Monday, August 31, 2009

How to lock down a country...?

Hint: It doesn't take an epidemic. Give up? Just conjure up a typhoon.

Ok, I exaggerate, I'm sure. I'm fairly sure some countries fly into Kansai International (hence the "international" part). Yesterday, however, bad weather shut down Tokyo Narita, Japan's main airport. As a result, instead of writing this entry from work or my cozy little apartment, I'm killing some time before checkout at Chicago O'Hare's Crowne Plaza Hotel.

Of course no one is to blame for the weather, but my whole strategy is messed up now. Aside from having to take extra time off work, I have to fly United in an undesired seat. First off, United doesn't offer personal screens and video players to Economy passengers. Instead we are provided with "big projectors with one movie choice." One choice? What - no vote?

Second, when you have a long flight, always request an aisle. That way you can stay hydrated without worrying about having to displace people (who may be sleeping) when you have to empty the tank. Well, this time I was lucky to get a of course it's a window seat, blocked in my not one, but two people. When you fly on the inside of one, you can kind of strategically time your bathroom runs - get up when they do. Two is going to be trickier.

Third, I try to put myself on Tokyo time the night before I head over to Japan, so I didn't sleep a couple nights ago. As a result, but sleeping pattern is kind of messed up - I got 4 hours yesterday afternoon-evening and then another 4 last night. Oi. Work is gonna be fun the next couple days. "Hi, kids - excuse me if I fall asleep on my feet."

Well, hopefully my complaints aren't moot and I'll make it to Japan this time. Wish me luck.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Just another random thought 8/30/09

There are vending machines everywhere in Japan, selling all manor of goods. The first time I saw booze in a vending machine, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised. Now that the novelty has worn off, I've noticed that many of these booze machines are set up right outside of liquor stores.
Kind of makes me wonder about the point of having a physical shop when you can just set up soulless vending machines and not pay them by the hour.

Pooping there is half the fun

The owner and mastermind behind this blog, Mr. Blue Shoe, has touched upon the wonders of Japanese bathrooms before, but there are a few details he skipped (or perhaps feverishly pushed to the back of his subconscious, hoping they would never surface again).

My formal introduction to the Japanese toilet occurred in Tokyo. I had a small bit of time before my connecting flight to Osaka, so I decided to pop into the public restroom. The signs outside the bathrooms were in Japanese, but it was obvious that one sign was for the men's room (t'was blue, and showed a stick figure wearing pants), and the other sign was for the ladies room (pink sign, stick figure in a skirt). Didn't take a genius to figure this one out. So, I went to the men's side...and was greeted by a woman cleaning the sinks.


I backed out, and looked at the signs again. No, I...I couldn't have made a mistake. The sign is blue, and the stick figure is wearing pants. I stood there, contemplating the situation. Could it be that, in Japan, blue = feminine? Do Japanese stick figure men wear some kind of skirt I'm not familiar with? Where did I go wrong here? Regardless, I did the logical thing.

I loitered outside the bathroom until a Japanese guy went in, and I followed him.

Turns out I was right, and here was my first experience with culture shock in Japan. In America, a woman cleaning the men's room while it's open is a no-no, and vice versa. Imagine the lawsuits!

Oh, but it gets even more shocking for this foreign visitor. The Japanese man who I had followed, he proceeded to use one of the urinals...while the cleaning woman scrubbed the urinal right next to him. Who does that?? Did I accidentally walk onto the set of a poorly-written Japanese porno movie? I opted to use one of the three stalls. In my haste, I didn't notice the signs on the door to each stall (displaying, in Japanese, whether the toilet was a "Japanese-style" or "Western-style" toilet), and when I closed the door and looked around, there was....nothing. Well, not quite "nothing." There was a hole. In the ground. Made of porcelain.

Behold the wonders of the Japanese toilet:

And, for those gaijin (foreigners) not smart enough to figure out how a hole in the floor works, Tokyo airport has provided us with this easy-to-understand picture:

What did I tell you? Pooping there is half the fun.
The cleaning-woman-in-the-men's-bathroom incident should've prepared me for the discovery I made halfway into my stay in Japan. In Japan...the men's bathroom is not sacred. Now, the female bathrooms, in order to access them, you have to make your way through a labyrinth, battle a samurai, and answer three questions on the history of feudal Japan. But the men's rooms of Japan -- half of them didn't seem to have doors, let alone a urinal hidden from the general public. Seriously -- in many of the parks, temple grounds, and tourist areas, the men's rooms were very open; often, I'd be walking by, not even in the restroom itself, and be able to see men standing at the urinals. It all seemed a little too accessible. Perhaps it's just my American mentality as to what's taboo, but back home, I like being able to pee without throngs of people watching.
A few people, okay. But not throngs. A guy has his limits.
Thankfully, Mr. Blue Shoe has a "Western" toilet in his apartment, where I would be staying for the duration of my trip, and most public places offer stalls for both types of toilets, so I never had to experience first-hand (first-cheek?) the wonders of the Japanese toilet. My knees are bad enough as they are.
And I'd rather not know about the splash factor. The Japanese are a brave people, indeed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mario Sequencer

Do you remember Mario Paint, back for the SNES? Arguably its best feature was the ability to create your own music, using its kooky editor with something like 15 different usable sounds. Anyway, someone in Japan took it, added a couple additional options (such as importing new sounds), and created a stand-alone program called Mario Sequencer.

