In retrospect, the idea of a cat cafe isn’t remotely insane enough for Japan. When I told one of my supervisors at work where I’d gone the past weekend, he immediately assumed I’d visited a cafe where women dressed up as cats and served you. He dropped this idea (and most likely his respect for my masculinity) when I showed him the pictures. Still, the idea seemed really out their this past Saturday as I rode the train out to Osaka to visit a cat cafe.

The outside

The outside

I imagined this feline-centric cafe to be a major landmark, surrounded by billboards trumpeting its existence and hordes of tourists anxious to see kitties. Much to my surprise, the cafe wasn’t located in the bustling center of Osaka, but a slightly-less frantic area outside of the city center. The establishment didn’t puff it’s chest out, the only indicators in the area being a few signs outside covered in photos of cats. Step inside of a white business building and head up to the third floor. Switch out your regular shoes for cat-friendly kicks and you are ready to go in.

The cafe might have been lacking in placement, but it certainly delivered on the promise of lots of cats. The moment my group slid open the door, a cat burst out running. Probably a knock against the establishments treatment of felines if they make a break for it whenever the front door opens, but I was to excited by the prospect of “KITTIES!” to worry about that. We stepped into the main room, which looked like a quaint little coffee shop, complete with tables and a serving counter – one that happened to be decorated by a crazy cat lady who also owned a small army of cats.

The system works like this – you pay for an amount of time that you wish to hang around a bunch of cats, in my case one hour. You also have the option of buying a drink or a dessert item like cake. If you do this, you receive a Sour Patch Kid colored bracelet you can exchange for a coffee or juice sometime during your stay. After you store all valuables inside a claw-protected room and take off any coats you might be wearing, you are free to pet cats, drink coffee and pet cats while drinking coffee.

Drink bracelet

Drink bracelet

We proceeded out of the cafe area into the main cat room. Blanketed in all sorts of perches and boxes (and smelling slightly of pee), this is where most of a trip to the cat cafe takes place. The walls are covered in cat-related decorations – except one wall devoted to a chart giving the info of every cat at the cafe – and the occasional kitty scampers by you. For the most part, though, the cats at this cafe were more than OK living up to the feline stereotypes laid out by Garfield and just snoozed.

Main cat room

Main cat room

Cat board

Cat board

Cat sleeping

Cat sleeping

The cats’ decision to sleep didn’t stop anyone in the room from petting them and mumbling things like crazy people (me very much included in this). You find a particularly adorable cat (and there are many), sit down next to it and just start petting it. I’ll take this moment to note these cats were especially fluffy. Most people also go around the room snapping photos of the kitties, and for a small fee you can rent out a cat toy to play with. I skipped this, as the majority of animals were in deep sleep.

The experience is bizarre. Besides the obvious “me and a bunch of other people paid money to hang around sleeping cats point, it’s weird for a few other reasons. As one friend noted, this was basically a cat brothel; we paid yen to bum around with cats for an hour while the cats, surely sick of this pampered treatment by now, sat back and endured it. They didn’t seem to be getting any enjoyment out of this. I heard nary a purr. And I won’t even dwell on the health concerns, especially when you see the drink-maker rubbing his face against a cat which is inches away from where the coffee is brewed.

Still, as I waited for my coffee and watched various cats mosey on by me, I see why such a place would be popular. Of course, the chance to pet cute, fluffy cats stands out. But it’s also a relaxing little escape, one where they play cutesy J-Pop and leave out books for you to draw pictures of cats in. And to top it all off…the cream at the top of the coffee is shaped like a cat face. Now that’s a winner.

(Japanese Fun Fact #38 – Spongebob Squarepants airs every week here, and besides being a TV drug trip it’s also really popular. It’s an international phenomenon, and as a result I’ve had elementary school students refer to me as “Patrick Star” a.k.a. the loveable but braindead starfish from the cartoon. It’s a similarity Japanese students share with American students, as both groups have done this. The only drawback…besides being considered slow just because that damn starfish is…is the Japanese version of Patrick has a really high pitched, feminine voice. In America he was a dum dum, but he at least sounded like a man.)

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I’ve spent the last week making the rounds at Nabari’s plethora of elementary schools, giving sixth grade classes a sorta intro lesson to English in an effort to get them excited to learn it come junior high. This educational detour lasts four weeks, two at the end of January and two at the end of February. Here are a few observations from one week spent doing the elementary school circuit.

– Whereas there are only five junior high schools total in this town, there are upwards of 20 elementary schools scattered all over Nabari. Some are really big, but a lot (usually tucked away in serene mountain areas straight out of The Sound Of Music) are tiny. Today, I taught a combined 5th/6th grade class of 10 students. Definitely no overcrowding issues here.

