INTRODUCTION

I wrote my personal essay for the JET Program on Haruki Murakami, citing his unique storytelling…something junior-high me had never encountered before…as my gateway to wanting to live in Japan.

This was kinda a lie. Though his novels have certainly impacted me in all sorts of way (I always notice stray cats now) and did certainly influence my desire to see Japan, it was far from the only inspiration for me actually taking the undertaking of filling out the JET application. The moment I realized I truly wanted to give Japan a chance came sometime in my junior year of university…the moment of revelation still very vivid in my mind. The location: the heated halls of The McCormick Tribune Center with its heavenly free printing capabilities. The soundtrack: No Age. My hair: idiotically long if old Facebook pictures the social network keeps forcing on me can be trusted.

I’ve recently been struggling to write two specific entries for this blog, both related to the major reasons this even exists in the first place. One would be about Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, a soon-to-be major motion picture and probably in the running for my favorite book ever. I recently re-read this book, and wanted to expound on its themes of youth, growing up and memory. It was going to be an emotional affair, simultaneously dissecting Murakami’s story while threading it with my personal history. I downloaded a god damn PDF of an academic paper on the book for this purpose.

I’ve abandoned that entry to instead write about the experience of coming face-to-face with the very being I laid eyes on back in that land of free printing that cemented my goal of getting to Japan. I speak of course…of the stationmaster cat.

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One of the biggest letdowns upon arriving in Japan for the first time is how normal life here actually is. Western media treats Japan like an island constructed out of pure weirdness: a popular “in lighter news” go-to is the cooky story coming out of Japan, whether it be the latest weird development in the world of robotics or a report of a hyperactive anime giving kids seizures. Despite being, at one point, the second richest country in the world, America tends to treat Japan as a giant Hello Kitty factory. The internet, as it’s done for nearly every topic, has managed to make it worse – panty vending machines! Weird flavored candy! People dressing as babies seemingly inspired by Tim Burton! TENTACLES TENTACLES TENTACLES! The GDP of the country might as well be batshit insanity.

Spending time in Japan…more than a week, and preferably away from Tokyo, the least “Japan” like part of the country…results in the sobering realization the streets aren’t actually paved with Sonic The Hedgehog sex comics and Pocky. It’s kind of an average place. More than that…it feels eerily similar to America, something that shouldn’t be a shock considering how much of a hand the U.S. had in shaping post-war Japan. Various blogs, manned by academic types who love graphs, even make it a point to shine a light on “weird Japan” stories flowing out of the Western world and then discrediting them.

Spend an extended time in Japan, though, and a third revelation manifests itself into your head – this country actually is weird as hell and your charts won’t convince me otherwise. Though resembling America in a lot of ways, Japan shocks by actually embracing this culture so many other nation’s reject to the point of actually taking it to insane lengths. See the insane work ethic here, people standing in line two hours to eat Krispy Kreme donuts, KFC chicken becoming such a staple of the Christmas dinner here that McDonald’s is actually releasing a rival “chicken set” this year. It would be dumb to label everything foreign to an American as “weird” – a fair amount of it is just a different culture yo – but stuff like maid cafes and AKB48 are legitimately bizarre.

Then…there is stationmaster cat.

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Before 2006, Tama the calico cat was just another cat owned by a grocery store owner in the city of Kinokawa, in Wakayama prefecture. Today she, along with the annual dolphin slaughters shown to the world in The Cove, pretty much defines the region.

Four years ago, the Wakayama Electric Railway, losing money and desperate to stop the bleeding, made all stations on the line unmanned, meaning there would be no paid position as station master but rather a local would sort of check in on the place to make sure nothing was out of whack. They selected the owner of a grocery to be the station master for Kishi Station. This guy took in lots of stray cats, and he began feeding them at the station.

Then…history.

In 2007, the company (maybe in a moment of desperation, but almost certainly in an instance of “why not?”) decided to make the grocer’s cat Tama the official station master of Kishi Station. The cat’s role was mostly to welcome and see off the trains arriving at the station. In a moment of pure brilliance, they gave the cat a little station master’s hat. Her salary – cat food.

The Electric Railway deserve credit for tapping into Japan’s deep love for cute stuff, because within the year the train line saw a 17 percent jump in use in March 2007…mostly because people wanted to see the station master cat. Business started swelling and the media started covering Tama…first Japanese news agencies, followed shortly by the usual “ain’t Japan wacky!” clips popping up on morning shows across America. Tama saved the railway and actually turned a big profit…she’s contributed about 1.1 billion yen to the local economy (millions of dollars, people).

In 2008, to celebrate her money-making powers, the Electric Railway made Tama a “super station master.” To sum up feminism in Japan at this point – she became the only female to attain a managerial position in the company. The success kept on coming in…in Spring of 2009 a new “Tama densha (train)” featuring cartoon renderings of the cat began running, and in 2010 she not only got another promotion (“Operating Officer,” which Wikipedia notes makes her “the first cat to become an executive of a railroad corporation”) but also saw her station renovated.

