. You’re supposed to only move one of the sticks, leaving the other one motionless – I flail around with both sticks like an epileptic crane game. It’s gotten to the point where dinners turn into tutorials where I hopelessly watch as people try showing me the proper way to grasp chopsticks. “Just hold it like you hold a pencil!” They’ve clearly never seen my handwriting or how I hold a pen like a knife.

And you wonder why half the entries on this blog are about fast food.

– More dinner-time follies. I’ve learned how to more-or-less say “itadakimasu,” a little phrase you whip out before eating, but the concluding statement remains a tongue-twister. Written out, it goes “gochisousama deshita.” When trying to say it, it comes out “I really wish I’d chosen to starve myself so not to try saying this phrase.” Much like with chopsticks, the end of dinner turns into Japanese 101, at least until I say “OK, think I got it!” Which is really just a ploy to steer the conversation back into English.

– A majority of teachers at one of my schools have started saying “good morning” to me instead of the Japanese sentence for it (which I use in an effort to fit in). This could be because they want to have a delightful language exchange…or they don’t want to hear me destroy their native tongue anymore. I don’t know, entries like this need three bullet points and I’ve just noticed this change in the past two days.

(Japanese Fun Fact #30: It’s Thanksgiving in Japan! But…that doesn’t mean anything. This pretty much sums up how the Japanese perceive the holiday…one of my students thought Americans ate pelican for dinner.)

The Adventures of Fatrick: Culture Be Damned, I’m Going To Wendy’s

JET should really reconsider who they let on this program (such as me)

JET should really reconsider who they let on this program (such as me)

Sometimes you stumble across something you just can’t pass up, even if it’s total trash. I came across a Wendy’s in Osaka today and just had to eat their. Nevermind that I was in the “culinary capital of Japan,” Wendy’s don’t just pop up much on this side of the world. I entered the rare fast-food joint situated across from a blinking-light-heavy Pachinko parlor.

Look, Japanese!

Look, Japanese!

The Osaka Wendy’s looked just like a typical American Wendy’s – same decor, same colors, same lack of people in the actual restaurant whereas I saw lines spilling out of nearly all 15 McDonald’s I passed that day. Though, to be fair, the people eating at Wendy’s looked kinda hip and young. The big difference between Japanese Wendy’s and it’s U.S.A. counterpart came on the menu…it was drastically simplified. Just various takes on the cheeseburger and a few chicken sandwiches thrown in for good measure. No sign of the delicious spicy chicken sandwich or the “I’m giving up on life” Baconator. They did have a special chicken item slathered in mayonnaise with bits of corn though. I passed.

I swear there is corn in that mayo blah

I swear there is corn in that mayo blah

I kept things simple, ordering a double cheeseburger (I had a small lunch gosh) with fries and a drink. It tasted exactly like it’s American incarnation, though the fries on this side of the world are creepily longer.

Hollywood Ruins The Whole World

There was a massive poster for 2012 in a crowded area of Osaka. A fun reminder horrible American movies where every major landmark in the world goes boom also play in Japan.

<em>Precious</em> won't be playing here anytime soon

Precious won't be playing here anytime soon

The Puppy Store: Inhumane Or AWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!

Discovery of the century…usually when I wander around Osaka I choose to walk in front of the huge mall off the main road. Today, though, I went behind and discovered the cutest but probably cruelest pet store ever. This place sold only the cutest puppies and kittens, the type bred exclusively to appear on feel-good stationary. And they were all so tiny! I’ve never seen more cute animals concentrated in one place then at this store. If they didn’t explicitly ban photography, I’d probably still be there.

The downside though was that each pup or kitten was stuck in a pretty small display case. Not exactly the most humane conditions, especially for such adorable critters. One tiny box had two cats in it, how do they work that one? I wanted to buy them all and set them free in Nabari so I could be surrounded by adorableness…except each one cost roughly $600. Sad face.

Hello Christmas

Since Japan doesn’t care about Thanksgiving, the Christmas decorations are out in full force. Here’s Hello Kitty getting into the holiday spirit.

Outside of...a Pachinko parlor

Outside of...a Pachinko parlor

And last…

I’m the first person to spazz out about Internet memes being pushed well past their expiration date. I’m confused why people are suddenly all into “Google recommends” searches and if Slate does one more Obama Facebook Feed I don’t know what I’ll do in a fit of dork rage. That said, I couldn’t work up any snark (shudders) when I saw two people holding signs proclaiming “Free Hugs” ala a popular YouTube clip circa…what, 2004? Anyway, it was cute and not some form of viral marketing. I got a free hug and took a picture woooooo friendly people.