– Though not true in every case, it seems most elementary school students don’t have to wear uniforms to class. Personal expression…who’d of thunk it?

– Every Japanese principal’s office looks exactly the same. Wood-paneled walls, same carpet design, pictures of former principals hovering nearby above the cut-copy brown desk. Did Japan have some leftover model principal offices and dumped them all on Nabari?

– I’ve consumed more coffee this week than at any other point in my life.

– I played basketball with one sixth grade class this week, and for the most part the students seemed more intent on passing the ball then scoring. Great for making you go “ahhhhh, look at that teamwork,” not so dandy when your team needs points and nobody wants to hold the ball for more than two seconds. One kid did put on a good Kobe Bryant impersonation, dribbling the ball as long as he could and taking some crazy stupid shots. Also, the rim was low enough that I could practically dunk the ball. Good times all around.

– The second grade class I made a cameo in this week deserves a whole series of bullet points alone. So amazing. Highlights include:

* Whereas the older kids I teach are petrified of asking questions, second graders could go on for half a day just asking the most bizarre stuff. Sure, there is the usual “what Japanese food do you like” inquiries, but then they surprise you. “What’s your favorite flower?” “Do you like cats or dogs?” “What’s your favorite rare stone?” No, really, I answered diamond.

* They are also way more enthusiastic about learning (and using) English. They loved using English words almost as much as they loved singing songs…we did “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” three times and each time it started up the kids reacted like U2 were coming out for an encore. Also, friendly reminder I get paid to sing songs with seven year olds.

* Second graders could play rock-paper-scissors for an hour and be completely content doing it.

* The class though I was really cool for knowing who Pan-kun (of “Chimpanzee Riding on a Segway” fame) was. Most people would consult a criminal database if they heard I always try to watch the cute animal show on Saturday.

* In general, they made me feel a little better about humanity.

– Typical lunch at Japanese elementary school – rice (with some sort of protein) and pumpkin soup. Though they probably are in better health than I’ll ever be, I’m still thankful I grew up with the privilege of eating grease-laden pizza during my educational stint.

(Reasons I Should Not Be Allowed To Teach Children: One part of the sixth-grade lesson involves reviewing the letters of the alphabet. I always pronounce “U” the way Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em does (“uuuuuuuuuuuuuuu”). I get a big kick out of this, even if nobody else in the room even knows how to turn their swag on.)

(Japanese Fun Fact #37: Students in Japan all tend to own a similar looking, boxy backpack. I learned this week they can cost $600. I mean…can they withstand acid? That’s a lot for something to put your books in. Just throw them in a garbage bag, save $598. I’m going to be the best parent.)

Yes, all I do in Japan is eat food

Yes, all I do in Japan is eat food

How can one make a potato chip even more potato-ey? Simple, respond the Japanese! Just introduce a mashed potato flavored chip. Does this snack accurately capture the taste of a dinner-time staple? Lets find out.

The strangest aspect of these chips is they kinda do smell like a cooked potato. Bless bizarro seasonings I guess. The taste though…not as straightforward. The most immediate flavor sensation isn’t of potato but something I just can’t put my finger on. It tastes vaguely familiar but I just can’t pinpoint it…

Oh, seems like my Japanese lessons have been a total waste: a second look at the packaging reveals the flavor of these Pringles is “ma-yo-o–zu-po-te-to.” Roughly translated into…mayo potato. A potato slathered in mayonnaise. Basically a mayonnaise-flavored potato chip.

Uggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggh.

In American Pringles News…: My friends Lara, Vanessa and Emily back in lovely Evanston write in to share this photo:

One of these doesn't belong

One of these doesn't belong

Since I’m apparently an authority on oddly flavored Pringles, they ask “How do these options compare to what can be found in Japan?” Great question! First off, the “multi-grained” ones would be laughed off the shelf because Pringles in this country are expected to be junk food, not some dietary staple like in America. As for the other (delicious looking) flavors, “cheeseburger” and “Mexican layered dip” would probably be huge hits to the point I’m positive that at least burger flavored Pringles has been done. The other two fried entries, though they’d be big hits, aren’t prevalent in Japan so no dice. Probably a good thing…an “onion blossom” chip sounds quite revolting. And I just ate mayo-flavored snacks.

(Japanese Fun Fact #36 – I gave one of my Japanese supervisors a Milky Way bar as “omiyage” from America. He ate it and his face scrunched up like he’d bitten into a lemon sculpted out of Sour Patch Kid dust. He looked up and said “too sweet for me.” So…American candy, too intense for the Japanese pallet.)

