I visited Tokyo this weekend. Since I’m an hour away from boarding time and I really want Subway before I get on the place, I’ll focus on a few highlights. Special thanks go to my friend and Tokyo-resident Eri who acted as my tour guide for the weekend.

– The last time (also, my first time) ice skating happened three years ago at Millennium Park in Chicago. I fell…a lot. I made my return to the ice this weekend…sort of. A big mall in Tokyo set up a small skating rink in the basement of their building, except this wasn’t just another frozen pond. This was an “ice skating rink without ice,” some sort of weird environmentally conscious deal for a very affordable rate. Neither Eri nor I could figure what the faux-ice was made out, but the experience was definitely different than your traditional skating experience. The room and the “ice” weren’t remotely cold, for one.

How did I fare on the phony ice? Pretty well…when we actually were skating. Unfortunately, most of our allotted 30 minutes were spent figuring out the proper size of ice skates I should wear. The original pair I chose ended up being too big (though they felt really small to me, but then again I try to avoid ice at all costs) so when I tried skating my left leg bended in a way I only thought Gumby could pull off. After trying to fix the problem by properly lacing the skates (big reveal – I don’t know how to lace up ice skates…thus by extension shoes. I seriously should not be teaching children anything), I went one size lower. My leg remained straight, and I finally got to flail around the rink like a duck for whatever time remained. On the plus side…I didn’t fall! Small victory.

– The Tokyo train system is terrifying. So many different lines.

– A few exciting culinary developments: I ate a lot of sushi for lunch Sunday, including various things I’d have left at the exotic pet store back in the day. Highlight: some sort of shellfish, various types of tune and, the pleasant culinary surprise of the year, sea urchin. It tasted really good, slightly sweeter than you would expect a freaking sea urchin to be.

Not every piece of sushi went down so easily though. I ate salmon roe, better summarized as “salmon eggs.” My big mistake was eating the entire thing in one bite – salmon roe boasts a texture best summed up as “swamp slime,” so having a lot of that at once nearly made me cry. Still, I ate it…that has to count for something.

– People in Tokyo stand on the opposite of side of the escalator than people in Osaka. This took some time to get used to.

– Another big difference between the two cities – the amount of Christians trying to convert the masses. I haven’t seen any of these people in Osaka, but you can’t escape them in Tokyo. They drive around in vans equipped with big speakers, so they can blast out their message (all in Japanese) to the masses. Sometimes two rival fire-and-brimstone speakers end up competing against one another to see who can out-annoy the masses.

– Ever wondered what the equivalent of those really boring cities surrounding O’Hare Airport are in Japan? It’s the city of Narita, home of Tokyo’s primary airport and not much else. They’ve got enough to keep you entertained – bars, McDonald’s, stores and shady-as-hell “gentlemen’s clubs” – but it seems like a really lame place to occupy for more than 24 hours. The big attraction is a mall that…wait for it…is very similar to Old Orchard: lots of hype, even more disappointment.

– Rap CDs in Japan are really, really cheap.

(Japanese Fun Fact #34: I don’t know if this happens at all hotels in Japan or just mine, but when you turn the TV off a small message pops up saying “please put out any naked flames.” Also, they keep a book about Buddhism next to the Bible.)

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Students Draw Me

December 18, 2009

Today one third year class drew pictures of me. Well, sorta…they divided up into six groups, and each member of the group drew one part of my face. Still the results are…interesting. Let’s take a look!

Here we have the “Patrick is actually a monkey” rendering. Note the sparkles in my eyes.

A very minimalist take on me. The students think I have really blue eyes for some reason. I’m not complaining.

Holy shit. My nose looks like a perfect triangle. And I have black bags under my eyes? Damn, I’m clearly some sort of hobgoblin to this group of kids.

That’s better! And they think I’m cool!

I’m just going to let this one speak for itself. This has some intense detail to it.

And the winner! I look awesome in this!

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: the Japanese love Major League Baseball, but only when Japanese players are involved. A car down the street from me has a Seattle blanket proudly displayed on the back window. Students routinely tell me how much they love the Boston Red Sox. It seems like every junior high staff room I work in could double as an official Yankees merchandise distributor. I mean, I see dudes on the train wearing Tampa Bay hats…I’m pretty sure some people in Florida still don’t know the Rays exist. Japan loves supporting its native sons…except the guy on the Cubs, he gets a raw deal over here.