Somewhere within this story…I came across the story and decided “I must see this cat.”

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Somehow, the people running JET also wanted me to see this cat. Kishi Station can be generously said to be in the absolute middle of nowhere…given the pure randomness of JET’s placing procedure, the odds of me being anywhere near not just this station, but Wakayama prefecture seemed remote. And yet…I ended up in a city only three hours away from Tama. Dumb luck or destiny, you decide…but I had to see this cat. And after a year of putting it off, I finally made the trip.

Getting to Tama turns out to be a surprisingly easy affair. Once you get to Osaka…an hour from my home…you hop on the Japanese Rail loop line to Tenoji station. There, you get onto a train…a surprisingly nice one given JR’s reputation…bound for Wakayama station. It’s the longest stretch of the journey and isn’t that bad as long as you have a book or a fully charged smart phone.

Once you get off at Wakayama, Tama starts appearing. First you see her cat-adorned self in posters set up along the concourse as you mosey on over to the Tama train track. Once you go up the steps and get to the top you see it…the Tama train itself.

Words can’t really describe the bizarre rush of seeing this thing. Even pictures sorta fail. Japan features plenty of weird “theme” trains – I live right next to the Iga “Ninja Train” for example…but this one ups everything considerably. To a pathetic nerd like myself, it’s like seeing Santa Claus in your living room drinking a bottle of Coke…after years of seeing video footage of this train on CNN and YouTube (more accurately, CNN on YouTube), there it was, inches from me. It’s absolutely covered in cartoon cats, a sticker sheet come to life and turned into public transportation.

Yet the inside ends up being the most bizarre part of the experience. Imagine gutting Totoro, converting his body into a train and decorating the interior with whimsical furniture. That’s the Tama train, except with cartoon-Tama wallpaper. One train looks like a relatively normal mode of transportation save for the amount of cats adorning the walls…the other train does away with the typical bench in favor of a padded sofa-like thing. On one end of the train sits two bookcases, full of magazine and books devoted to nothing but cute animals. Anyone can read them. Sitting awkwardly in-between two sofas is a wooden bird cage that seems to have no purpose. And I can’t stress this enough…so many cartoon cats.

It’s also on the train ride you realize just how much of a tourist draw Tama really is, even a full three years after she first put on the hat. Save for the few high school students and locals who have one of the weirdest daily commutes I can possibly imagine, everyone on the Tama train boarded with the express purpose of seeing this cat. They wander around the wobbling vehicle…Tama might boast cuteness, but her train line doesn’t deliver a smooth ride…snapping photos of every feline-detail like paparazzi. Kids, predictably, seem the most wowed by this train, exclaiming “cute!” at every single inch of the car. Even better is coming to a new station and seeing the people on the platform react to the cat train’s arrival. Nobody ever looks bored by this train car…they always look awed.

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The ride to Kishi Station takes about half-an-hour and, save for the bumpiness, ends up being quite pleasant. Once the innards of the Tama train become slightly less enchanting…though it never feels normal…your eyes turn to the outside world. Despite being very backwater, the Wakayama Electric Railway runs through a very gorgeous stretch of land full of imposing mountains and small towns reminiscent of models zoom by. Late autumn is persimmon season around here, meaning plenty of chances to gaze at rows of trees sporting orange fruit during the ride.

Eventually, we reach Kishi Station. Tama, the station master, isn’t waiting for us on the platform to greet us. I initially figure, “oh, she must be doing very important super station master duties.” I’m an idiot. It’s important to keep in mind Tama, despite being worth millions of dollars, is also a cat. An especially old cat at that. When we walk into the main waiting area of the station, we see Tama’s display box area…behind a layer of glass rests the famous cat herself. She’s asleep…like any old cat probably would be at one in the afternoon. Her hat rests on a little hook near the bottom. She’s out cold.

Strangely enough, the actual cat plays a very small role in the rest of my day at Kishi Station. At one point, Tama wakes up and stretches, before licking herself. This causes a flurry of activity, tourists like myself dashing from wherever we were before to marvel at this pet’s face and snap as many photos as possible. Soon after, she goes back to sleep, though she actually faces us this time. She never leaves the box…just naps away comfortably.

Doesn’t matter…it’s not so much the cat that’s fascinating as it’s everything around her.

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Unrelated cat in town

Unrelated cat in town

Before spending time in the station, a little bit should be written about the actual city of Kinokawa. As mentioned, Tama has pulled in millions of dollars for the local economy. Walking around, it’s tough to believe. Kinokawa looks like any other old, rural Japanese city dotting the island – worn down and without much activity. Save for a few small businesses and ramen stands, this place looks like it has seen better days. Like a lot of Japan.

A friend from America who visited Nabari this summer remarked how that city looked like Flint, Michigan to him. I’m glad he didn’t venture even further out into the country.

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Back to the actual station….which looks like an actual cat.

