March 27, 2010
Though I’ve certainly enjoyed everything I’ve done in Japan up to this point, I’ll admit I probably haven’t traveled nearly as much as I should. The siren song of Osaka, with it’s cheap CD stores and delicious Mexican food, just rings so loudly sometimes. I’ve thus neglected to see different cities, even ones technically closer than Osaka. “You haven’t been to Kyoto yet? Or Nara?” Friends posted these questions the same way you’d say “you haven’t bathed in how long?” I didn’t blame them – it has been eight months (really?) and I don’t really have an excuse.
So, with no international Spring Break plans (another problem altogether), I decided to focus on going to the places in Japan I’d neglected to visit up to this point. First stop – Nara, the biggest city in neighboring Nara prefecture and Japan’s capital 1300 years ago. I took the day off from work and hopped on the train to see one of the most historic cities on this side of the world.
Stepping out of Kintetsu-Nara Station, what grabbed my attention right away was the silence. The usual city soundtrack of cars and voices isn’t as blaring here – it’s quieter. Nara is a Japanese city cutting out all the elements usually associated with Japanese cities – there is more space, less distractions, more room to walk. Things aren’t stacked on top of one another, meaning one three-story building contains about ten businesses. It’s more straightforward in Nara. Save for maybe an hour later in the day of aimless walking and a Mos Burger lunch, I didn’t spend much time in the city part of Nara. My day was spent getting lost in the massive Nara Park.
Nara Park is a deceptively large collection of open spaces and misty forests only a five minute walk away from the train station. Scattered about all this nature are relics of Japan’s past – temples, pagodas, shrines. It’s not perfect – soda machines lean against buildings like ivy growing on a wall, and the amount of cars driving down the paths kinda wipes out the magic – but still enchanting. This isn’t Ye Old Colonial Town…authentic artifacts sit untroubled for all to see.
The park ended up being even more serene than the city. Despite the heavy flow of tourists circling around the park – it was a virtual Babel as I heard English, German, Indian, Spanish, some Scandinavian tongue and who knows what languages I couldn’t recognize – Nara Park never felt like a shoddy theme park. The sheer natural and historical beauty present in the park was enough to leave visitors relatively silent. Considering tourists often get called (and often get called correctly) “obnoxious,” it was a pleasant surprise to see so many people entranced by the surroundings.
The one park feature everyone couldn’t resist talking about were the deer. A thousand-some deer call Nara Park home, and they roam around the mass expanse of land freely. Some lounge about in the sun, ignoring the paparazzi-lite masses snapping photos of them. Others sheepishly avoid human advances, darting over fences and into the off-limits forest. Most just bask in the attention and come right up to you. I’d be lying if I said seeing the deer wasn’t my main motivation for making the hour-and-a-half trip out to Nara.
The smartest deer congregate near the little stands selling deer biscuits. For 150 yen, you get a stack of cookies you can feed to the deer. The moment the snacks take the place of the money in your hands, you become the most popular person to the deer within the area. They walk towards you, the more passive of the bunch waiting for you to feed them well the more impatient creatures try to snatch the wafers out of your hands. They formed a circle around me – as I gave out snacks to those in the front, the deer in the back started ramming their heads into me to grab my attention. Of course, the moment I turned to feed them, the greedy deer in the front began assailing me. Then I ran out of food…and they ditched me for the next out-of-towner willing to plop down some coins. I saw deer chase five-year-old kids to try to get one more biscuit. If I had been a toddler, I would have been traumatized. But I enjoyed the experience.
I feel I saw at least half of the park’s deer population during my time wandering around. They crowded on streets, popped out from behind ancient lanterns, even snuck inside of gift stores. I don’t think I’ve taken more photos of a single subject before in my life. Here are some more deer:
Deeper into the forest were even more clusters of temples and shrines. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
The finale of my trip to Nara Park would be the famous Todai-ji temple. I trudged through the rain and sea of visitors to see the truly massive building (the largest wooden building in the world, according to Wikipedia) and the humongous Buddha statue housed inside (the biggest Buddha statue in the world, so says the same site). Everything about this experience is humbling – the approach to the giant building, laying eyes on the more-than-impressive Buddha , walking around said statue and having the enormous proportions sink in. It’s probably the coolest thing I’ve seen in Japan yet, and words really fail as to describe the weird mixture of history, spirituality and massiveness the whole thing conjures.
