Sunday, March 28, 2010

I'm off to Tokyo

This time tomorrow my mom and I will be en route to the Shinagawa Prince Hotel for an 8-day, 8-night stay in the world's most populous and largest economic metropolitan area. Upon my return, I'll have heaps more to talk about, and not just Tokyo, but a whole six months of backlogged tidbits, pictures, and anecdotes since my last update abroad.

And if you think this blog is nothing but a shameless means of flaunting my Japanese adventures, think again chum! With all I've got planned, I'm sure to open myself up to all kinds of ridicule on everything from my defense of the Star Wars prequels, to mouthing off on world events and politics, to my errant musings on role-playing games, pop culture, and that most unknowable mystery of all creation – women!

Stay tuned, fellow reader! This blog is all about gauging the sanity of everything I know and plotting its relative position on the sine wave of life. If you too seek to maintain a modicum of balance in your daily strivings, join the cause and become a Sanitor! (at right)

Very good! Like you mean it now:

(sung to the tune of Farmer in the Dell)

I'm off to Tokyo
I'm off to Tokyo
Hi-ho, watch out mo-fo
I'm off to Tokyo!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Plot Summary: Me in Japan (or) Besuto Kiddo 2...

Having lived here in the Land of the Rising Sun for the past eight months, many people have asked me, "Why did you come to Japan?" or, "What made you want to come to Japan?" If time permits, and my audience can understand it, I often describe how my love affair with Japan began in high school when I first started studying Japanese history, in particular the Edo period and its use in a dark fantasy work of fiction I had been writing at the time. In truth, my interest can probably be drawn back to my childhood days watching early anime adaptations like Voltron and The Transformers, and others like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (itself a product of Japan's Toei Animation studio for its first season).

Those kind of questions are hard to answer, however. They belong in the same category as, "Why did you study that in college?" or, "What's the meaning of life?" It's not always easy to give an answer to such without leaving something out, or sounding trite, or leaving your audience wondering why they ever asked the question to begin with.

Of course, once I return home I'm sure to hear from anyone who knows, "So how was Japan?" wherever I go. Here's what I'd like to tell them.

"Upon landing in Japan, I was accompanied by my sensei to the small coastal fishing village where I lived and worked. There my sensei introduced me to all those whom he knew including a few subsistence farmers, local merchants, and even some well-to-do industrialists out developing new uses for old tracts of land. While each day was sunny and bright, I could tell there was a cloud hovering over my sensei. Little did I know that a private rivalry between my sensei and another prominent civic figure was plaguing the social conscience.

"I found the local people to be quite charming and invigorating as I observed the simple activities of their daily lives. Nary a coarse word and eager to make friends, these people were of the same earth they worked. I even saw a relationship on the horizon – with a sweet, young girl who was into traditional Japanese dance and worked there in the town office.

"I found the older male youth to be somewhat troubling, however, always chafing at the same simplicity displayed by their elders, and without a reasonable outlet for their aggressive instincts. I had to turn a deaf ear to their constant outbursts in class for fear of a confrontation, yet that same avoidance was apt to bait them into confronting me directly. Once I even surprised these same young studs, breaking the ice between us as it were, by writing a lengthy string of kanji on the board, proving to them that at least I wasn't afraid to immerse myself in their culture.

"The night before my sensei and I were to present a controversial set of curriculum we had been working on to the town, one that sought to drum new methods of English language learning into the system, a massive tsunami hit. Many of the townsfolk were evacuated and gathered in a central safe place. During the evacuation I helped ensure the safety of a young grade schooler who had been caught out alone in the storm. She was fine; but the look in the face of those hotshot males, let's call them 'the Chosen' (for their choice to be separate from everyone else), was not. They held nothing but contempt for me, the 'brave gaijin.'

"A week later, to help commemorate the town cleanup, we held a special O-bon festival in the ancient courtyard of a daimyo's former estate. It seemed all thought toward holding grudges and internal rivalries was dead, and a truer happiness that could not be imagined anywhere else settled over the town. That is, until one of the Chosen, their appointed leader, erupted on to the scene eager to have it out with me. I tried to head him off, 'Look man, I'm sorry–' but he wouldn't hear it. 'Sorry will not give me back my honor!' he barked. That was it then. He extended his arm, hand held in a thumb-wrestling pose. He wanted to publicly embarrass me. No turning back, so I took hold, and as I imagined the faces of all those who loved me, something told me that, 'I am the man who would fight for their honor.' It was tough. He was good. Even craning my finger as far as it would go, nothing seemed to work. Finally, it dawned on me. The secret of my being here. The culmination of my experiences boiled down to three little words: 'Live or die?' Thus, I won. He chose to die. And I choose to live."