Famous park in the back btw

Famous park in the back btw

(Scene: The middle of a first-year classroom. I’m teaching the students about Thanksgiving, trying to explain what a pilgrim is and pointing at pictures of turkeys. I’ve just finished holding up a photo of Randy Moss eating turkey to explain how everyone watches football on Thanksgiving.)

Me: Finally, there are many Thanksgiving Day parades!

(Holds up picture of Macy’s Day Parade, with a Pikachu balloon prominently featured.)

Class: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah Pikachu!!!

(I know my audience really well.)

Me: The most famous parade happens in New York City. There are many big balloons that look like cartoon characters!

(Hand goes up. Keep in mind all questions go through the actual English teacher, who translates for me.)

Student: Do you like Pokemon?

Me: Yes, I did when I was smaller.

Student: How much did you watch Pokemon?

Me: …I watched it almost every day.

(Mix of astonishment and laughter from students. I’m glad they are smart enough to know how lame I was as a youth.)

Student Who Keeps Asking Questions: In Japan the hero of Pokemon is named Sato-san. What is he called in America?

Me, flexing that Pokemon knowledge: In America, he is called Ash!

Students: WHOAAAAAAAAA

Me: …..And that’s Thanksgiving! Any other questions?

Student Who Won’t Stop Asking Questions: Do you know Doraemon?

Me: Yes, I do.

Student Who Just Keeps Going: Do you know Crayon Shin-Chan?

Me: (to teacher) Is that the, uh, one with the little kid? (Yep) Yes, I do!

Different Student: Are turkeys expensive?

Me: Oh thank God a question related to Thanksgiving!!!

Student Who Is Oh So Curious: Do you know One Piece?

Me: Yes, the pirate thing, yes I do.

Guess Who!: Do you know Dragonball?

Me: Yes, I do.
A Different Student: Is pumpkin pie good?

Me: (excited and hungry) Yes, it is delicious!

Return of the Kid With Lots of Questions: If you collected all seven of the Dragon Balls, what would you wish for?

Me: (two seconds of silence)

Me: (thinking this over while also just being absolutely floored by this question)

Me: I’d wish for the ability to speak Japanese, so I could understand what’s going on in Japan?

Students: Hahahahahahaha

Different Student But Who Also Likes Pokemon A Lot: What are the names of the current people who travel around the world with Sato-san in Pokemon in English?

Me: …I don’t know. I haven’t watched Pokemon in a long time. Any other questions about Thanksgiving?

Student: Can you hunt turkeys?

Precious precious memories being forged here.

Waterfalls And Salamanders

November 15, 2009

Nabari has plenty to be proud of…delicious grapes, delicious strawberries, relative closeness to Osaka…but the definitive must-see in the area would be the Akame 48 Waterfalls. With the name leaving nothing to the imagination, it’s the landmark featured heavily on Nabari brochures and other tourist-related media. A picture of one of the more famous waterfalls even appears on my business card. Surely, almost four months into my Japanese life (!) I’d have found a day to take the bus over to one of the prettiest hikes in Mie.

Welp, I’m lazy!

I finally found the proper motivation to get out to the falls this weekend…chiefly, someone organized an official outing. With other people doing the heavy lifting, coupled with the fact the leaves are at peak Autumn colors, I woke up extra early on a Sunday morning (8:30) and spent a day immersed in nature. But the first stop was the Japan Salamander Center.

Before checking out waterfalls, everyone must pass through what can best be described as a salamander-only zoo. The English “Introduction to Nabari” page lists the place high up, boasting “rare creatures” from all over the world. It’s cool, and they definitely have a wide variety of salamanders – really, learning so many different types of salamanders existed in the world ended up being the educational moment of the day – but not something I spent more than seven minutes in.

After getting my salamander fill, I hit the trail. Now. for a gross amount of photos of waterfalls.

The next waterfall is Akame 48 Waterfall’s standout, the one waterfall that graces most tourist info and my business card. It’s two waterfalls, right next to one another. It’s pretty cool in person.

And one other waterfall…and Professor Salamander.

The hike lasts several hours, and overall is extremely gorgeous and peaceful, but the ending stands out as one of the biggest let-downs imaginable. After spending a large chunk of the day walking down this path filled with natural wonder, you’d think the last thing would be breathtaking. Like a really huge waterfall or maybe trees filled with monkeys. None of those things. Instead, you reach some stairs which lead to…a puny snack bar, some bathrooms worthy of U.N. sanctions and a bus stop. Sort of a buzzkill, but the rest was cool enough. And hey, I saw a huge salamander, that’s gotta count for something.

