I should be updating this blog a bit more frequently than I do now, but 1.) nothing particularly interesting has happened as of late and 2.) I’m going through the on-again-off-again phase of wondering why I even write about any of this stuff at all. Couple those two points with the fact I’ve spent the last few days researching other foreigner-in-Japan blogs and materials, resulting in me wondering what the point of any of this is (I’ve tried writing about this situation but always end up hitting roadblocks in the form of points one and two). Dramatic right? Well, don’t worry about any of that business. Let’s focus on some smaller details as of late.

– I started playing basketball with my students at one of my schools. Having only taken part in one practice, I’m not prepared to write some FreeDarko-esque epic about how the Japanese ball…besides Buzzer Beat probably did a good enough job on that front…but I’ll offer up a few slight observations. These kids played fast, and I don’t just mean “fast” compared to my lumbering about…these kids played like the Phoenix Suns circa mid-Oughts. They tended not to drive towards the basket all that much, opting instead to take frequent jump shots, regardless of how awkward they ended up being. The students also treated any positive play on my part as NBA Finals MVP material – they all clapped when I made a shot, and couldn’t stop complimenting me in English when I made free throws (glad my athletic talents offer up a chance for more English practice).

The biggest ovation came when I attempted to save the ball from going out-of-bounds by diving after it. Everyone, even the instructor, seemed impressed by my hustle. Thankfully, they don’t know the truth…I slipped and while clumsily falling to the hardwood, I tried pawing after the ball. Turning awkwardness into gold…my natural ability.

– I had to make a map for a class about directions last week. I made this.

The teacher dubbed it “Patricktown” and I ran with it. Patricktown features a movie theater, a “nature museum” and of course a pet store complete with bad drawing of a puppy. It’s also the best thing I’ve drawn in a long time. A low standard, but a standard nonetheless.

– A student attempted to draw Cookie, my family’s dog featured prominently in my self-introduction. Here is a terrible photo of it.

The iPhone…not very good at pictures.

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Daytrip: Kashihara Jingu

April 25, 2010

I was all prepared to have a horrible weekend. Sorry to dwell on narcissistic topics, but my computer (or, more accurately, the Internet) decided to become laggy as Windows 95 and has been stressing me out for the past three days. Yet instead of spending all day Saturday hunched in front of my laptop downloading anti-virus software (spoiler: isn’t the problem! And this post is taking an obnoxious amount of time to write!), I got out of the house. One of the wiser decisions I’ve made.

I visited a famous Shinto shrine in nearby Nara prefecture, Kashihara Jingu. It’s an extremely pretty place that I could never do justice with words (coupled with the fact I currently have writer’s block/sometimes wonder why I even maintain this thing), so instead look at a bunch of pictures and simplistic captions.

Very wooded area

Very wooded area

Gotta wash your hands before going in!

Gotta wash your hands before going in!

The temple's lake

The temple's lake

Purdy flowers

Purdy flowers

Sleepy cat we found

Sleepy cat we found

Side path

Side path

Temple grounds

Temple grounds

Main temple

Main temple

A building. My languid writing state extends to captions

A building. My languid writing state extends to captions

And God looked down and regretted it all

And God looked down and regretted it all

Mankind has had a lot of great ideas. Mixed along with those, though, are a few total duds that should be brushed aside and never spoken about again.

I’d like to nominate the Lawson’s Microwaveable Cheeseburger for the latter category.

In theory…IN THEORY…this isn’t a completely wretched idea. Cheeseburgers aren’t common in Japan, but convenience stores like Lawson’s dot the land like buttons on shirts (I acknowledge that sucks). As long as one accepted the fact a cheeseburger sold for approximately $1.25 wouldn’t be Top Chef Masters material, it could still work as a cure to a strong burger cravin.’

Oh how short this falls.

The Lawson’s “burger” gets put on the same display shelf as Lawson’s “baked oddities,” which include a cold hot dog wedged into a dinner roll and bread with eggs smothered on it. This should of been red flag one. Or, actually, maybe red flag one should have been the fact this is a burger you pop in the microwave for 20 seconds and bam! instant meal. There couldn’t possibly be a way that ends well.