No really, once you wander outside for a bit, it hits you as you edge closer back to Kishi…this building has cat ears. A Studio Ghibli drawing come to life, a Disneyland prop delivered to the wrong end of the country. Though it mostly serves as a tourist destination, it still sees a second life as a actual train station and thus comes equip with all the necessary features of one (vending machine corner, bathrooms).

Then there are the unique additions.

I came to Wakayama most excited about the gift shop, what I imagined would be a sprawling room full of whatever the company could slap a cartoon cat on and charge a lot of yen for. I arrived ready to spend big bucks. Unfortunately, the Electric Railway doesn’t approach this like Disney…the gift shop was surprisingly small given the money making potential, half of its space serving as a convenience store selling drinks and snacks. The Tama section didn’t include half the gaudy merchandise I expected to find…no t-shirts boasting anime cats, no limited edition thermos, no replica hats. It stocked simpler items like Tama pencils, badges (bought one), folders, sticker sheets and so on. A few stranger items cropped up – I had to plunk down the eight bucks for the Tama playing cards, and for thirty dollars I could have had a German documentary about the cat. They also sold statues of Tama, but they looked expensive. Kishi Station decided to be kinda tasteful about making (more) money off people, and I felt a little let down…but left with a much fatter wallet.

This year’s renovation might not have brought Tama-approved coasters, but it did herald the arrival of the super station master cat museum and cafe on the opposite side. The museum felt more like a timeline, a few shelves laying out the short history of Tama alongside some fanciful cartoon drawings of the kitty. The cafe, meanwhile, sold smoothies and gelato made from a selection of fruits grown in the area. This part of Japan especially prides itself on its strawberries, so I opted for strawberry gelato. It was delicious. They also sold jam, but no strawberry flavor. I grabbed a small jar of grape jelly.

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While sitting around in the cafe waiting for Tama to show signs of activity, a man wearing a suit and carrying various bags settled in at the table next to our area. He looked professional, carrying a fancy camera I usually associate with journalists. After a while, he started talking to us with rather strong English. Turns out he’s a (unemployed at the moment) professor of tourism studies, according to the business card he gave me. He whipped out an Apple iBook to share with us photos of Tama he took two years ago when he first visited this station…along with shots of another stationmaster cat in Japan.

Tama, the original stationmaster animal, became such a media and money success that a horde of other train stations across Japan looking for a boost in visitors installed various animals as the heads of their stops. A bunch more cats got appointed stationmaster, as did a dog and, in truly “what the fuck” fashion, a goat. Recently, a couple of monkeys were given tiny outfits and made the masters of a station a little bit from Tokyo. Our new tourism friend had visited one other stationmaster cat besides Tama, a feline named Bus manning a station in Fukushima. Bus…named after the famous “cat bus” in My Neighbor Totoro…seemed to operate a much smaller station, which drew far less visitors. The professor said, unlike Tama, Bus was very mean and was prone to hiss at visitors. He liked Tama a lot more…and so did the visitors it appeared. Even if she slept.

The professor acknowledged the Tama of two years ago was much more alert than the Tama of today, but he expected that. He noted she’s getting old and will probably soon die. This thought hung around in the back of my mind well before we even got into Wakayama prefecture…when this kitty croaks, how do you move on when you’ve made EVERYTHING about this particular feline. I wanted to ask him but I doubt he’d know…maybe they’ll just find a similar looking cat and throw a hat on him/her. After finishing our gelato, we took one last look at the resting cat worth more money than I’d ever make in my lifetime, and began the long trek home.

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About three hours from my hometown in California, one can visit the world’s biggest thermometer in the desolate desert city of Baker. As a kid, the prospect of seeing a giant temperature-reading device seemed really awesome and something to look forward to. Of course, after surviving the boring drive to get to Baker (usually as a gas stop en route to Las Vegas) and seeing the actual thermometer, you suddenly feel a wave of disappointment sweep over. That’s it? It’s less a thermometer, more a giant metal stick digitally telling you how hot it is today. It’s the inevitable first brush with one of life’s harshest lessons…roadside attractions always disappoint. You buy a snack at AM/PM and move on.

Super station master cat Tama isn’t like the Baker thermometer despite being an obvious tourist trap. Yes, the cat I saw that day wasn’t the cat I expected…though having previously owned a cat I should have known those animals love to sleep…but oddly enough the actual animal isn’t central to the stationmaster (sorry for the inconsistent spelling on this word, deal with it) cat appeal. It’s everything around the cat, quite literally…such as the cat-themed train, cat-shaped building and other cat-tastic stuff sprung into existence because people are willing to pay money to see an animal dress like a person (or even just a cartoon of one).

More importantly, Tama the cat stands as one of the most unique things going for Japan today. Japan may not be brimming over with weird stuff on every corner, but there certainly exist extremely bizarre places and things that do reveal Japan…and the Japanese mindset for that matter…as extraordinarily unique/insane. Despite what many “thinkers” want to say, stuff like this give Japan a certain (weird) charm…a charm I admit helped draw me here in the first place. I wouldn’t say it’s a must see spot if you are on vacation here…but it’s something special alright.