Not Ping Pong

November 13, 2009

Me: “I’m going to play table tennis with the students after school today!”

Teacher: “Oh really? I’m surprised…I didn’t think they had table tennis in America.”

Though it is never explicitly revealed, the exchange above sums up the difference between table tennis in Japan and America. In Japan, table tennis is a legitimate sport that appears on TV. People train for absurd amounts of time to be an ace at this. On the other side of the Pacific, I played table tennis either in a garage or a college dormitory. I have jumped from table tennis to writing a paper to playing table tennis again. Suffice to say, it’s not nearly as serious an affair in America, to the point where some Japanese are stunned we Americans even know what it is.

Oh, but do I know what table tennis is. Excuse the minor bragging (it’s really really minor) but table tennis is far and away the one sport I’m pretty good at. I play lots of sports, but have never exceeded the skill necessary to play any part beyond “guy who runs on other side of field” or “kid who gets hit by the baseball.” When I made a three-pointer during a dorm basketball game I nearly did the “ANYTHING IS POSSSSSSIBLE” Kevin Garnett scream. But table tennis…I can beat people at table tennis. More tellingly, I can at least hang around with legitimately awesome players, and even if I lose 21-4 I can keep it semi-competitive. This is a big deal for someone whose biggest sporting achievement was earning the “Most Enthusiastic” award for soccer.

I’ve started participating at the table tennis club at a couple of my schools thinking it’s the one after school activity I might not make a complete fool of myself at. I figured, hey, I’m pretty decent at this game I bet nothing will happen to make me look pathetic in the eyes of young adolescents!

Wrong wrong wrong.

Sure, the students were happy that I showed up to play with them, but they must have been ecstatic when they realized I hadn’t practiced table tennis remotely as hard as they had. These kids destroyed me. I shouldn’t have been surprised in retrospect – they go to table tennis everyday after school and spend about an hour doing nothing but playing table tennis. And since they take this game super serious, they learn all sorts of crazy serves and spin hits – techniques I never learned in my family’s garage.

So for the most part the students crushed me. I pulled off a good shot every once in awhile and the kids sometime hit the ball too hard, off the table (they always said “I’m sorry” after doing that though I wanted to thank them profusely for not destroying me). But for the most part they schooled me. First, I played with the boys who were great at spinning the ball around. Then I played the girls…who were even better. They served better than the boys and hit it even harder. Nothing makes a 22-year-old dude feel more emasculated than having a 13-year-old girl playing with a pink ball completely overwhelm you.

Though I’m not positive the students picked up on it, as a fair number of them insisted on teaming up with someone else to take me on. These 2-vs-1 games usually ended up better for me, though, as the kids were more likely to get confused about who was supposed to hit what. I savored the small victories, even if they were against children.

Regardless of how badly my ego was damaged by being beaten by junior high students, I enjoy the table tennis clubs and the kids like my presence, even beyond the easy wins and ability to laugh at my ineptitude. And if nothing else, I’ve taught them that, yes, table tennis exists in America.

I recently revealed that I’m trying to kick my soda habit. For the most part, I’ve been doing pretty well – last night, when a Diet Coke rush overcame me before the start of Tokyo Dogs (not as good as Buzzer Beat, by the way, but people get shot at so it evens out), I didn’t succumb and just drank water instead. Progress!

I failed to mention, however, the rules go out the window when I find a weird Japanese soda, as I did this morning at Circle K. Coca-Cola hops on the health craze I didn’t know existed in Japan and now offers “Coca-Cola no calorie plus fiber.”

Yes, the selling point for this drink is it offers you the same perks of Metamucil. Is there an unsexier way to sell something than that?

No fun, but fiber!

I guess it isn’t that much different than the “healthy” version of Coke they released in America a while back, the one offering more vitamins and minerals. It’s Coca-Cola’s way of trying to sell a drink that’s “healthy” only in the sense you are getting a tiny amount of good things while you destroy the rest of your body.

How does it taste?

Uhhhhh, almost exactly like the healthy Coke mentioned above. I think someone’s lying to the world about the benefits of this drink. It tastes like watered down Diet Coke (it’s possible), the faintest cola taste hiding beneath waves of nothing. Imagine any store-brand cola, something named “Shazam” or “Shasta,” and you’ve got Coca-Cola Plus Fiber Boring Drink.

Oh, but the fun food finds continue! I also noticed a new flavor of Pringles at the convenience store, the snowmen and snowflakes dotting the can indicating this is a special winter flavor. That flavor???

Errrr, I’m not sure based off the picture.

Snowman Flavored????