The cheeseburger comes out very small, about the same size as a hockey puck. The element of this convenience store treat that catches the eye immediately is the color of the meat…it’s not brown, or even imitation brown like the beloved AMPM cheeseburgers of my chubby childhood. No, it looks like…a fillet o’ fish? A chicken patty? That color. Vaguely orangeish, Oompa-Loompa shade. Of course, I bit into this mystery meat product.

Sad face

Sad face

I’m sure by now even you at home can guess just how this thing tasted – badddddddddddd. And look, I didn’t expect the Wolfgang Puck treatment when I paid a buck twenty-five for a microwaveable burger. Yet even knowing this would taste terrible, the cheeseburger still managed to catch me off guard in regards to texture. I’m pretty sure this thing wasn’t composed of beef. I’m not sure this thing was made of meat at all. Comparing it to meatloaf would be a great injustice to meatloaf. It’s a topic I don’t want to dwell on. The condiments conservatively plopped onto the burger aren’t much better – some stinging ketchup, mustard. The only positive I can muster up in defense of this thing is that the cheese wasn’t bad.

Make fun of the KFC Double Down sandwich all you want, but I’d rather be force fed 10 of those monstrosities than consider this again.

(Japanese Fun Fact #58 – Whenever I say “good morning” to a Japanese person, they always say it again mimicking how I say it. I think I say “good morning” weird. I guess that’s really more of a personal fun fact. Sorry.)

– Apologies for dwelling on such melancholy material, but the “highlight” of this week definitely ended up being the surprise school transfer. I won’t deny that I probably reacted to the news more emotionally than most would – geez, my Japanese co-workers go through this every year – but the out-of-nowhere-ness of it all really walloped. Anyway, because I’m always way too self-conscious about this sort of thing, a wrap-up: I visited my old school one last time, for my purposes to clear out my desk. I managed to say goodbye to two teachers, but managed to miss a lot more. Thankfully, a trip to Stationary Salsa and an afternoon spent crafting goodbye “thank you” notes should fix that. I also visited my new school, and everyone seems very nice. So hey, positives. See, no dwelling on emotions this time around!

– I don’t know when this happened, but according to Esquire – “come for the three great features, stay for the tedious fashion and outdated definitions of masculinity” – the Japanese equivalent of the GAP is starting to take off in America. UNIQLO sells nice but affordable clothes for the masses, and I guess a few stores have managed to find themselves open in America. Despite it’s ubiquity across all Japan and emergence in North America, I’ve never actually spent time inside a UNIQLO. I finally had an excuse to go to one this week, though, after a pair of my work pants managed to fall apart on my.

The trip report reveals nothing stunning…a sale on polo shirts, lots of varieties of khaki pants, goofy-lookin socks. Basically the GAP down to the all-caps name. But one thing led me conclude UNIQLO was miles cooler than GAP and to totally geek out. Next to the UNIQLO-brand t-shirts branded with various Disney characters sat a display advertising shirts that are part of the chain’s promotional series with Domino Records. If you can recognize any of the following names – Junior Boys, Four Tet, Max Tundra – you’ll understand why seeing this made stupid excited. I came dangerously close to buying a shirt with this Clinic album cover on it, but they only had one and I doubt it would have fit. Regardless, the fact people in Japan are wearing shirts that say “Wild Beasts” on them and have no idea what that refers to makes me strangely happy.

– This happened last week, but oh well it stuck with me – while moving textbooks around at an elementary school, a very young student cleaning the room looked up, said “Michael Jackson” and started doing the moonwalk. I don’t know whether he just wanted to dance or the presence of a Westerner caused him to imitate the King Of Pop, but it was an amazing moment all the same.

– In other news…we got the plate. Rejoice America.

Can’t wait to eat off that bear’s face.

(Japanese Fun Fact #57 – All the wireless networks my iPhone picks up on the street are called “warpstar.” Sly Kirby reference? I don’t think it’s a stretch…a few school signs in Nabari actually have Kirby on them puffed up and flying about.)