Roll credits.

(Gee, that all sounds very familiar.)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Not too long ago, in an inbox very, very nearby... (Part 3)

And now, for the final installment in my recap of original email journal entries from last year. (Note: Because I agreed to protect the privacy of those people whose pictures I've taken, by official decree, I cannot post images of my Japanese students nor co-workers here.)

November 1, 7,603,200 seconds! (and counting...)

Rather than inundate everyone once again with one of my lengthy essay style updates, I've opted instead to go a more "eye-friendly" route. (After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, right?) Feast your eyes, boys and girls, young and old, one and all, on my images of Oirase-cho, Aomori-ken, Nihon!

(For those of you wondering about the subject title, that's my running clock on time spent in Japan; which is also 2,112 hours, or 88 days [palindromes galore!])

The brief road to work each morning. If you walk far enough down the way, you begin to hear 1930s parlor music coming from a few of the storefronts (no joke!)
The front of the office where I clock-in each morn.
A typical agricultural sight in Honshu north country.
Oirase nature
Oirase Lake
Oirase liberty! (1/6th replica; kind of "manish" in the face)
Kinoshita Elementary School (east)
Kinoshita Elementary School (west); student body ~600
"Blue in Angles" —a cool pyramidal building in Aomori City
"Goddess Enthroned"—my name for the float I was honored to help pull through Oirase Town in October.
Part of the parade route during the town festival (with a float in the background).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Not too long ago, in an inbox very, very nearby... (Part 2)

All right, let's set the WABAC machine to mid Summer of last year and part two of my ongoing look at all things Japan!

August 17, 2009, A fortnight in Nihon

Settling in to my new home now, and things are looking up....

My weekdays are spent waking up at 7:30 (I might start getting up a little earlier, so as not to rush/once school starts [Note: I now routinely wake up at 7:15, very doable]), eating a light breakfast, then dressing ("Summer casual" is the style right now, basically a collared shirt, short-sleeve is okay, and dress pants), and reporting to the office before 8:30. I live not more than a block down the road from the town office, and even closer to a Universe store (think typical supermarket, though a little smaller). My apartment is upstairs of a two-story complex that houses a block of seven other apartments like my own. Ruairi lives two doors down from me.

Office time is spent at my desk in an open setting where everyone has their own station abutting someone else's. We're served Japanese tea or coffee when we arrive in the morning and just after lunch. Lunch is from 12-1:00. We clock out at 4:30. So far, office work consists of surfing the net looking for pictures and such to print out and use for my self-introductions. That and finalizing official documents. I'll begin laminating the pictures for in class presentations soon. I've downloaded everything from shots off wildlife on the river, to landmarks (Golden Gate, Arco Arena, etc.), to the inside of Foster's Bighorn and a poster of Howard the Duck. I think the kids will enjoy it! Other than that, Ruairi and I keep up looking busy (he generally studies kanji, or reads news articles) and chitchat about politics, movies, and living in Japan during the interim. It's pretty undemanding right now, but the office can be lively in a very Japanese sort of way (people hustling about, announcing official business at the counter, etc.) Ruairi tells me there is an archaeological department on the third floor of our building, so I'll definitely be checking that out at some point.

Last week, my supervisor took me for a two day tour of Aomori. We climbed the heights of Hakkouda, where the Japanese military used to winter train. Corporal Goto, famous for having survived a blizzard that killed his entire unit, is erected on the mountain top. We took in Hirosaki Castle (very cool!), went to the beach, and stayed the one night at his house where he took me out for food at the local grill. Sorry no pictures, but I've been told the region we explored is even better in fall or spring, when the leaves turn and the cherry blossoms bloom, so I'll definitely be returning and taking pictures at a later date.

There's a mall about five minutes bike ride from my apartment, complete with bowling alley, movie theatre, and food court. It's two story layout reminded me of the Solano Mall back home. There's even a foreign emporium store stocked with all kinds of food from around the world, so I've been making spaghetti with Classico, and eating Pringles lately! I still have a lot of money remaining from before I left (more than 100,000 yen, which is about $1,000), and I get paid for the first time on the 21st, which is coming up. Nice!