Is it…cheesecake? Some sort of dessert item? I don’t know what cakes the Japanese eat during the colder months so this could be anything. Well, time to practice my Japanese skills. The wording in front of the mystery-food is in Katakana, the alphabet used for foreign words. Let me try to decode this…

Ho-wa-i-to Ke-ri-mu-chi-zu. I…still am not sure.

Eating the chips doesn’t shine any light on the mystery. There is a fine layer of chip dust on every offering reminiscent of a Cheese Pringle…but they don’t taste really cheesy. They are…powdery? Is that even a flavor? The chips aren’t bad, but the weirdness of the texture never really goes away no matter how many you eat.

So…anyone know what that thing on the can is? So I can feel better about what I’ve consumed today?

Little World/River Cruise

November 8, 2009

Note: This post is gonna have a lot of pictures

(Note, I don’t know why but none of the captions for these pictures are coming up, so mouse over them to see my witty captions!!!)

When one of the teachers at my junior high approached me about going on a trip this weekend, I assumed several things. First, that this outing would be a faculty bonding event that would score me all sorts of points in the eyes of my peers. Second, this trip couldn’t possibly last all day. The flier featured a boat and what appeared to be farm houses sticking out in fields. That’s not too bad, right?

Jump forward to Saturday morning, me waking up at 6:30 in the morning to meet the teacher who first suggested this at 7 for a 12-hour trip. This teacher turned out to be the only person I knew on the trip, everyone else a teacher from another school in Nabari. I could have felt remorse about my decision to go on this expedition, but it occurred to me all I would do at home that day would be debate whether to buy the new Bacon and BBQ Quarter Pounder. Confused, but mostly just sleepy, I boarded the chartered bus and made my way to the back of the bus where all the men on the tour sat around a table.

A popular stereotype about Japanese businessmen is that they are all functioning alcoholics. Well, I think teachers might also fall under that broad umbrella. Minutes after the bus started down the road at 8 A.M., everyone started drinking beer on the bus. The last time I drank this early (because I didn’t want to make a bad first impression, of course I joined them) was for Northwestern’s Dillo Day…and even then we waited until the much more reasonable hour of 9. For the next two-and-a-half hours I sat in the back of a bus watching middle-aged men down beers, eating squid chips and seaweed candy which I imagine one can only eat when sloshed.

I switched to this happy apple juice early on

Up until the midway point of our bus trip, I thought the first half of the day would be spent touring some countryside. That was until the tour leader started up the “little world trivia game” and the one English teacher along on the trip explained to me we were actually going to a place called Little World that housed exhibits on 22 countries and featured “spoken German.” We drove past Nagoya into a secluded town called Inuyama that housed the “Little World Museum of Man.”

Font: Times New Bro-man

Little World is a strange mix of EPCOT Center, Jia Zhangke’s The World and the buffet at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas. It’s a psuedo-educational place packed with gift stores but also mindless entertainment, as displayed by our group’s first stop, a stage show. The performance was set in the Arctic based on the Northern Lights featured prominently on the background, and all the performers dressed as Eskimos. I might be wrong, but the show didn’t wast anytime exploring the intricacies of Inuit culture, instead opting to just have the performers do cool tricks. I’m pretty sure Eskimos don’t twirl lassos or ride unicycles on tightropes.

Maybe their really cold cowboys?

It was a cool show, though

The old "Eskimo on a unicycle" trick

Area near stage

The rest of Little World is devoted to showing off various other nation’s cultures via buildings. Like the bizarre habits of a supervillain, Little World takes a building or two from every country and places them in “little” versions of that country, complete with appropriate food. The country selection seems a little controversial to say the least – the Middle East is completely ignored as is North America (unless Native American culture counts) and Oceania, while Micronesia and Nepal somehow get entire sections for themselves. One of the big draws is that the majority of nation’s have a “rent-a-costume” store where you can borrow country-appropriate clothes for a photo-op. This led to a lot of parents shuttling small kids from country to country, snapping pictures of them in all sorts of get-ups. Cute times.

Native American Land

Spain

Italy

Thailand

We spent a good chunk of time in fake Europe, especially Germany. They had the best food selection, so our group chose to eat at their sit-down restaurant. I went with the traditional German meal of a sausage sandwich, “fried potatoes” and a Coke. Following a nice lunch we spent twenty minutes in the big Germany gift shop which featured coo-coo clocks, meatstuffs and delicious candy. Then it was off to fake France to drink wine. The wine was fine, but the real highlight was the small selection of cheese accompanying the drinks…cheese is strangely rare in Japan, so anything a step up from Kraft Singles is a treat worth remembering.

Part of Germany

French people?