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Throughout all of Murakami’s works, stray cats play a pivotal role. In Kafka On The Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, missing cats trigger all sorts of bizarre events. The New Yorker puts it best – “cats frequently figure in Murakami’s fiction, as delegates from another world.” Cats, to Murakami, seem capable of very strange things.

Maybe he’s onto something.

Honesty up front – I had no idea what “Mont Blanc” was before Pepsi decided to go and make it this year’s fall “seasonal flavor.” And even then I didn’t know…I initially thought it was some sorta coffee-flavored beverage, but a friend later said he thought it was “a dessert.” What kind of dessert I didn’t know…until a minute ago when Wikipedia came through in the clutch. So…chestnuts. And I can vouch for the “extremely popular in Japan bit” as last time I stopped off in Osaka I noticed several dessert carts/cafes breaking out banners welcoming the new “Mont Blanc” flavor to celebrate the brief autumn.

Can this drink taste as decadent as dessert, though?

Surprisingly, yes. I’m not going crazy when I say this is easily the best seasonal Pepsi I’ve had thus far…considering past flavors, though, not the strongest of praise. But Mont Blanc actually tastes pretty good! It smells like hazelnuts (strongly, at that) and when the first drop hits the tongue a very rich flavor spreads out fast. This Pepsi is sickeningly sweet, to the point where I can’t drink an entire bottle of this stuff in one sitting, opting instead for little dessert-shots from the bottle every so often. Despite being near impossible to polish off at once, Pepsi Mont Blanc tastes both great and radically different than any soda I’ve ever encountered before. It might be the closest one can get to converting a piece of cake from solid to pure liquid.

NOTE: Expect a much more thrilling post as I visited THE spot in Japan I’ve wanted to go to the most since coming this weekend.

(Japanese Fun Fact #87: Because I know you’re clamoring to know the latest in Japanese convenience store/fast food trends…”hot” is the in flavor, as Lawson’s introduced a fine “hot” chicken sandwich to its menu that, despite being the same color as the red Nickelodeon slime they sold in Target when I was eight, tastes good. McDonald’s just introduced the limited edition “Diavolo” chicken sandwich. And let’s not forget AM/PM who now stock the hot-food box with fried potato coated in “spicy” powder.)

Kushtetsu

November 4, 2010

So there I am, walking to the Kintetsu area of Osaka’s Namba Station. It’s a holiday meaning the lanes leading to where I must catch my train are especially packed for a Wednesday afternoon. I’m zoned out, listening to a Japanese dance CD I’m determined to review in the near future. Suddenly, I feel a poke on my shoulder. I tilt my head to the right and see a Japanese man, wearing a water-resistant hoodie with the hood up, smiling at me. I pause the music.

“Hello, do you speak English?”

I instantly figured he was someone who had studied or was in the process of learning English, and he wanted to talk to a real-live foreigner. This happens a lot, ages ranging from four-year-old kids to grandmas testing out their new hobby. Considering how rare crime is in Japan, I’ve come to embrace this “celebrity around town” status and talk to anyone who tries English out on me. So I engaged him in small talk.

He seemed to be going along with it fine at first. He wanted to know what I did…”college student?”…and now long I’d been in Japan. I fed him the info and, so excited to talk to a new face, volunteered facts he probably could give less a damn about. Being a considerate individual, I then asked him what he did. He paused for a moment. An awkward silence of two seconds late, he looked at me and said “I’m looking for customers.”

Most people at this point probably would have gotten suspicious as to this guy’s intentions. I’m not one of those people, blissfully naive to the point where I just gave him a confused look and asked “customers for what?” Silence, as a Cheshire-Cat grin overtook his face. He didn’t say anything for about five seconds, but kept looking at me with that damn smirk on his face. He repeated the “looking for customers” line and even a rube like me could tell he didn’t do something orthodox. I gave him a bewildered look, at this point believing he was either a.) some sort of arms dealer or b.) a prostitute.

“Do you like to…” he said, his voice growing quiet. “Do you like to…do you like to smoke?”

OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

I’ll spare you the details, but drug laws in Japan make California look like the set of H.R. Puffenstuff. That and it’s not my scene at all. I told him I wasn’t into it and said goodbye as he walked the opposite way, hands buried in pockets. And that was the highlight of my holiday by a mile!

(Japanese Fun Fact #86: School kids love Disney characters and Spongebob and Snoopy…but they also have an odd like-ing for 90’s Cartoon Network creations. I see drawings of the Powerpuff Girls all over the place and, even stranger by a bazillion times, one class I teach made their class flag a picture of Courage The Cowardly Dog. The text underneath it declared “A Victorious Buttle,” which I’m pretty sure shows I should teach them how to spell “battle.”)

Another Friday nearing completion and another week of school ready to become just another faint reflection in a growing mental flash-drive of them…November, already?…, I decided to kill the last hour of my work day walking around the school grounds underneath a late-fall sky of bleghish gray. I figured I’d check in on all the various clubs activities happening and keep my fingers crossed that I’d run into the cute science teacher who also tends to wander aimlessly around. It’s become a common habit.