I’d be hesitant to call Nara the best place I’ve visited in Japan…especially given the material used to write the intro of this post…but it certainly was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had thus far. A day there evokes a series of contradictory images – it was one of the most diverse and crowded places I’ve seen, but also one of the most peaceful. It’s romantic, but also perfect for solitary thought. It brims with history, but feels tied to only the present. It was precisely the kinda trip I needed to clear my mind of thoughts as of late. I clearly have been missing out by not traveling more. But then again…does anywhere else have deer that will just come up right next to you?
Of the myriad “facts” relayed to us new JET participants back in Tokyo circa July 2009, two have really stuck with me because of just how wrong they seem to be. The first concerns soda in vending machines. Several different speakers, pressed to explain differences between Japanese culture and the rest of the world, claimed a Japanese person would opt for a smaller bottle of Coca-Cola from a vending machine over a larger bottle that cost the exact same because they “weren’t that thirsty.” This story reeks of bullshit because I’ve yet to stumble across a machine where the different sized offerings cost the same – the small container goes for 120 yen, the bigger one for 150. I don’t know why someone would have to lie about a subject so banal.
The other myth? The wildness of “enkais,” or work parties. The folks at JET orientation made these things sound like some borderline Roman-orgies. Teachers getting crazy, stumbling around drunk and forming human pyramids. I looked forward to this debauchery. Alas, the enkai experience seems to have been greatly exaggerated by the folks responsible for those seminars. They are certainly more wild than a typical day at work, but all that means is the teachers talk about subjects other than school and we eat nice food. Enkais are plenty fun, but nothing near the hyped up version promised by those people in Tokyo.
Though nobody got stacked on top of one-another, the “end of year” party put together by one of my junior high schools came close to matching these hedonistic images cultivated at orientation. It wasn’t that rambunctious, but did see most of the staff loosening up to a great degree. The school went big – they rented out a room in a fancy, chapel-shaped building where all the staff wears nice suits and each room comes equipped with a piano. The local Cocos it wasn’t.
The party served as a send-off for the 13 teachers being moved to new schools in the new academic year (start of April). In a showcase of the establishment’s fanciness, the party started off with all the lights being dimmed as the staircase located in the back of the room lit up. The soon-to-be-transferred staff walked down the illuminated steps as “Pomp And Circumstance” played. The rest of the evening featured speeches from the leaving teachers and a segment where they all got gifts. Laughs, smiles and tears all around.
For the most part, this portion of the party seemed pretty par for the course of an enkai. A few oddities, though, did stick out. Primarily, the soundtrack for the evening. This chapel-slash-banquet-hall decided the perfect musical choice for a going-away party would be Katy Perry’s last CD. People had emotional farewells soundtracked by “Hot N Cold” and “Waking Up In Vegas.” Nothing beats seeing two teachers, close friends at school, saying their last goodbyes as Ms. Perry bleats out “I kissed a girl/and I liked it.” They at least had the good sense to skip over “Ur So Gay.”
Besides Warped Tour worthy pop, this enkai also featured a not-seen-before enthusiasm to get me drunk. At previous parties, co-workers reacted to me having a drink or two with a “Very good, yes” or other barely there phrases. This night, though, people wanted me plastered. The teachers, always quick to fill a halfway empty glass, seemed especially eagle-eyed. One of my English teachers drove home the point that I “need to drink more!” It seemed most of my conversations at this point in the night touched on this subject.