Peru

Little World offered an interesting glimpse into how the Japanese view various other cultures. They go to great lengths to make it as realistic as possible…I think they even imported white people to be greeters at the entrance. Besides a few questionable decisions…why was Tanzania inside a barn?…it seemed to do a good job showing off the tiny world, avoiding some of the ignorance people here can dip into sometimes. Basically, Little World is more educated than some people at Northwestern. I bought some candy from the biggest gift store and got back on the bus for the next leg of the trip.

El Patio

Oh, and churros!

Next up was a tour of a big river running near Nagoya. Though not nearly as exciting as fake Italy, the boat tour was a peaceful hour featuring lots of pretty sights and, apparently, monkey filled forests. There were a few moments of exhilaration – the river sported a few mini-rapids, so every ten minutes or so the boat would go through them causing big bursts of water to cascade around the boat. But for the most part, a very relaxing time.

We sure did!

The boat

Now, pictures of nature!

After the tour we got back on the bus and made the long trek back to Nabari. Save for a brief game of Bingo (I won wine!), most everyone passed out on the bus while I drained my iPhones battery. Sure, when I got back home all I wanted to do was pass out, but it was still a fun day. At the very least, I could fake a decent amount of knowledge about Micronesia.

(Japanese Fun Fact #29: Hey journalist friends! Wonder what newspapers in Japan are like? Well, they feature full-pages of much more revealing nudity than British papers, so gauge accordingly.)

One of the strangest memories I have from college is the afternoon my friends held an intervention for me. It was at a late lunch at the Sbarro in the student center. For some reason, this would be the day a few of my friends decided they had to do something about my apparently destructive Diet Coke drinking. I initially thought it was a joke, but it quickly became clear they were not, in fact, pulling one over me. Keep in mind this was during sophomore year of school, when everyone’s basically a functioning alcoholic. Yet my (admittedly) unhealthy consumption of diet soda warranted an after-school special like chat.

Needless to say, my friends failed majestically as Diet Coke remained a staple of my, uh, diet for the remainder of college. And beyond.

Then, I got something in the mail that would change my life – the October 2009 “Stay Lean For Life” issue of Men’s Health. My mom sent it to me in a care package. Within the folds of this magazine with President Obama on the cover, was a tiny blurb about how bad soda is for you and how new research (!) indicated it would lead to heart disease. Somehow, of all the articles I’ve read about how horrid soda is for you and how it would kill you, this one struck a chord with me. Men’s Health has that power – this issue also made me feel terribly self-conscious about both my body and my social life. Thanks Men’s Health!

I’m now trying to quit drinking soda, and it’s much harder than I could ever imagine. I’ve never had to shake off any sort of addiction before – I don’t drink that much and the only times I’ve ever smoked are if I’m trying to impress a girl or am in the country of Italy. So I’m not sure how to drop Diet Coke out of my life. I’ve started slowly – I won’t drink soda during the week and am allowing myself one or two during the weekend. This is also ignoring the existence of Jack and Coke, which is just delicious together and gets a special pass.

Japan does not make this easy. Vending machines really do exist on every street corner…one menacing Coke machine sits a minute away from my apartment…and everyone pimps out a different type of delicious looking soda. They’ve got Pepsi Twist, for God’s sake, how do you say no to that? On my usual bike ride to work I directly pass four machines, and I’m not counting the ones on easily accessed sidestreets. Everyday is like the last temptation of Christ, for the low price of a buck twenty.

Oh yeah, speaking of money…did you know Japan loves coins? And use them for all sorts of cheap purchases? I get a lot of coins on a daily basis, and they build up on my kitchen table. I want to get rid of them badly. If only there was some sort of machine where I could trade coins for some sort of good, preferably something carbonated? Oh wait. The temptation to spend all of my Japanese coins on soda is an ever-present threat. I guess I could donate the money but……

Oh, and some soda come with prizes. Just like cereal. It’s usually a small cellphone charm like Snoopy chilling on a vegetable or some DBZ character but the “must buy Japanese things” part of me finds these knick-knacks tough to resist.

To be fair, a few facets of Japanese culture make avoiding soda a little bit easier. Mainly, that they don’t actually sell Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi here. Only Coke Zero and Pepsi Nex which don’t taste nearly as good as their straight-up diet counterparts (yes, I really like the taste of diet drinks). And recycling here’s a total pain – you have to cut all the labels off the bottles and then sort them separate from all other plastic things. Helping the planets a really drag.

OK, take bets on how long until I break and go back to my seven bottles a day habit.

(Japanese Fun Fact #28: The smoking car on the trains here are as close to a literal hell as you can get in Japan.)