Instead, I met the coach of the school’s baseball team. A clean-cut man complete with a short haircut a military recruiter would love, I best knew him as the guy who always said “good morning” to me in perfect English every morning before going on his way and saying nothing to me for the rest of my time in the office. Until this week, when he noticed me drinking orange juice. “Orange juice?” he said. “Yes, orange juice,” I said, “I like it a lot.” “Ahhh very good.” This brief conversation seemed like an astronomical leap in our professional relationship. So three days removed from this incident, he looked at me and asked “Do you like baseball?” I sure do. “Train with the baseball team today.” Now, I asked with my trusty confused stare applied to my face, a mask that has worked wonders for me here. “Yes.” With an hour left before leaving time and no science teacher in sight I fetched my sneakers.

Onto the large dirt field in the back of the school I walked. I approached about 30-some boys wearing white and red uniforms lacking any sort of logos or school identification, the team looking like the Cincinnati Reds circa the Stockings era. Most team members were engaged in a rapid-fire throwing drill, so the teacher led me over to one boy who didn’t have a partner. After finding a spare glove for me…a sorta catcher’s mitt which presented a whole new set of challenges to an individual already lacking in any sort of baseball skill…I started playing catch with the kid, who could throw pretty well. After a few early flubs, even I started shaking off the cobwebs that had been collecting since I retired from college inter-dorm softball.

During this back-and-forth I tried asking the student questions in English. It’s one of the aspects of my job I’m slightly confused about – the Board of Education wants me participating in club activities, but do I just show up and play silently so kids can be like “look, Americans like table tennis too!” Or is it another chance to provide a small English lesson, giving kids who will mostly likely be shuttled to private cram school after completing club for the day, which already followed a full day of school. So, while playing catch, I awkwardly asked the kid questions in English vaguely related to baseball. “What’s your favorite team” and “How long have you played baseball?” He seemed far more interested in chucking the ball than learning the finer points of grammar.

Failing at getting anyone interested in English, I settled for just trying to not humiliate myself completely when I was introduced into the team-wide throwing drills. I got put into a group made up mostly of younger students, I guess the teacher assuming I’d face less of a threat being plonked in the face with these guys. Yet they still were insanely good baseball players, launching the ball faster than anyone I can remember playing with (a list made up of: my dad, fellow ten-year-old kids in Little League, my college roommate and my dorm softball team). Naturally, I did embarrass myself multiple times via easily missed catches and throws that managed to end up near the distant soccer players. The kids were very kind in assuring me I didn’t need to apologize, even when I managed to help our squad record the slowest time in the competition portion of the drill (I couldn’t master the “space jump” as the kids called, nor did I ever figure out what that was). We were rewarded with team-building activity of running between first and second five times.

The head coach wisely limited my playing time in the day’s final exercise, a simulated game where he hit the ball and had the defense attempt to get runners out. I acted as the pinch runner/National League pitcher…complete with dopey sweater… who only ran to first when the coach attempted a sac bunt. I did manage to beat one out! Otherwise, I stood on the side watching as players on both side freaked out over a fake game. Whereas when I was there age, we mostly approached real games with the mindset “please, let this end quickly and without anything hit towards me,” looking forward to the almost-certain post-game McDonald’s run. These students, meanwhile, reacted to every choreographed line-drive single like it could win them the World Series. It was pretty exciting. After that, the day ended and I realized I’d been at school an hour longer than planned. Yet I enjoyed myself…and didn’t get hit in the face.

(Japanese Fun Fact #85: Signs English should just be abandoned as a subject in the Japanese educational system – saw a student today wearing a big badge parodying national book-chain Book-Off which simply said “Fuck Off.” Nobody batted an eye and I feel the student had no idea what it meant either.)

The strangest/coolest part of teaching Japanese students is getting blindsided by their insane knowledge of things I would never expect them to know. Last week, one student wrote in his “My Dream” essay that he wanted to be an NBA player…not many people, especially in the semi-country of Nabari, know let alone follow the NBA. I asked him what team he wanted to play for. He said “the Hornets” and then proceeded to speak highly of Chris Paul. I was floored.

Today featured a similar sports-related mindbender. One student at my current school loves Major League Baseball to the point where the only sentences he ever says to me are “Angels!” or “Matsui great guy!” followed by a thumbs up. Unlike the NBA, the MLB gets a lot of followers here but few people know EVERY DETAIL of the league, usually just what the major Japanese players are doing. This kid, though, knows nearly every story to come out…he’s mentioned the various no-hitters thrown this year. Here’s what he said today.

KID: “Angels! Ehhhhh, not so good.” (Clearly aware of the team not making the postseason = ( )

ME: “Ahhhhhh yeah, they didn’t do very well.”

KID: “Number 77?”

ME: “77? (Thinking, realizing number 77 is Reggie Willits, a utility player who gets the occasional start in the outfield who is best known for running fast and sometimes hitting the ball, though he probably played a billion times better than Juan Rivera this year but I digress. He’s not terribly famous.)