Despite the probability of McDonald’s making any sort of political commentary via a product standing at about the same chance as LeBron James declaring he’ll never endorse another product as long as he lives, the timing of the chain-to-end-all chains “Big America” burger series in Japan (inadvertently) leads to a nice “how they see themselves/us” moment. This newest campaign, wherein four biggie-sized “American” themed sandwiches will be released over the next three months, comes only a few months removed from McDonald’s Japan’s “Nippon All Stars Menu,” their fast-food interpretation of Japanese cuisine. Those limited-time menu choices featured plenty of egg, chicken and seafood all in relatively normal sized portions. Seeing as this is McDonald’s, “normal sized portions” roughly translates to “eat this more than once a week and you might as well reserve a hospital bed now,” but otherwise nothing to crazy.

The Big America line, though, isn’t nearly as reserved. The overall size of the burger has jumped up considerably, enough to warrant a seven-minute video about it on Japanese news. They have all sorts of crazy toppings piled onto them. The unifying feature of all four is bacon, which really does sum up America in a weird way. McDonald’s Japan clearly just wants to sell big burgers in a way as not to freak out the population (everything is bigger in America! And more artery destroying!), but it’s still a very interesting fast food item. Or maybe I just need new hobbies to write about. I don’t know.

This week marked the arrival of the first “Big America” burger, the Texas Burger (which, in this reporter’s humble opinion, looked the most appetizing). Although I swore I’d stop eating at McDonald’s in 2010 in a hopeless effort to be healthier, the sick, BBQ-sauce stained siren’s call of the Texas Burger lured me in. I had to eat it.

Note: My regular cameria is still in America. Sorry for iPhone quality photos

Note: My regular cameria is still in America. Sorry for iPhone quality photos

The Texas Burger gets points for being the most “American” of the burger options, as the only vegetable featured on it is fried onion strings. It revels in excess – BBQ sauce, onion strings, a nuclear-colored mustard sauce, bacon (the Japanese version, not the crunchy American kind that used to be the Internet’s food of choice). Lord knows what the middle bun holding up some of the condiments on this thing could represent – I’m thinking of a northern landmark, Detroit’s People Mover, a seemingly OK idea that is an absolute waste in execution.

Too much bun yo

Too much bun yo

This thing isn’t a Matt Taibbi article though, it’s a burger so the only important question worth answering is “how does it taste?” Considering the stupid amount of foodstuffs jammed between three buns, one could go into the meal realistically expecting this burger to boast way too many flavors. Yet in a a shocking reverse and a terrible bit of self-realization (“this isn’t enough for me??? My God…”), the big problem with the Texas Burger is that it isn’t flavorful enough. The bacon and onion stand no chance of standing out, and the beef is just a slightly thicker piece of McDonald’s meat. The only distinctive flavors at play here are of BBQ Sauce and the Three Mile Island mustard. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination (they make this stuff in petri dishes, of course it’s going to taste good), but doesn’t deliver on the sickening promise of the ads.

Look at me, trying to be a professional burger blogger

Look at me, trying to be a professional burger blogger

Oh, and since I love nothing more than writing about cheeseburgers on a Friday night, lets focus on the middle bun a little more. I’m pretty positive the point of its being is to make sure the onion strings and BBQ sauce don’t go all over the place. It works for a bit, but eventually fails. Your hands will be coated in sauce, and you just have to accept that.

I guess the Texas Burger is about as Texan as it could possibly be – it’s basically a variation on the “western cheeseburger” you see at every chain restaurant dotting the U.S., save for that rubbish center bun. I can tell this thing is going to be a hit for sure, though – the McDonald’s in which I ate the burger was packed, and a big chunk of the clientele had the Texas Burger plopped down on their “Big America” paper place mat. Score one for burger democracy.

In one of the poorer technological decisions I’ve made since deciding paying $2.99 for the “I Am T-Pain” application, the two cities I check on my phone for weather reports are Nabari and Los Angeles. While the LA page boasts “highs in the 70s” and beaming suns, the Nabari page can only muster up numbers in the 30s and the vaguest of all weather systems, “wintery mix.” It’s a constant reminder that while someone in the greater Los Angeles area is complaining about 63 degrees being “freezing,” I’m unable to feel my face en route to work.

The Japanese winter (at least where I am) isn’t nearly as severe as a Midwestern winter…but for someone who grew up in a place where putting on a jacket at night was considered “braving the elements,” it’s still pretty unfun. So how does one survive a Japanese winter? One an exciting questions, I’m sure you’ve reacted. I’m here to answer.