This national-pride-first mindset means my team of choice, the Los Angeles Angels, never gets any attention. I can understand my teachers still calling them the Anaheim Angles…they still sort of are…but nearly none of my students recognize the signature “A.” They see red and transform into a bad Bill Simmons baseball column. The only time they get on TV is when they lose to a team with a Japanese player (grrrrrr Yankees) or Ichiro does something big and they need some stock footage. The Angels aren’t on the mind of the average Japanese baseball fan, though I’m sure they would love the Rally Monkey.

Well, until now. The Angels signed World Series MVP Hideki Matsui this week, and Japan’s jumped on the Halo bandwagon. Newspapers have pictures of Matsui donning the red and white. The nightly news put this story first, in front of events of actual importance like the global warming conference. They show as much footage of Matsui trotting around Angel Stadium as they can, while also going over the team’s latest season and their history. The Angles have gone from barely present to all over the place in the span of the day. I’m just waiting to see business men on the train wearing the cap.

I don’t expect to see Yankees mugs lining the trashcans of Nabari anytime soon, but it’s kind of nice to see my favorite baseball team spring up a lot more in my current home. Now, if only the Clippers could sign the dude from Buzzer Beat.

(Japanese Fun Fact #34: This one’s for my Journalism peeps out there. You know that terribly depressing photo of a Sudanese child crawling on the ground while a vulture stares at the kid from nearby? This one? At some point in journalism school, this comes up as part of an “ethical debate” – would you pull a Kevin Carter and take the photo, or would you help the child out? I recall debating the situation way too often in college.

This week in one of my English classes, the lesson revolved around this photo. Kids got to learn fun new words like “die” and “crawling” and “Pulitzer Prize.” I got to read a passage about the plight of Sudan to the kids. The kicker? The teacher made worksheets up where they had to pick a side and defend it. They had five options: take the photo, help the kid, throw a rock at the vulture [the comedy option], run away or other [fill in your idea]. So it felt like I was back in journalism school! Except I was surrounded by 14 year olds who could spell better than me.

And for the record, I chose the “other” option, telling the class I’d take the picture in order to show the world the horrors of Sudan and then move the child. Blew their minds.)

I recognize most would be grateful to never hear me talk about music in their presence ever again, but for those of you into that sort of thing deserve a small update. A saw an awesome concert at the start of this week courtesy of Yo La Tengo (spoiler: definitely my show of the year) and wrote something up about it. Today, I compiled my top 25 albums of 2009. Read about it here. And give my blog more hits.

Oh, and for Lara…

(Japanese Fun Fact #33: Anyone learning a new language is bound to have a tough time pronouncing words. A fact of life, we’ve all been there. Still, it’s tough to keep a straight face when five children in a row tell you they “want to be a cock” during an interview test. They mean “cook.” I have the maturity of an eight-year-old kid.)

I originally wanted to write up something on a relatively awkward instance that went down earlier this week (it’s not that crazy), but I’ve got the ol’ college jitters about it. Lets just say an old incident that I’m still trying to shake off is on my brain and bugging me out. Glad I sent my parents into debt for that. Anyway! What follows was originally supposed to be a little bonus to the goofy story, but is now the whole post. So…it’s really short. But enjoy all the same.

The loveable globetrotters over at Pringles are at it again! There tour-de-food of America via stackable potato chips has so far brought us to the cheesy streets of New York and the chicken-rich drives of Los Angeles. Next stop? Las Vegas, for some spareribs.

This is a clever move by the folks behind Japanese Pringles. The majority of ribs readily available in Las Vegas come as part as shady “$4.99 for five pounds of ribs” deals casinos typically run to keep gamblers moving as they blow away retirement money. Nobody but the booze-stained slot junkie finds such cheap-ass food delicious, so even if the chip version of it tastes bad Pringles can just play the “capturing the taste of Las Vegas” card.
Well you admire that lovely can design (the Japanese have never seen American currency, I reckon), lets find out how it tastes.

This is a barbeque Pringle. They changed the packaging, that’s it. Total letdown. But! Maybe this is a twisted commentary on the emptiness of Vegas, how that city borrows all its landmarks from other places in the world. We expect something different, but all we get is the same old BBQ potato chip.
Or, ya know, the Japanese will just buy anything.