KID: “Willits! Willits!”

ME: (Mind says “holy shit, how do you know Reggie Willits?”) “Wow how do you know him?”

KID: “Great great!” (Thumbs up, probably just happy I know who Willits is).

I then asked him if he knew who was in the World Series, and after two incorrect guesses (“C.C. Sabathia” and “Oswalt”) I told him the facts (“Lee” and “Lincecum” who he knew and, like the majority of Americans bound not to tune in, surprised who made it that far). He then said he actually hadn’t watched a full MLB game in a long time…makes sense, as they air during the day and these kids basically never leave school. So he must have bought one of the comprehensive MLB magazines on sale here that publish rosters and results and studied it. And somehow become familiar with Reggie Willits.

So yes…no need to resign Hideki Matsui for his Japanese-market ties. Reggie freakin’ Willits might be able to get the job done.

(Note: Sorry for lack of updates, but I’m currently working on a bigger sized one about a topic barely connected to Japan. Hint…books! So yeah maybe I’ll write that one day.)

(Japanese Fun Fact #84: Shockingly, the semi-ironic humor involved in watching a film like the gore-gore-gore-tastic flick The Expendables doesn’t translate to a Japanese audience. While a group of foreigners laughed at explosions outdoing one another, everyone else remained silence. Great film by the way, if you love watching small nations be destroyed.)

The awesome: One of the teachers I work with wanted me to write up a dialogue we could use in class this week. She suggested making “going to the movies” part of it and suggested working in a contemporary flick. That film – The Expendables, just opening in Japan. Considering I’ve been waiting like eight months to see this film – I regularly watch the trailer for this and get abnormally giddy about it – I nearly high-fived the teacher. I’m gonna revel in making students try to spell the name “Sylvester Stallone.”

The bad – A student tried to give me a shoulder-area massage and I (mentally) flipped out. Strangely…or not surprising depending on yr stereotypes…this sort of close student-teacher relationship seems kinda common, probably a result of school sorta filling in for parents in the work-obsessed Japanese society. Or maybe back rubs are just cool. But I sure as hell didn’t dig it, and was just waiting for NBC cameras to break through the door.

(Japanese Fun Fact #? I’m on my phone I am not lookin that up: Little kids sincerely believe guns flow like water in America and think you can buy a glock at every store. I told them otherwise, but thinking about it I realize they are more-or-less right.)

Due to reasons I’m not even sure I recall at the moment, I swore off eating at McDonald’s sometime last September. Whether for health reasons or because I’m sick of associating the taste of home with with “secret sauce” I vowed to avoid frequenting the nearest chain…perilously located in the same place I do my grocery shopping. For a while I did pretty well – and, unsurprisingly, I felt way better as a person. I welcomed a life free of chemically-modified Quarter Pounders and “apple pies.”

Then came the Cheese Fondue Chicken Sandwich.

Part of the chain’s new “iCon” chicken sandwich series, the cheese fondue offering appeared to be the least vomit-inducing option of this bizarre promotion. Save for maybe the “diavolo” (which looks nice and spicy), the rest of these foodstuffs appear to be have been conceived by someone with a sick sense of humor. As you can see below, items like the meat-sacrilege “German sausage” chicken sandwich and the Carbonara sandwich…complete with what appears to be mushy eggs…seem like desperate creations dreamed up by a Deadhead jonesin for something to eat at four in the morning. The cheese fondue doesn’t even look that appetizing, but the promise of cheese…a rare commodity in Asia…made this an oath breaker.

Shamefully I ordered the sandwich…with fries, woe is me!…and went home to eat. Upon opening the cardboard box hiding my lunch, I became both repulsed and intrigued – living up to its fondue billing, the chicken patty comes coated in a vaguely alarming white cheese sauce. It looks disgusting…but tastes pretty amazing. Shame safely ignored, I bit in.

The sensation I felt was neither love nor hate. Rather, all I felt after biting into the cheese fondue sandwich was a void waiting to be filled by anything of interest. It wasn’t bad but not particularly good either. The cheese sauce tasted OK but didn’t pack the punch necessary to truly make this memorable. The chicken wasn’t crispy while, like every McDonald’s item to ever feature it before, the bacon might as well have not been there. Ultimately this thing wasn’t bad, but if I wanted to break my Golden Arches protest I’d rather do it via the chemical perfection of the Big Mac.

So I promptly returned to my vow not to eat at McDonald’s…which I promptly broke a week later when I got hungry after school and had one cheeseburger. I’m a weak man.

Bonus Action! The Cat Cafe Of Uncomfortableness

Two friends wanted to experience the Japanese cat cafe this past weekend and me, being a two-time veteran, obliged to go with them. I planned on the three of us hitting up the cafe I had first gone to (memories!), a place that, though definitely strange wasn’t nearly as bizarre as I thought it would be. Sadly, after a two-hour trip to get there, we discovered the place was undergoing a renovation. Using my quick thinking though, I recalled seeing another cat cafe in a different part of Osaka next to a 7-11 somewhere. I suggested we find it and, after a few detours caused by a proliferation of 7-11’s in the area, stumbled across the place. I figured it would be more or less the same experience as the other place.