The first party closed out with a song. One of the music teachers manned the piano and played a song that everyone else joined in singing. As it was all in Japanese, I stood up and sorta bobbed along to it. After that, we formed a human tunnel and all the on-there-way-out teachers ran through a la the ending of a kid’s soccer game (“2 4 6 8 Who do we appreciate?”). At the end of the tunnel waited a few male teachers, who tossed up the teachers in the air like college students do after their team scores a touchdown.
This would have been a fine ending to the night, except they had an after party lined up. We piled into a van and drove south to a vaguely 50’s America themed karaoke joint. This is where things really picked up – it was at this venue decorated with old-looking guitars and tacky license plates where the teachers really let loose. They talk a little louder, act a little bit more silly and generally seem to be having a lot of fun. If you’ll allow me a second to play Jr. sociologist, I’d guess karaoke is so popular in Japan because it’s one of the true escapes found in this country – a place where all the realities of the outside world take a backseat. Kinda like Cheers but with more awkward singing.
Speaking of…many of the teachers wanted to see me make a fool of myself singing, but when I finally did croon off I can only imagine it was kinda a disappointment. I could only sing in English, and nobody in the room seemed to know any English songs whatsoever. I opened up with “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” hoping they knew of this little band called The Beatles, but they seemed more or less baffled. Later on, joined by the one teacher who enjoys English songs, I gave “Faith by George Michael (note: did not know any of the words to this song, I think I faked it OK) a whirl. Same polite but confused reaction. At least the teacher I did the duet with enjoyed himself.
Based on my night singing karaoke with Japanese co-workers, it seems people in this country enjoy slower songs. When I’m out with other English speaking friends, we opt for faster-paced jams, the slowest we get being….Snow Patrol? I’m excluding the occasional ironic take on Enya. The staff from this school, though, sand almost exclusively slow, melancholy tunes. Makes some sense, as ballads tend to make a much bigger dent in the charts here than in America. That, and the majority of people I was with were middle-aged, and seeing them belt out Arashi (popular Japanese boy band) would have been pretty unsettling.
The farewell party didn’t come close to matching up with folklore spilled in Tokyo, but was a lot nearer than previous parties. And it was fun. Even if I got caught singing a George Michael song I’d only heard from VH1 clip shows.
(Japanese Fun Fact #52 – The last day of school for non-graduating students consists of nothing but cleaning the entire school.)
March 22, 2010
Oh, the joys of mysterious holidays. Monday was a day off from work due to a national holiday, observed for some sort of Equinox that happened over the weekend. This meant I got a break from doing my presentation on landmines (no, really, I’ve been teaching first year students about the horrors of landmines in Cambodia for the past week. It’s not very uplifting material.) and had the chance to explore somewhere new in the area. With a couple of friends (including my college friend/Tokyo connect Eri), I ended up at the Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya for the day. The Internet claims it’s the third-best zoo in Japan…but the Higashiyama Zoo was a red panda exhibit away from being the best zoo-related experience of my life. Come, let’s stare at pictures of animals:
The highlight of the zoo was definitely the polar bears. Whereas every polar bear exhibit in America I’ve seen ends with disappointment at the sight of sleeping bears, the duo in Nagoya were super active. There was a bigger one which loved flopping into the water and swimming about, and a smaller guy apparently terrified of H20 who chose to perilously creep across the exhibit’s edge instead of get wet. We came shortly before there lunch…a zoo employee hopped over the railing meant to keep us out and started tossing pieces of white bread and apples into the bears’ home. The big one had no problem reaching the food…but the little one refused to swim, even for the prison-approved meal of bread floating in water. That polar bear leaned over the edges and pawed the bread towards him.
(Japanese Fun Fact #51: I visited my first Japanese movie theater this weekend [to see The Hurt Locker for a second time, holds up]. For the most part the experience isn’t crazy different from what you’d get in America. But here are a few slight differences condensed into bullet-point form:
– When you purchase tickets, you also pick what seats you want to sit in. Nobody in Japan wants to see The Hurt Locker, if the number of open seats meant anything.