There's still a lot I haven't seen, done, nor spoken about yet, but I'm pacing myself, and I've got plenty of time. My classes may not even begin until early next month (Sept), so I may even find it hard to fill all this time I'm left with. I'd better start studying more Japanese, I guess :/

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Not too long ago, in an inbox very, very nearby... (Part 1)

Unearthed from my email, previously thought lost forever in a struggle with a kleptomaniacal Japanese oni, I give unto you the first of my journal entries detailing my reactions, misadventures, and daring dos as an Assistant Language Teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme.

August 9, 2009, One week in Japan

Holy Shiitake, Batman!

Well, as I stare out my new bedroom window, the fact that my clothes have to dry on a line is not the only thing that reminds me I'm living in Japan.

It was almost exactly one week ago that flight JAL 001 touched down at Narita International Airport in Tokyo. Sunday evening consisted of clearing customs and airport security (which sounds like much more of a hassle than it really was, laughably even), then sending two of my largest pieces of luggage ahead to Aomori-ken, while my two littler pieces of luggage and I—oh, and 600 other JETs from AROUND THE WORLD!!—piled into various buses for the two hour ride to Keio Plaza. There we attended the three days of orientation—to sum it up, it was half a lecture in common sense practices (*yawn*), with a quarter of the time spent meeting new JETs, eating, sleeping, etc., and the other quarter time spent in actual, good, practical, (and at times humorous) seminars on topics ranging from managing expectations, food/shopping, and teaching techniques. I enjoyed it, but I also kind of felt like I could have been thrown in head first as well and probably done okay (thanks to Ruairi, my fellow office ALT).

Wednesday morning I ate breakfast (important: including some rather soggy, mush-like powdered eggs), met with my JET advisor and the rest, and started off again for the airport. This time it would be Haneda Airport, which handles domestic flights, and another 90 minute bus ride. We boarded the plane, took off, and landed again in about the amount of time it took us to drive to the airport, so that was good. As we stared out our windows we could tell we weren't in Tokyo anymore. Mist shrouded hills covered in an emerald cloak of evergreen trees surrounded us. No glass and steel anywhere rising above the tree line. One little u-shaped luggage ramp greeted us as we entered the airport in Aomori-shi, the capital of Aomori-ken (the suffix "-ken" is for prefecture, "-cho" is for town, "-shi" city, "-shu" state, and "-gun" is for county, I think). Already I could see a pleasant, middle-aged Japanese man in a suit holding a sign that said "13" amidst the crowd beyond our position. I looked down at my shirt and saw that it had a #13 sticker on it. Lucky, huh? When we JETs were given the signal, we exited the luggage area and left to meet our prefectural advisors; no longer to have anyone to rely on but ourselves and our knowledge. At this point, what I didn't know couldn't hurt me, right?

Boy was I in for a surprise!

"Hajimemashite," I said. "Watashi wa Ransu Raito desu. Dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu!" (translated: How do you do? My name is Lance Wright. It's my great pleasure to meet you!") My prefectural advisor's name was Sawahashi-san. He was a little taller than me, 54 years old, spoke decent English, and was a self-proclaimed Christian. I told him I was too. In fact, in the car ride from the airport to Oirase-cho, he explained to me how he had visited America twenty years ago and stayed with a Christian family there. They had taken him to a church where Chuck Simmons had spoken. He asked me if Chuck Simmons was still alive today, and all I could say was that I thought so. (To be honest, the name sounded familiar, but I had no idea who he was talking about.) With him, Sawahashi-san had brought another office worker, Mr. Sawagashira, who was younger, spoke far less English, and stoically drove the whole way while Sawahashi-san and I sat in the back.

Before we arrived, we stopped at a soba (buckwheat noddle) shop for lunch. It was good, but more than I could eat, and it was the first time I got to practice taking off my shoes for Japanese style eating/living. Soon we were back on the road.

Twenty minutes on, I'm feeling a bit warm, and I can feel gas building in my stomach. "Suck it up, wuss," I told myself. "You're NOT going to do ANYTHING!" My stomach laughed at me. Minutes later, my mouth was full of soba again, and I caught what I couldn't hold in my mouth in my hand. Thank God for hands! Mr. Sawagashira quickly pulled over and I was soon retching out the window over the side of the vehicle. Fun!