Bummer Time

April 12, 2010

Last Friday, my favorite junior high held a welcoming party for all the new teachers coming into the school for that year. They held it at a fancy party place which also boasted a natural hot spring within its confines. It was a fun time – good food and plenty of great conversations with old and new teachers alike. Everyone seemed excited for the new year — as excited as one can be when they are running off two hours of sleep, as one teacher confessed to me — and even I started feeling giddy about it. Even if it meant a return to, uh, actually preparing lessons for students.

Unfortunately, I won’t get a chance to make those lessons, at least not at this school. I found out Monday morning I had been transferred from this school. The number of classes in this school rose while the total amount in another junior high dropped, throwing the amount of classes the other English teacher and I work off. To compensate for the change, we swapped schools (he is being pried away from his favorite junior high school as well, so this situation really has no winners). We had no prior warning that this could happen…we just came into work and, poof.

Fittingly, ten minutes after this news, a small earthquake struck the city.

Had this been decided, say, three months ago, I wouldn’t be nearly as shaken (ha! Earthquake reference). But I’ve grown a lot more confident in this job since the start of 2010; it took a decent amount of time, but I’ve become comfortable at all three of my schools. Everything feels far less frightening now. I’ve gotten a hang of this “English teaching” thing, I’ve become friendly with all my teachers, I’ve found clubs at the schools I can get involved in. This is the point in the script where I start hitting my stride, my character goes from bumbling awkward guy to matured workplace presence.

Of course, anyone over the age of seven knows life never mimics TV, nothing ever plays out that predictably. It feels dumb to write something so obvious as life is just a series of transitions — jotting down “it’s raining outside” or “my bed needs to be made” seem way more revealing — but it’s true. I just have to chin up and focus on adjusting to this new school. And hey…I still have two old schools to fall back on.

But saying goodbye to THIS junior high…not easy. My mom always ask me which of my schools I like the best, and I always answer with the Congress-worthy “I like all of them the same!” That statement rang true for most of my time in Japan, but now would be false. The junior high school I’m leaving clawed it’s way to the top sometime this year. I spent the most work days there – it probably only makes sense it eventually became the one I enjoyed visiting the most.

Not to sound like a cliche awards acceptance speech, it’s the people I’ll miss the most. Returning to the work party Friday, the biggest revelation – besides the fact I really can’t eat seafood that still has eyes in place – was at just how close I’d grown to my coworkers at this school. Whereas I only spoke to a few people via interpreter at the first school party back in August, I talked to a much more robust selection of teachers nine months later – with and without translator in tow. There were my English teachers, the science teacher who greets me “good morning” even in the late afternoon, the teacher who loves the NBA so much he named his dog “LeBron,” the teacher who quizzes me on Japanese colors every morning, the teacher who wants me to quiz her on English, the cute math teacher I finally got the nerve to talk to at the party, the teacher who has proposed to me on more than one occasion. I genuinely looked forward to seeing and working with these people in the new year. And even if this new school features just as many interesting characters, I’m going to miss them. A lot.

Not to mention this was the school with the soft tennis club. I”m going to miss making a fool of myself in front of 12-year-old girls even more.

(Japanese Fun Fact #56 – I don’t think I ever mentioned nobody says “bless you” if you sneeze. They just let a really awkward silence develop.)

I thought Saturday’s Hanami Party (Cherry Blossom Viewing Party) would be a snap. Eat some food, take a few more photos of pretty trees, buy some fried festival food. Ohhhhhh, how things fall apart. First, the obligatory collection of purdy tree photos.

This one courtesy Jonathan Frey

This one courtesy Jonathan Frey

It was just like any other festival in Nabari, just prettier and boasting more booths selling vinyl copies of Journey’s Escape. We wandered around for a bit, and were about to call it a day. Then…..

So much food

So much food

Wholesome

Wholesome

…someone said “look, they have a hip-hop dance performance!” Thus began the first time in my life I felt like a “family values” conservative.