Here are some examples of some pretty cool stuff that people have made with it (the first one is actually Mario Paint and the others are Mario Sequencer).

1."Can't Beat Airman" from Mega Man 2

2. "Ayla's Theme" from Chrono Trigger

3. "World Revolution" from Chrono Trigger

4. Mortal Kombat Theme Song

Monday, August 24, 2009

Just another random thought 8/25/09

One thing I both really like and dislike about Japan is all the bicycles. Everyone and their grandmother's got one, literally.

On one hand, it's good exercise and better for the environment to ride a bike instead of driving. And they are well-suited to Japan, as the roads are generally congested enough as it is. Bicycles can be easily maneuvered down tight streets that cars have trouble with.

On the flip side, a lot of people riding bikes means that sidewalks near shops are often crowded with parked bicycles. You also have to be a lot more aware, whether you're on foot, driving, or on a bike of your own. Even though most bikes seem to come pre-made with squeeky breaks, bicycles in general are still fairly silent, so if you're not careful you can wind up, oh, hitting someone with your motorcylce, for example, and then paying their medical bill and court-ordered damages until they luckily change their address and forget to get in touch with you about where to send their money. You got off easy this time.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Just another picture of the day 8/23/09

Caption call -- anyone?


Oh the joys of living in an old apartment. It seems to me that certain pests are a lot easier to find in Japan than other places. Sure, you can find roaches in just about any country, developed or not, but it seems like in Japan you run a decent chance of running into them no matter what kind of place you're living in. I've had a few run-ins with them in this place.

Most recently, though, I have a new "neighbor" trying to move in. On my balcony there is a washing machine. Behind the washer is this wooden column that looks like it was once part of some kind of structure. I don't know why it's there, but I have nowhere to move it to; so there it remains. Looks like someone took a liking to it.

When I got home a few days ago, I was startled to see this bee hanging out there, doing...something with the wood. It didn't make that hole, by the way - there were already a few holes in the column. It was by its lonesome (there doesn't appear to be any hive nearby) and it didn't seem aggressive, even when I got fairly close, leading me to believe it's a carpenter bee. They don't seem that bad from online descriptions, and it didn't seem ill-tempered. Nonetheless, I would rather not risk having a nest right next to my washing machine. I feel bad trying to kill it - after all, it's not really doing anything to bother me...but I can't set the precedent of letting bugs move in on my turf. So I scared it away for a few minutes by shooting it from behind my screen door (I guess I'm a coward like that) with some water. When it was gone, I powdered the hole with my favorite insecticide - boric acid.

Unfortunatelty as I'm in America at the moment, I'm not sure if the acid worked or not. I guess I'll find out soon enough.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Just another picture of the day 8/20/09

Start your day the right way: Deeppresso

Getting there is half the fun: Part trois

I just traveled 14 1/2 hours on a plane from JFK in New York to Tokyo. Since this was my first point of entry into Japan, I had to fill out some paperwork on the plane in regards to customs. It upset me. The paperwork listed a bunch of items I wasn't allowed to bring back to America -- fruits, soil, blood (yes, blood), and weapons. It specifically said "No samurai swords." Bummer!

Once the plane landed, I glanced at my cell phone -- less than two hours to make a connecting flight to Osaka. I've never flown before; I had no idea how long the trip through customs would be. But two hours? I'd probably be okay. Right?

Welcome to Japan, Jeff. Let the insanity begin.

Immediately prior to the final descent, the captain announced over the PA system, "wryja stgjas Japan hgrh wjw rtyjws dhtgd swine flu mrtjw srfgjsf remain seated fhqjh oqrthqw aqh a few minutes." The plane lands, and then....nothing. I'm looking around; nobody's getting up. The flight attendants starting moving up and down the aisles, making sure we filled out our customs forms, and informing us that we'll be going through a minor precautionary measure due to the ongoing swine flu crisis. A few minutes later, the "minor precautionary measure" boarded the plane, in the form of three Japanese men, and one Japanese woman, dressed in full hazmat gear. If I didn't know any better, I'd say they just got back from mining plutonium for their flux capacitor. They approached us, one by one, pointed a gun-like device at our heads, and scanned to determine our temperatures. Then, they handed out a survey, and demanded (albeit rather kindly) that we answer everything honestly.