The Soft Tennis Club

December 12, 2009

Wednesday

In the weird way these sort of things work out, my supervisor canceled the weekly meeting at city hall. Meaning my usual luxury of getting to leave work two hours early vanished. With an additional 120 minutes to contractually fill (the horror!) and nothing to work on, I expected to fill my time refreshing music websites and organizing music on my computer. Then salvation came, in the form of a tennis racket.

“Do you want to play soft tennis?” One of the Japanese teachers who has talked to me a lot at this high school asked me this after school. With nothing else on my schedule, I agreed. Thus begins my life on a girls junior high soft tennis team.

Excluding Wii Tennis (which I am technically an expert at, according to the console), my only tennis experiences come via an hour spent playing at a park in Oxnard when I was 13 and an ill-fated session of “night tennis” in college. Thankfully, this wasn’t just any game of tennis – Japanese junior high school seem to only play a “soft” version of tennis. Instead of a yellow ball, they use a squishy ball that’s more like a pet toy than a piece of athletic equipment. Everything else about the game remains the same, except the ball doesn’t move nearly as fast. This means I can actually return the ball and look halfway decent, since the game has been slowed down about 45 percent. Just perfect!

The club practices on the same dirt field every athletic team plays on. The team consists of about 20-or-so first or second year students – the number would be a bit higher except all third year students are officially banned from afterschool activities as they need to be studying for the big high school entrance exams coming up in February. Nevertheless, the club carries on.

The students reacted the same way most junior high aged kids react when they see me enter their classroom: shock (“aaaaaaaaaah Patrick!”) followed by excitement (“ahhhhhhhhhh Patrick!”). Armed with a borrowed blue racket, I began practicing with them. And it quickly became clear I had no idea what I was doing.

I was placed on the “return” side of the net, meaning I’d be hitting back student’s serves. “Return” quickly morphed into “smack the soft ball over the fence or into the drainage system inconveniently placed next to the court.” On the rare occasion I cleanly hit one back, the students reacted if I had just won Wimbeldon – they clapped and shouted “Good Job!” for every routine return I miraculously got over the net. The only time I drew louder applause was when I said something in Japanese – this absolutely floors students who go bananas for it. The only flaw; I’m more or less at a three-year-old’s level of Japanese comprehension, so most of the time whatever I say makes the students burst out laughing. For example, the word for “close” (as in “your show was so close to not hitting the net Mr. Patrick”) sounds a lot like the word for “delicious” in Japanese. Being an ignoramus, I said the latter, which had the students in stitches and then jokingly saying “oishee” whenever they hit the net. Solid start!

Thursday

Soft Tennis Club contains a little more structure than the table tennis club I’m also part of, but not much. Whereas the kids just play games of table tennis, the soft tennis students have some semblance of practice. They just don’t have structure. They do one practice for twenty minutes, then everyone decides “OK, lets try something else now.” This isn’t your boot-camp-like American sports practice, but more of a way to keep kids in school after school so they don’t do bad stuff like…hang out at the convenience store? Watch too much TV? Nabari isn’t South Central, the scariest thing I can think of is the existence of wild monkeys. And even that’s kind of cool.

On the court, my skills improved drastically from the day before. I still hit the net frequently and the concept of “out of bounds” lines still needs to sink in. But I somehow developed a backhand game overnight and could even serve the ball without major incident. Suddenly, the only thing the students laughed at was my Japanese skills, and not my tennis abilities. Ahhhh, what practicing a sport with tweenage girls can do.

The biggest perk to being part of the soft tennis club is the chance to spend more time with my students, who aren’t just miles away cooler than the American students I’ve worked with before but also a large share of people in general. And by cooler, I of course mean “willing to throw praise at me.” When they ask “do you have a girlfriend” and I respond “no,” they flip out and seem like this should be an impossibility. Compare that to my American students from a year ago who would have launched into “Mr. Patrick is clearly gay mode” and then hit me with sticks (those two things aren’t related, by the way). Or other people at Northwestern, who would never have asked that question in the first place and just assume things (oh, and my personal favorite, someone once calling me “the least sexual person they had ever met.” Seriously, you wonder why I left America?).

Friday

A steady downpour of rain prevents the soft tennis club from meeting today. Instead, they’ll do training, which the teacher explains to me via hand motions will include “push ups” and “jumping off of walls.” I go off to find the club.