Several troupes of kids, as old as high school students and as young as what appeared to be kindergartners, came on stage decked out in “urban” clothes ranging from slightly tilted baseball hats to basketball jerseys (first time I’ve ever seen a Clippers jersey in Japan, holla) to camo pants. They then busted into dance I can only imagine was completely cribbed from Darren’s Dance Grooves, featuring a wide array of “poppin’-and-lockin'” maneuvers interrupted only by the occasional Worm or Lawnmower move. This would look ridiculous coming from any set of tweens in any country…but it was the song selection that elevated this performance into something memorable/terrifying.

Seeing as the hip-hop troupe’s grasp of English fell far short of fluency, I’m left to assume the people in charge of this afterschool activity said “if they play it on the radio in America, it must be OK!” Alas, the concept of an “edited single” doesn’t translate. Seeing ten-year-old kids imitate Stomp The Yard as Lil’ Mama goes on about getting crazy at the club…funny! Seeing children just recently versed in The Very Hungry Caterpillar dance confused as some guy yells out “Motherfucker” over and over again…getting there!

Enter party rap chucklefucks (and Mitt Romney fighters!) LMFAO and “Shots.”

The opening lines of “Shots,” delivered by the patron saint of Patron Lil’ John himself, declares “If you not drunk ladies and gentlemen, get ready to be drunked up.” Lil’ John continues, asking “All of the alcoholics, where you at?” This song would be just dandy for a college “night of mayhem” – but seeing nine and ten-year-olds pull off choreographed moves blissfully unaware of what Lil’ John hollers about? After the chorus (“SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS”) the situation somehow managed to get even more disturbing. It’s not clear in the above video – as it’s censored out – but LMFAO sing “The ladies love us/when we pour shots/they need an excuse/to suck our cocks.” The version used at the Hanami Party kept this line intact…nobody else at the park batted an eyelash, though we were in stunned disbelief/uncontrollable laughter.

Things spun out of control from here – subsequent songs featured lines like “suck my titties,” “tattoo that puss” and “Girl, let me see them big titties.” I think Rick Ross did the last one. Oh, and lord knows how many I missed amongst the stream of “motherfuckers” and n-words. The most jarring moment came when things actually got kinda wholesome: Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” blasted over the PA, and that tune’s just about robots. Unfortunately, such moments of French-house peace came far and few between.

Adding to the “kids aren’t alright” vibe were two male students of mine who wound up next to me. After the initial shock of “oh hey look who it is,” they decided to test out their knowledge of outside-the-class English. Perhaps caught up in the air-humping moves of assorted eight-year-olds, they opened with the common “Do you have a girlfriend?” before transitioning into the more troublesome (both in how to deal with it and why the English is so off) “Do you sex?” Somehow, they managed to up the horribleness by then asking one of the “JET nightmare scenario” questions – they started inquisitively saying “big” as I presumed they were pointing at my bulky iPod. It became clear he wasn’t talking about that piece of equipment (bad-duh CHH) as he WENT AHEAD AND PUT HIS HAND ON MY, UH, GROIN. Meanwhile, 2nd graders got low on stage.

Having seen enough of this spectacle, we left. As we headed towards the exit, I ran across two of my students, who have the most chipmunk-innocent voices imaginable. They were wearing the baggy t-shirt/pants combination of the hip-hop dancers who did the “Shots” debacle. I congratulated them on their dance and said it was very good, and they seemed really excited. I then left, with the sudden urge to donate money to The 700 Club.

(Japanese Fun Fact #55 – They actually show some Angels games on TV! Thanks Matsui! No thanks to the rest of the offense, who aren’t playing very well so far!)

Sakura Sakura

April 4, 2010

I’m hesitant to say it because, last time I did, it proceeded to snow the very next day (last week). But…I THINK Spring has finally arrived in Japan. The big happening around Japan this time of year is the blooming of the cherry blossom trees, sakura in Japanese. It’s a big ol’ deal – weather forecasts the past few weeks included predictions on when the trees would bloom, commercials feature the blossoms and way too many pop songs about the sakura are released. Photos of the cherry blossom trees don’t come close to capturing the prettiness of the white flowers in person, but that didn’t stop me from snapping a few pictures of the trees around Nabari.

Only felt slightly creepy taking this photo

Only felt slightly creepy taking this photo

Viewing Parties!

Viewing Parties!