Oh ho ho ho ho no.

I should have actually been a bit more skeptical given WHERE this cat cafe was found: Den Den Town. Basically Osaka’s answer to Akihabara (aka nerd central, Tokyo), this zig-zag of streets serves as the hub for every weirdo stereotype the Western world has regarding Japan. Nerds waddle from toy store to adult video store to video game store to security camera store (really) while women dressed up as maids try to hustle them into their cafes. If the Japanese panty vending machine actually exists, it’s probably down some Den Den Town alley. So, unsurprisingly, our cat cafe sat on top of a packed maid cafe. We made our way up the stairs and entered what appeared to be someone’s living room. Except it was crawling with cats.

Whereas the other cat cafe seemed to put the emphasis on the cats…people, even little kids, came there to pet and look at cats…this place and its clientele struck a different vibe. There were lots of cats, and some people played with them (or rather, tried to play with them as the cats ignored them). Yet a lot of people seemed to be sitting down on a couch reading comics, maybe stroking a feline as it passed by. This place felt more like a strange way to live out an alternate life…you could do the things you love (read manga) but do it in the company of kitties. This…coupled with the way maids from downstairs came in every few minutes to change clothes in a backroom…made the place feel way more weird than it had any right to be. All while having access to all the orange juice we could drink and waves of cats who could care less about our existence.

The experience creeped us out and we only lasted half-an-hour. Even that felt like a small miracle, mostly facilitated by a tubby feline who seemed to like attention. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a puppy cafe next time around.

I’m not one to believe in “fate” or similar pre-ordained mindsets, but even a skeptic like myself notes the timing of my newest teaching venture and sorta wonders how the timing came together so well. As you could probably guess from a few whiny posts down the page there…look ma, LiveJournal!…I’ve been quite frustrated as of late and those bumps in the road persist. The most unsettling development is I’m starting to become more stressed at my job, which wasn’t happening until recently. So I was thrilled to learn that, starting this past Tuesday, I’d also start visiting an elementary school every other week. Considering how much I enjoyed elementary schools this past winter, this felt like a great addition to my life.

I’ve been once thus far and, since I’ve already talked about them before, here are a few observations from my latest visit.

– Elementary school classes can be tiny. My biggest class at my new school peaks out in the high 20s…my smallest rests at nine. Nine fourth-students for the entire school…insane, but makes class pretty manageable.

– The younger the kid, the more enthusiastic they are to learn English/interact with the weird-o foreign man who magically appeared in their school. Whereas my oldest students at junior high school, now confronted with the menace of high school entrance exams, have zoned out of English class save for the times when they can win a bookmark by answering a question correctly, third-to-sixth graders love trying to say stuff in English. I’ll admit they probably aren’t retaining tons…not to mention, when you are that little ANYTHING out of the ordinary seems really exciting…but they at least show some energy.

– Not to mention, the elementary school has an entire room devoted to English dubbed “The Happy Room.” It’s got giant picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and sock puppets. I don’t know why junior high schools can’t do the same. Or at least provide puppets.

– Weirdest question asked by a student – “what’s your favorite ‘buzz’ in America?” Turns out “buzz” refers to trends, at least in this kid’s mind. I told them the most popular things in America at the moment are vampires and Lady Gaga. I think I’m right?

– I also appreciate younger students because they constantly bring up Spongebob Squarepants around me, specifically that I have the same name as the mentally-challenged starfish on that show. Always gets a laugh, at least.

– The Japanese love the song “The Entertainer” a lot because they played it on loop during the lunch period. Nothing like ragtime piano to fire you up for the afternoon. Looking forward to the “Maple Leaf Rag” next time.

– Only mishap of the day came during the hour I was waiting for the bus to come. I decided to study some Japanese…mistake one…and focused on the lesson where you learn how to say “I want [object].” Two of the teachers noticed my effort and commented on how “great” it was. Then one tested me by asking what I wanted in Japanese. Caught off guard, I replied “water” as it seemed kinda funny in a stupid way and way better than anything else I could think of. Everyone laughed and we went on our ways.

Fifteen minutes later the teacher comes to my desk carrying a giant bottle of sports drink, having taken my (admittedly shitty) joke seriously. I tried to explain that I was OK, I didn’t really want anything to drink and felt absolutely mortified at what I had done. I felt quite bad (not to mention stupid, but that’s a given), though later on I pretty much laughed it off. That’s what I get for studying.

(Personal Problems Aside Because It’s This Or Therapy #1: I’m realizing one of the things that’s starting to make me more and more frustrated is the super-niceness of the people here. That sounds like an amazingly prick-like thing to say – how dare you be nice to me! – but it just seems so forced. A year ago, I loved being assaulted with kindness, people oooohing and ahhhhing when I cracked up a Japanese textbook or admitted “yes, I can eat sushi.” Now, whether because I’m used to Japan or…more likely…I’ve become a little meaner, I find myself questioning the actual authenticity of this niceness more frequently. Are they actually trying to be nice…or just trying to make me feel like they care? Honestly, the biggest reason I hate this is because it makes trying to read romantic interests damn near impossible, and that will drive a dude insane.)