– The concession stand surprisingly sells typical fare, but two notes. One, the prices for food are way cheaper than in America – general tickets cost more but popcorn can be bought at a reasonable price. Speaking of popcorn – it isn’t like the plain stuff popped up in the States. They sell crunchy caramel corn. And it’s divine, the only downside being it’s a lot louder to eat. This especially becomes a problem during a tense film like The Hurt Locker – nothing better than biting into an especially crunchy handful when a car bomb might go off at any second.
– Previews in Japan – much faster, much more straightforward. They made Shutter Island not look like a total phoned-in piece of crap!
– The best part…the little preview-thing telling you the rules of the theater. Tough to sum up but…it involved bears, violence, people with video cameras for heads, crying and high-pitched narrators. Bizarre, but better than anything I ever saw at Cinemark.
Ise is the holiest city in all of Japan, containing one of (if not the) most famous shrine in the entire country. If my memory of Japanese History: The Tokugawa Period class in college can be trusted, it’s where the sun goddess sprung out of the Earth to create Japan…or something along those lines. Ise also lays claim to a far less divine staple…the “Irish Day” (St. Patrick’s Day) parade. The weekend before the actual booze-tastic holiday, foreigners and Irish-aping Japanese folks dawn green and take to the streets. It’s the only event of it’s kind in Mie.
It’s also kind of a disappointment. The people behind organizing the parade deserve all sorts of credit for pulling this off, but that still doesn’t mean the actual events anything to write home about (errrrr, unless you blog about all sorts of worthless info). It’s fun…but I hoped for either some sort of crazy spectacle or at least an interesting look at how the Japanese view Irish culture. They view it the exact same way most Americans do…wear green, drink Guinness, have a parade. Save for sushi being the main culinary fare offered at the rag-tag Irish vending area, it all went pretty smoothly. People marched, people danced, people said stuff, the citizens of Ise stared. I didn’t stay very long.
There were a few notes of interest. Mainly, Power Rangers. Besides having a Japanese “St. Patrick Guy” and a town mascot, Ise also had a troupe of mighty morphin (copyright?) dudes hanging out to promote some Irish pride. Lots of cities in Japan have these types of Power Rangers – they do shows, I’m told, to promote…something? Following the law? Respecting your elders? Not littering? Not radically drastic from, say, McGruff but still highly intricate. The Power Rangers even had villains cruising around town with them…despite handing out “Wanted” posters, the Rangers never laid a finger on them. What kind of message does that send?
(Japanese Fun Fact #50: Not really a “fact” per se as much as some scenes from today’s soft tennis club:
– One kid saying “I don’t like money” over and over again, only later for me to realize she was saying “I don’t like [student who has a name that sounds like money]” as a joke. Kids got a lot of laughs out of that one.
– Discussing the character of Jack Sparrow alongside the students.
– Being called a “vampire” when I put my hood on because it started raining.
– Being called “mouse boy” when I put my hood on because it started raining.
– Being asked if I “like escargot,” responding in the negative and then high-fiving six students who also did not like escargot. Or who just wanted a high-five and said “me too.”
– Having students recite the “soft tennis” dialogue passage of their textbook to me. They do pay attention!
Love me some soft tennis club.)
(I’m clearly a failure at teaching English file: One of my classes wrote me a very cute greeting on the blackboard this week. Unfortunately, they wrote “we love Patoric.” Still “awww shucks” inducing.)
At last this wretched quest ends with the symbolic return to my home state. The excitement I had when this promotion began (“oooooh, it has BBQ sauce AND onions!”) quickly turned to routine (“the Hawaii burger is out, I’ll pencil that in for Friday”) before ending on a note of tepidness (“I GUESS I’ll eat the California Burger”). A new-found commitment to live slightly healthier in 2010 also sidetracked my enthusiasm for this fast-food odyssey, though to be honest I had nowhere to go but up after my college diet which routinely consisted of Chipotle, Burger King and a particularly greasy Philly Cheesesteak store with the best damned fried dough ever. Here, at the very end, I just want to consume the California Burger and return to my bland culinary life of white rice and spaghetti.