I found two members of the club and try to explain that I will be training with them today. They have not gotten the memo about this. They think I’m there to play tennis. I try explaining that I know there will be no tennis, but I will still train with them. “Train” was not one of their vocabulary words. I try a few other words for it, to no avail. I’m forced to break out the charades, and after some awkward wordless communication, they figure out what I’m trying to say. They tell me “we will play tennis next week” and wave me off to the teacher’s room. Since I’m not insane (“no, I MUST run laps around the junior high”), I go back to the office.

Then I feel something I haven’t felt in a bit in Japan: absolute lost-in-translation confusion. Clearly, the teacher didn’t tell the students, so they were confused and thus told me there was no tennis that day. Problem is…everyone seems a bit off page from one another. I spend the next three hours sitting at my desk trying to figure out if the teacher in charge of the club is angry at me for not going on Friday or whether she’s just very busy. This is one of the few moments I’ve felt completely lost, as I have no idea how to figure these things out in Japan and there isn’t really anyway to talk to anyone about this. It’s probably the lowest I’ve felt at school since coming to Japan…and I have no idea if I’m justified in feeling that way or just crazy.

Well, club meets again Monday. Hopefully I’ll still have the opportunity to practice my wicked backhand.

Confession: I’ve never actually played Final Fantasy. I watched my cousin fight the final boss in one of them a long time ago, and I’ve read more than enough about the famous RPG series over the years to have a basic knowledge of what’s going on. I also watched this once (holy Internet memes!). Yet I’ve never played a minute of any installment of this video game. And I call myself a geek.

A new Final Fantasy game is coming out/out (?) in Japan, and the entire country has seemed to lose it’s shit over it. I see ads figuratively plastered all over TV and literally over walls via posters. The theme for the game is selling like the Japanese equivalent of hot cakes. People here love them some role playing games.

One part of the Final Fantasy merchandising bonanza popped up at my local Circle K this week – an official Final Fantasy XIII “elixir.” Oooooooo, sounds mystical! The highly reflective cans come adorned with various busty heroines presumably from the game (it appears there are no males in this game, and also no conservative dress codes). The beverage’s placement next to the stores Red Bull supply indicates this is an energy drink, which makes the “elixir” title seem appropriate as it’s only a few edgy Photoshops away from “Bulldog” or “Caution.”

But how does it taste? Will I lose/gain HP (hit points for those who went to parties during high school)?

Thanks Square/Enix!

Thanks Square/Enix!

What the hell??? This stuff looks like water and tastes…like nothing. This is a complete rip-off. It’s carbonated, yes, but that’s the only definitive feature I can detect from this “elixir.” Tastes like Sprite with everything that makes Sprite tasty cut out. I paid two dollars for this? Rainwater has more flavor.

I’ll let you know if I transform into a dragon or something later.

(Japanese Fun Fact #32: Following my Christmas lesson, one student asked if couples in America spend Christmas Eve together. The teacher explained many Japanese couples did this…and then proceeded to talk to the class about this subject with the class for the next seven minutes. He deduced Americans spent Christmas with family, while the Japanese said “screw that.” Japanese Junior High everyone!)

– Here’s another one for the “Japan never fails to meet my expectations” folder. This is a typical school stop sign:

Hello There!

Hello There!

Not pictured: the Kirby themed one down the street. No, really.

– Japanese junior high schools are absolutely plastered in educational posters. Most of these tend to be in the “don’t do this” category, pictures of kids walking around in green fields with sentences like “NO DRUGS!” or “Smoking Free!” overhead. These promotional goods weren’t good enough for my school this week, as they’ve gone ahead and made a series of “how not to get sick” drawings.

Shit looks painful

Shit looks painful

Just avoid the deadly black spores, and you’ll be good! Others in the series include a series of little white dudes jumping around a boy’s stomach and a chart showing how far germs fly via different kinds of sneezes.

– Friday’s table tennis club meeting seemed as normal as ever, until a gaggle of junior high girls formed a circle around me and launched into 60 Minutes mode.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Do you have a boyfriend? Gay?”

“Are you married?”

“Do you love people?” (I’m pretty sure they were trying to ask if I had a crush on anyone, it just came out as very broad.)

“Have you girlfriend before?” (In a clever move, I said “yes, a longtime ago” which caused the circle to burst into an united chorus of “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEH!” and helped end questioning/affirm my heterosexuality.)

– You surely know by now Japan stuffed to the brim with weird vending machines. And you probably could guess that some machines sell beer, liquor and cigarettes. Well, three such machines exist exactly two minutes away from one of my junior highs. Right in front of the most used bus stop! That can’t possibly end well. And this stuff’s cheap! And one can of beer is big enough to bludgeon a bear with. The Japanese must put a lot of faith in those educational posters.