Use A Potentially Life Threatening Heater – Reason number 2034 I would never want to be reborn as a Japanese schoolchild – none of the schools I work at are heated. The halls feel like a meat locker, and I imagine it’s even worse for the students who have to wear uniforms not designed for the cold. The only escape from shivering comes in the classroom, where large rectangular heaters kinda resembling the Gonk robot have been temporarily placed. These bulky additions offer adequate heating, but they also seem a bit…sketchy. They smell quite badly (like kerosene), and at one of my schools they’ve drawn a square around the device. It indicates where not to stand because when you turn it on it initially shoots fire out from it’s side. What could go wrong with having a miniature flamethrower in the class?

Ride The Train Non-Stop – Even more love for Japan’s public transit incoming! The trains here are freakishly warm, especially if you are lucky enough to snag a seat. The heaters are underneath the red benches, so it almost gets too hot. If you have a spare $20 to spend on a ticket, this options completely doable.

Take Long, Scalding Showers – This was my preferred method of staying warm until…

Learn To Use Your Heating Unit Properly – I spent weeks pressing random buttons on the unit’s remote control, hoping one day I’d stumble on the combination that would make not-cold air come out. Alas, I had no luck, and got by wearing a peacoat indoors/taking stupid long showers/not getting out of bed. Nothing weird about that! One day, my supervisor stopped by my apartment and I asked her how to make it work. She pressed two buttons and just like that, hot air pumping out after only five seconds. I’m dumb, but at least I’m warm now.

Wear Warm Clothing – Psssssh, whatever.

Be A Japanese Woman – I though Japanese students were ill-dressed for the winter…go into Osaka. Not to sound like a puritan, but a large chunk of young women roaming around the streets there wear thigh-level shorts and fishnets in the middle of January. They usually at least have a sweater, so I’ll give them credit there. But still…are they really good at hiding the freeze-induced pain or do they have the same genetic makeup as polar bears?

Live In Okinawa – Bastards.

Now On The Right Blog

January 10, 2010

Back in October, I thought spending my winter vacation back in America would be the pivotal test of my life in Japan. By the time I boarded by plane bound for Los Angeles in December the chance for that to remain true had basically dried up, but three months ago it felt like a turning point. Life in Japan was still relatively new and terrifying – I had plenty of good weeks, but just as many spent feeling lost and a bit hopeless. I decided two weeks in California would be a good test – if I felt better where I was originally from, there would be a good chance I wouldn’t resign for another year.

It was a mute point by the time I touched down, as I had already realized I’d still feel all the negative things if I lived anywhere else on the planet. Learning Japanese was the only real Japan-only terror, so I’d decided I would re-contract well before I went home. Still, as I now wait in the LAX terminal watching a steady stream of Texas and Alabama football fans move by, I’ve never felt more confident to be returning to somewhere I don’t know the language.

That reads like a swipe against my winter vacation, which was plenty pleasant, awesome even. It was great to see family and friends again, and I feel ten pounds heavier after indulging in every fast-food snack within a 50-mile radius of me. But being back also reminded me of all the reasons I wanted to get away in the first place – and made me realize what a different person I am depending on what side of the ocean I’m on.

As mentioned, plenty of thoughts bug me wherever I am. Pathetic as it may be, I still dwell on the past way too much and let it get me down – being with people reminiscing about “the good times” shot me into a lot of confused places. Similar story with journalism, which just made me feel dumb while on vacation. I noticed the most change in myself – I stressed out much easier in America and felt less independent (which, I guess, is bound to happen when you live with your family again, even for a short period of time).

I don’t think Japan has changed me in any drastic way outside of being OK eating fish now. Being far away from home has given me a chance to distance myself from the thoughts that get me down, and that allows me to be a better person. That’s a pretty bad solution (basically running away)…but it’s honestly the best way I can approach them, at least for now.

Visiting home was great, but I’m feeling even better to go back (even if I’m not looking forward to dragging my suitcase back to my apartment, as it has somehow gained more weight than me). And I’m glad I feel good about this, because next up is the most interesting stretch of time – a most-likely-unbroken span of a year-and-a-half of living in Japan. The first six-ish months had plenty of challenges, but this next part seems a little more daunting because it’s really the time for me to figure out my identity in Japan, and make the most of it. It’s basically a blank sheet, and that’s simultaneously horrifying and exciting. Not to mention the slow-growing realization that my time in Japan stands as my last hurrah of youth – I still have two years to be youthfully idiotic before I leave this program, at which point I should probably start mapping out my life. For now though, I’m excited by the possibility of this year.

Even if I need to run approximately a billion laps around the city. Seriously, the U.S. needs to do something about its nutrition, it’s amazing how bad it is.

(Japanese Fun Fact #35 – Ever wonder what Japanese hotel art looks like? Feast your eyes:

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