Still, I had to eat it. The California Burger follows the same template of the New York Burger, eschewing near-novelty features (an egg, an extra bun) for a relatively simple burger topped with unique sauce. This model came with a “wine sauce,” in honor of California’s wine industry. From the outside, it looked totally normal save for a slightly different bun. How did it taste?
Maybe doing this faux-culinary tour of America through McDonald’s has just broken my taste buds down, but the California Burger tasted terribly normal. The wine sauce had a very potent effect (surprisingly spicy, like adding some pepper to the top of ketchup) which was great. Shame they put very little on. Everything else was very basic for a McDonald’s hamburger…which isn’t a good thing unless it’s slathered in secret sauce or greasy cheese. This had neither. To fill my quota of state-related jokes, you could say the California Burger was bankrupt on taste.
Thus ends the Big America Burger saga. What have I learned? America equals lukewarm bacon and goofy culinary add-ons. Sounds about right.
(Japanese Fun Fact #49: Japan doesn’t have an army. Go read a history book and/or Wikipedia for more on that. But they do have the Japan Self-Defense Force!
Just like a real military, this ad appears right across from my junior high school in order to convince impressionable kids to sign up. Still, it’s not terrible because Japan isn’t, ya know, wrapped up in any meaningless wars at the moment.)
March 11, 2010
It’s been about nine months since I thought graduation ceremonies were out of my life. At least for the next year of it. Back then, I (thought I) ended my commencement career listening to Wynton Marsalis jam on a trumpet before having the sky unload several swimming pools worth of rain onto the newly minted Northwestern class of 2009. Over the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten in my life, the last thought lurking in my mind was “well, can’t way to do that again next Spring!” I was just thankful to be finished with school and to be tasting caviar for the first time.
Thanks to Japan’s school schedule, though, graduation time came this week, on Tuesday. Of course, I found myself on the opposite side of things this time around – instead of having to march out in front of staff and family, I’d get to watch from the side of the heavily decorated gym. The Japanese junior high school graduation ceremony both resembles its American equivalent but also couldn’t be more different.
The happening begins just like I remember my junior high school graduation did – with the students walking into the gym before taking a seat. The only notable difference was this school had an actual band, comprised of younger students, playing music. A giant step ahead of my graduation, which featured the sounds of (then) Puff Daddy’s Police rip-off “I’ll Be Missing You” blaring out of the loudspeakers. They play the Japanese national anthem then the school’s official song. The first standout difference is that the younger grades have to attend the ceremony…no day off for them. A good amount of parents also show up, though the decision to hold the even on a Tuesday morning in a country where taking time off from work rarely happens meant it didn’t seem nearly as crowded as any American ceremony I’ve been to. The present parents did come armed with all sorts of cameras and video equipment to record the memories.
After an opening speech by the principal, the diplomas (or whatever the Japanese equivalent of a diploma) get handed out. Students go on stage one at a time to accept the papers. Instead of shaking hands with the principal, they grasp the paper with both hands and then bow to him. The student then exited the stage and approached the mass of parents. The student then held up his or her diploma for everyone to see, ala a more shameful boxing match card girl, then put it down on a table. Following this, a few members of the local government and the PTA addressed the students. Par for the course.
Then the graduation turned uniquely Japanese.
The graduating students turned to face the younger classes, who begin reciting short blasts of words at the older kids. It’s like an NBA Cares commercial where the scene jumps from a kid to Steve Nash to some kid to Dwight Howard as they each say one sentence of a thread-together message. A barely-there piano melody plays over the PA system to add to the “The More You Know Feel” of the whole thing. Then a student goes up to a piano on the stage, plays a tune and the graduating class sings a song. It’s a tune about moving on or growing up, and it absolutely wrecks the students. Half the kids start crying midway through the song while the rest just look like they are on the verge of bawling. It’s really affecting. The song ends…then the graduating students, still fighting back tears, do the message thing for the younger students. Then they sing another song. Anyone with dry eyes at this point is probably a cyborg of some sort. Even parents and a handful of teachers were crying. Students then walk out to applause, and it’s all over.