Those two on the left are stupid huge

Those two on the left are stupid huge

(Japanese Fun Fact #31: The Japanese don’t say “bless you” after they sneeze. They don’t say anything, actually. When a teacher sitting across from you sneezes five times in a row, it’s tough not to say anything at all.)

Oh No! Pachinko

December 3, 2009

Imagine being the lucky soul selected to play a round of Plinko on The Price Is Right. Now, imagine you are packed into a narrow space surrounded by a bunch of other people also playing Plinko. Now imagine you are on acid. And, for good measure, a humanoid mecha is involved.

Welcome to the strange world of Pachinko, Japan’s version of “not gambling” gambling!

PACHINKO!!!!

PACHINKO!!!!

Nabari boasts a pretty healthy number of Pachinko parlors, about four based on my amateur reporting. Yet I hadn’t embraced my inner middle-aged Japanese man and go into one until tonight. After a nice dinner at conveyor belt sushi, the group I was with wanted to do something else. With mercury surely flowing into our brains, that “something” ended up being a trip to a nearby Pachinko parlor.

For those out of the loop, Pachinko is more-or-less the most popular form of gambling in Japan. Players pick out a machine, plunk some yen down and receive several fist-fulls of ball bearings. The silver balls go into a slot that fires them upwards, the strength of the shot determined by a know the player twists. The ball flies into the machine, where it bounces off all sorts of pegs and spinny wheels. You want the ball to go into a hole in the middle of the screen…this prompts a slot machine-like sequence where you hope you get lucky and win more ball bearings. You keep firing balls into the abyss until you are out/ your family finds you sprawled out at the Pachinko parlor. A million other things can happen in the machine, but I have no idea what those are.

Yet, Pachinko isn’t technically gambling. According to a friend in the know, gambling for money is a no-no in Japan. How do Pachinko parlors get around this? By taking a page out of your local family fun center. You exchange trays of ball bearings for various items (teddy bears, handbags, spider rings) and then you can sell whatever you just won back to the center for money. See, a completely, non-shady business transaction! Couple this knowledge along with the fact their is a thriving Pachinko publication industry (magazines tell you how to win on new machines and other “strategies” for a game that comes down to what stupid peg the dumb ball is going to bounce off of), and it becomes clear this is the coolest racket around.

Quote Un Quote Prizes

Quote Un Quote Prizes

When I first entered the establishment, all my senses were instantly battered. Lights flashed all around, the smell of cigarette smoke hung around, the machines made enough noise to drown out a jumbo jet. I could also feel the part of me that says “this isn’t a good idea” vanishing as I walked around the narrow collections of machines. Some of the people camped out at their machines had amassed bins full of ball bearings…I figured “hey, it’s pure luck, why not me?” Thankfully I only 1000 yen on me so I wouldn’t veer into Ed McMahon territory.

Much like Las Vegas, each machine has it’s own unique, licensed personality. In Sin City it’s Honeymooners themed slots or Wheel of Fortune (or the machine I gambled on for the first time back in the day, the Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler” slots). In Japan, it’s samurai and busty anime mermaids. I stumbled upon a Neon Genesis Evangelion machine and decided to go with it because a.) it had a sweet robot on it and b.) I recently watched this famous anime in my spare time because c.) I will die alone. So I put my money into the machine and watched as the balls spilled out.

Not included: pointless Christian imagery meaning nothing

Not included: pointless Christian imagery meaning nothing

I twisted the knob, launching the balls away. Unfortunately, I pushed the knob into the “MORE POWER” level and was launching the poor things off into no-balls land. I wasted a fair chunk of my initial arsenal this way. I eventually found the right level of twisting, and locked myself in…and watched for the next few minutes. Pachinko is a very boring game, as all you can do is watch the balls hopelessly watch around and pray they land in the spot that triggers the anime cut-scene to play. I got that a whole one time, spending the rest of my time twisting a know and hoping the characters on my screen would line up in someway that would lead to more ball bearings. I ran out, and just like that my first Pachinko go ended.

I left the parlor ten dollars poorer and smelling like pool hall, but I also departed safe in the knowledge I never needed to go back to such a place again. Unless I wanted to spend three hours trying to win a slot car race track I could then exchange for forty dollars.