I apologized as best I could, checking my suit for damage, and climbed back into the car. Desperately hoping it hadn't been the food I just ate that had caused this, I explained that I thought the winding road and the heat had caused it instead. Nope! Once we were in Oirase Town proper, and switched cars to take me to the town office, I vomited again. Soba looks like brains when you throw it up. Now feeling utterly terrible, I proceeded on to meet my boss, a man called simply Kyouikicho, a title like superintendent, but meaning more like "lord administrator," or in this case "head samurai." Ruairi claims he looks like Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The man clearly commands respect though, and is very grandfatherly to the ALTs. Our meeting consisted of small talk around a nice table with some mugi chaa (barley tea) all around. I met Ruairi for the first time at this point also. (Ruairi is several inches taller than me, very short hair, blue eyes, Irish background, and from Bristol, Connecticut.) I managed to survive the meeting without incident and moved on to my apartment.

Ruairi and Mr. Sawagashira accompanied me to the apartment and showed me around. I don't remember anything they said that day because I was looking for the bathroom again. I barely made it, but not before puking all over the toilet seat first (this time it was mostly water and tea). That's three times! They asked me if I was all right and I didn't know, but resolved to take a nap because I was so exhausted at this point. Since they weren't far away I wasn't worried.

Sleep. Glorious sleep. Kind of glorious sleep. I had back pains at this point, I was feeling dehydrated, a bit of a headache, and my stomach came calling again. Four times! And this time my stomach had no water left. Something was very, VERY wrong! That night I met up with Ruairi and we discussed the possibility of seeing a doctor. We determined I had food poisoning—but from what? I spent part of the evening looking up the symptoms and dreading the prospect of a urinary tract infection, or worse. Since the local clinic had already closed, Ruairi said we'd have to go to Hachinohe-shi (twenty minutes by car) to get anything done. Our other option was waiting till morning and seeing a doctor in town. Since I hadn't vomited in a few hours at that point, I chose the latter.

And that was all on Wednesday.

Don't worry, that was the worst of it. Thankfully, I'm on the mend now. The past two full days have been much improved. I'm not at 100% strength yet, but the aches are gone, I haven't vomited since, and the other symptoms are all in remission. According to Ruairi, who went with me and Mr. Fukuda, another office worker, to the clinic, the doctor said I ate something that didn't sit well with me. NO SHIT! On the plus side, I got to experience socialized health care firsthand, (though a little too soon for my liking). I was given a prescription of pills and a mixture that goes in water to take for four days. The whole expense cost me only $14 US. The rest was covered by my insurance, which ironically, hasn't even kicked in yet.

Recently I've been rearranging my apartment. It's nice, but you can tell it's been lived in if you look close. I'm very grateful for the care I've been given so far, and I hope my employers will come to see that they'll get their full money's worth with me. Ruairi is a life saver (perhaps literally), and I know not to eat powdered eggs in Japan anymore! Sheesh!

Oh, and we had our first enkai (office party) on Friday night. It was pretty fun! Ruairi says the Japanese are the Irish of the East. They're all exceedingly kind though, and I look forward to getting to know each one.

Monday, March 22, 2010

29 Years Young

At some time early this morning, March the twenty-first (Pacific Time—I'm in the future), in the year of Our Lord two-thousand ten, I grew one year closer to the big three-O. (Wait, is that the big four-O? Or are they both "the big uh-oh"?) Be that as it may, I don't feel markedly older now than I did during any of the past some-odd birthdays. (Yes, even the even ones.) However, I do feel there is something wrong not just with my birthday but with all birthdays. It's the song. "Happy Birthday." It's outlived its usefulness, and it must be allowed to die.

My proposal is simple. Let's replace "Happy Birthday to You" with something livelier and less kitschy. "And many more, on channel four; and Scooby-Doo, on channel two!"—dumb! Come on, people don't even respect the Happy Birthday song anymore. "You smell like a monkey, and you look like one too!" Really?

Instead, try this one at your next birthday party:

"[Blankety-blank] Years Young"
(sung to the tune of Camptown Races)

## years young to-day, boo yah, boo yah
## years young to-day, oh the boo yah hey!
Winks all around and you come on in, boo yah, boo yah
You go back home with a chocolate grin, oh the boo yah hey!
Ha-vin' fun all night!
Ha-vin' fun all day!
Here's some money in a fold-out card
That, and you don't have to pay.

It's best when sung with gusto, see Foghorn Leghorn.