(Japanese Fun Fact #82: I learned from a friend this weekend that when a pet needs to be put down, the Japanese don’t take them to the vet. They take them to “the dream chamber.” Putting pet dogs to rest…still kinda whimsical in Japan!)

“Two great tastes – together at last!”

I spotted this seemingly innocent-looking juicebox at the local convenience store this morning and, after doing a cartoon-like double take once I realized what this drink promised, pretty much had to buy it. This specific combination seems to already have been a hit in Japan – a quick Google search reveals it previously existed as a candy, a candy a lot of people outside of Japan wanted to try for some reason. I’ve never seen it in beverage form, though, so it was new to me. Plus, the cheap thrill of drinking something “scotch flavored” in plain sight of all my teachers and students seemed like a thrilling chang of pace (look how cool I am, drinking “scotch!” Out of a juicebox!).

Let’s jump right into it…did this actually taste like alcohol mixed with yogurt, or was it a massive letdown.

Big reveal………

It was the latter. The yogurt taste overpowered whatever else was supposed to be in this concoction…the scotchiest element I could pick up on was the aftertaste, and even that only tasted like alcohol set on fire. Seriously, whatever lingered around in my throat reminded me of used charcoal more than anything else. In retrospect I clearly broke rule number one when it comes to products claiming to have the same taste as an alcoholic drink…never buy them if they aren’t actually alcoholic. Especially when mixed with yogurt.

(Japanese Fun Fact #81 – The word “blood” makes Japanese children laugh a lot. That’s grim.)

I’m not sure how the Hiroshima Peace Ceremony became such a must-see event for me. It’s something I’ve wanted to see in-person long before I knew I’d be coming to Japan…a little strange since my birthday happens to fall on August 6 as well and it wouldn’t exactly be the happiest way to spend the day. I had been planning to go to Hiroshima on this day ever since I found out I’d be teaching here and I was hellbent on keeping that part of my schedule. And here I was…on my 23rd birthday, waking up extra early in the morning to go to the ceremony. Also, to get far away from the manga cafe and it’s so-so chair.

As evidenced by discovering every hotel in the city had no open rooms the day before, lots of people were just as determined as I to go to the park. Not deterred by what might have been the hottest day of the summer, these souls crowded towards the tram station to make their way down to the park. The line for the ride wasn’t too intimidating…I’ve seen longer waits for Splash Mountain…but it still outdid whatever wait we’d experienced the day before. We shuffled onto the packed tram, and stood for the entire commute.

People going to the park

People going to the park

Unsurprisingly, the park was packed with people inching towards where the formal ceremony would be hold. Japanese people and obvious tourists…I see ya, fannypacks…made up the majority of this wave of humanity. Yet the ceremony also brought out plenty of activists and protesters who wanted to sell some platform to the large number of people in Hiroshima. Some pushed religion, virtually throwing pamphlets using the atomic bombing as a gateway to whatever faith they subscribed to into passersby’s hands. Others focused on political movements, ranging from “lets get rid of all nuclear weapons” to more nationalistic ideas like “give Japan an actual army yo” or “get the fuck out America” (my words, not theirs). Most people moved by them as quickly as possible and beelined to the main area.

The main seating area was already full by the time we arrived…made up mostly of people who had reserved spots or folks who must have gotten here stupid early…so we settled on watching the ceremony from the side, in a spot surrounded by trees but very little shade. Even from our spot, we could see the majority of the white stage and, though each speaker looked like a raisin from where we were, could hear everything well (ignoring the fact the majority of it was in Japanese). The actual ceremony lasted one hour and featured a lot of speeches in Japanese, a message from two adorable school kids urging the world to stop stockpiling nuclear weapons and a moment where a bunch of pigeons were released into the air.

This year’s ceremony, the 65th since the attack, ended up being historic. It was the first time representatives from countries with nuclear weapons – France, Russia, England, America, a few others…attended the ceremony. It also marked the first time the United Nations Secretary-General came to the ceremony, and Ban Ki-moon actually took to the podium and delivered a speech (the only one in English on the day). It was a solid speech – about how the world needs to get rid of nuclear weapons etc. etc.

U.N. Secretary-General

U.N. Secretary-General

An hour after we had arrived, it was over and the mass of people streamed out of the park. Plenty of other mini-memorials were happening around the park…including a “parade of flags” deal where I ended up holding the flag of Burma, but it’s all sorta a blur now…along with tiny rallies. Yet it was far too hot to spend too much time exploring these various events. We stayed a bit, ate and left in the early afternoon, one major thing off of my Japanese checklist.

(Japanese Fun Fact #80 – Vitamin Water just got released here so I see the stuff everywhere…well, in the city at least. Glad Japan can experience sugar water too!)