Things don’t end there. Staff, family and younger students line up in the halls, holding gifts, to say goodbye to the departing third-years. After that, general picture taking/yearbook signing madness. Then…they head out for the last time. And the teacher’s get a special lunch.
Despite a few glaring similarities, the more I think about the ceremony the more I believe it’s totally different than an American graduation. I’ve never seen as much emotion spill out of an American commencement, especially one just for junior high. I’d chalk that up mostly to the fact there is a very real possibility a lot of these students won’t see each other again – American junior high school students usually end up in the same high school unless they choose to go to a private school, most likely because they want to get away from these people next to them. The Japanese entrance exam system allows for the possibility of classmates’ dreams of going to the same school to be dashed. If you don’t score high enough, you won’t be attending. Considering a lot of these students will have to take these exams just one week after graduating, you can probably guess emotions are high. Whatever the reason, it was a whole lot more emotional (and thus gripping) than the typical American graduation ceremony, in which you just want it to end so you can make it to Black Angus in time.
Oh, and such a good lunch. Sashimi and fried shrimp, don’t mind if I do!
(Japanese Fun Fact #48: Most teachers at graduation wear suits. The third-year homeroom teachers, though, wear full blown kimonos.)
March 10, 2010
(First off, sorry for lack of updates. I have two posts just waiting to be written but…surprise!…I’m busy at work. This, though, was just too strange to pass up.)
There I am, minding my own business on a Wednesday night. I’ve just finished off a plate of spaghetti and am now watching YouTube videos while Greek downloads off of iTunes. A great night.
My doorbell goes off. I’ve already picked up a package from my grandma earlier in the day, so I’m not expecting any mail. I have no plans. I’m pretty sure I’ve scared off the local Mormon missionaries. I head over to the door and open it up. Standing outside is an older Japanese woman. She might be my neighbor, she might be my landlord. I’ve seen both rarely.
She starts talking. My Japanese ability have reached the point where I can pick certain words out of a sentence and sorta kinda piece things together from there…but everything she says whizzes by me leaving me dumbfounded as to what is going on. Through some hand motioning, it becomes clear she wants to come inside. Assuming that if she intends to cut out my kidneys that I could take her (reason number one I signed up for the gym – ability to fend off the elderly), I let her in.
The woman wants to see my shower. I get over the shame of having to show this stranger my completely grody shower room and open the door. We walk in. She speaks some more gibberish. She makes some twisting motions. “Mizou?” I ask, flexing my knowledge of one Japanese word (water). “Iie iee” (no no). “Heat?” “Hai.”
I turn on the heat. She then asks for me to turn on the water. Done. Then I turn it off. Then she wants me to do it all again while the knob is in different places…I think. I oblige. She says things. I look at her like she’s just peeled her skin off. She apologizes for this whole situation. She also makes a hand motion that might signify steam. But I don’t know. She apologizes once more, I say no problem, and she leaves. I’m left to figure out what just happened. No luck. At least Greek finished downloading.
(Japanese Fun Fact #47: Japanese school kids draw the most intricate pictures in fogged up bus windows.)
March 2, 2010
Awesome T-Shirt Checklist:
-Has famous cartoon character doing something wacky/ironic: Check
-Vague weed aesthetic: Check
– Horrible horrible pun: Check Check Check
The biggest shock is this was on sale at a thrift store. Who would want to get rid of this???
Don’t answer that…
In other pointless news, the rebranded Pepsi logo has debuted in Japan.
This barely constitutes news to anyone…but since I did an entire report for a (dreadful) advertising class on this topic, I kinda geeked out when I saw it. The police will have to restrain me when the new Dominoe’s formula hits this side of the world.
(Japanese Fun Fact #46: Before graduation, students at school spend one afternoon “thanking” the school they attended for the past three years. I don’t mean giving gifts to the staff…they literally thank the school building by giving it a thorough cleaning. Very cute. My English teacher explained this all to me as I watched the students play janitor while I sat back and made word search puzzles.)