(Japanese Fun Fact #54 – This should shock nobody, but I ate at the Hard Rock Cafe this past weekend. Nothing eventful happened…this was a chain-restaurant dining experience…and felt just like eating shamefully big portions of food in front of Sammy Hagar’s guitar in America. Which actually made this an interesting discovery – most American restaurants imported into Japan, McDonald’s or Denny’s or etc., undergo some sort of cultural transformation to attract more Japanese customers. Either different menu items or slightly altered aesthetics. The Hard Rock Cafe might have been ripped out of an American city and flown directly here – nothing about it seemed different. Even the majority of the customers were white people. Save for maybe the Hello Kitty Hard Rock t-shirts for sale in the gift shop, it might have been the most authentically “American” eating experience in Japan. Complete with generous amounts of buffalo sauce.)

(Reasons I Should Be Deported Volume One – I went out to Osaka all-night Staurday. I caught an early train out of Osaka Sunday morning. I was very very sleepy. I managed to forget how to sit down, and sorta slid off the train seat. I fell face first onto the floor. My proudest moment on a train, for sure.)

(Reasons I Should Be Deported Volume Two – I ate at the Hard Rock Cafe in Japan.)

Let’s talk about Rilakkuma.

Rilakkuma – vaguely translated as “relaxation bear” – is a cute character popping up everywhere in Japan. Despite appearing in a few picture books, Rilakkuma resembles Hello Kitty as a character existing to be branded onto as many products as possible. Rilakkuma loves to chill out – to quote Wikipedia, his favorite activities include “sleeping, lying around, watching television, listening to music and soaking in hot springs.” What a character – I can relate to his plight and I can hug him!

(Sad/revealing aside: The origin of Rilakkuma [assuming you trust Wikipedia] highlights one very prominent issue in Japan. The company behind this bear guy, San-X, requires every employee to create one cute character per month. Rilakkuma’s creator “saw a TV show about dogs. She wished to own a pet because at that time she was very busy working and hoped for a more relaxing life. Rilakkuma is an embodiment of her wish.” So Rilakkuma and his life of leisure sorta represents a nation’s wish to relax.)

One of the dominant convenience stores, Lawsons, is running a promotion starring Rilakkuma. The bear and his two pals (a white bear and a duck) apparently have no obligations whatsoever and have decided to jet off to Paris. Sounds like a perfect excuse to wheel out a bunch of Rilakkuma toys and foods featuring him in a beret! So, now the relaxation bear rears his sleepy head more than any J-Pop star. At least in my convenience-store heavy life.

This would be just another stupid-cute promotion to me, except for the Rilakkuma plate. Any item featuring Rilakkuma and his friends – and some without – come with little stickers bearing (har har) his face on them. Collect 30 of those and you earn a plate with his face on it. I’m not sure if it’s due to boredom or the thrill of a challenge, but I (along with some other folk in Nabari) have decided to collect enough point to attain this $3 plate. I now eat Rilakkuma-themed food far too frequently – you get two points for ordering the honey mustard chicken! How can I say no?

This plate-centric pursuit has led to a new culinary discovery – the Rilakkuma Pancake Sandwich. It’s two mini-pancakes stacked together, with syrup in-between them. I’ve never seen anything like it in America.

My breakfast tomorrow

My breakfast tomorrow

And they taste awesome. I’ve never had a McGriddle…shocking, I know…but I imagine the Rilakkuma Pancake Sandwich to be like a much more tolerable version of that. It tastes exactly like pancakes with syrup…it just comes out of the middle and is a little cold. I’ve been told you can pop them in the microwave for a few seconds to make them better. Taste great chilled too, I say. Plus, I only need 20 more points to get that plate. I swear I don’t weigh 600 pounds!

(I’m not sure what the point of this post was…guess I felt the need to post something, and since this has become my go-to breakfast…why not? Maybe I’ll do something interesting next week!)

(Japanese Fun Fact #53 – The new work year starts on April 1st every year, which means a lot of new faces around the office. They do a bunch of little speeches introducing themselves, and we bow a lot. Super bonus – we get a lot of little snacks from the new people, who are trying to impress us. “Here, have some biscuits, see I’m cool after all!”)