I wish I had a copy of the survey as a memento. One side was in Japanese, the other side was in 'hey-Tomo-we-know-you-flunked-out-of-English-class-but-can-you-translate-this-for-us-ese.' I had heard of "Engrish" before, but now I was holding an authentic piece in my hands. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside. The questions were basic -- where I've been recently, have I been sick, where will I be staying, etc -- and to their credit, the staff was very nice and understanding about the whole ordeal. After a half hour or so, we were allowed to leave.

Now I was truly on my own. I felt like a lemming (well, a non-suicidal lemming), just following the herd in whichever direction they went. lemmings move in herds? That's cows, right? Yeah...

I felt like a cow (well, a non-suicidal cow), just following the herd in whichever direction they went. That direction led to a bullet train within the airport, which had no signs as to where it was going. But hey...everybody else was doing it. After we herded (ha!) ourselves onto the train, it sped off to some other area -- customs! Step one complete!

I waited on line, behind some cranky old white dude who complained about everything, and his far-more-patient Japanese war bride. Well, I assume she was a war bride. I can't imagine her loving him for his witty charm. Behind me was another white dude, about ten years my senior, I'd guess. We exchanged nods, and he asked how I was doing. "A bit nervous," I admitted, told him it was my first time flying, and mentioned my concern about missing my connecting flight. He assured me I had plenty of time. Then he asked if I was in the military.

That's twice!

My turn was called. I approached the customs clerk, answered a few questions, had my passport stamped, promised not to bring back any samurai swords, and I was on my way. I had to get my luggage, then re-check it for the next flight. I discovered something while hustling around the airport in Tokyo. Consider it my first observation of Japan.

In Japan, all airport employees working behind a desk must: 1) be female, 2) look adorably cute, and 3) give the appearance of between the ages of 18 and 20.

Luggage checked, and with time to spare. I searched for my terminal, and found it...or did I? All it was was a podium, a glass door leading to the runway, and some chairs (20, at the most) attached to the wall. Something didn't seem right. I found an employee hanging around the podium area, and asked her if this was the correct terminal. A blank stare. I showed her my plane ticket, and she enthusiastically nodded and threw in some "ahhh, yes, yes," for good measure. Slowly, more people seemed to gather, and for the first time, I truly felt like a foreigner. I was the only white guy there. An elderly couple sat a few seats away from me, and I caught them looking at me from time to time. A little boy, once his toy plane became too boring, entertained himself by staring at me. His mother seemed embarrassed by this; I could only smile to show her I wasn't bothered by it.

"Step right up! See the amazing White Man from America! Marvel as he eats with a fork! Envy the ease at which he grows facial hair! But beware -- his giant White Man eyes see all!"

Eventually, two Japanese flight attendants took to the podium. One would say a few lines in Japanese, then the other would read the English translation from a piece of paper, then look right at me. Every time. I felt guilty. I feel like, if I wasn't there, she could've just sat back and let the first girl do all the talking. What made me feel even more guilty, though -- I pretty much understood them equally. Bless her Japanese heart, she was trying, but it was a butchering of the English language. She should've just read it phonetically.

We were herded (again! I'm so clever!) outside, and onto a bus. I was 99.99% sure this wasn't the plane to Osaka, but, y'know...that .01% in me thought maybe, just maybe, Japan was so technologically advanced, that wings would shoot out of the sides, and we'd go airborne. It didn't happen. Sigh. Instead, the bus took us onto the runway, where our much smaller plane was waiting.

Not only are the airport employees adorably cute, but so are the planes!

We boarded. Same deal. One gal would recite the airplane safety protocol in Japanese, and the other gal would read from a sheet in English. Except this time, after a few sentences, they'd bow in unison. This plane, although much smaller, packed one hell of a punch during liftoff. We took to the air a lot sooner than I expected. Once again, I watched Japan get smaller and smaller. An hour or so later, we landed once more.

And for the record, I didn't throw up. Take that, 4-year-old Jeff!

We disembarked, and I waited for my luggage to come off the belt. I looked around -- again, I was the only American around, the only white guy in a swarm of Japanese. I didn't know how I felt, or how I should have felt. All I knew was, I was the outsider, I was the one who stuck out like a boar thumb. I know it's supposed to be "sore" thumb, but really -- if you had 4 normal fingers, and then one giant boar thumb, it would stand out a lot more than if it was just sore. In fact, a sore thumb might not even look different from a regular thumb. It'd just feel a little sore. Come to think of boars even have thumbs?

But I digress.

Got my luggage, stepped through the baggage claim doors, and was immediately met by the only other white guy around -- my friend, Mr. Blue Shoe himself, Paul. I made it to Japan. Let the culture shock begin.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Just another random thought 8/19/09

I've noticed that Japanese people tend to peel a lot of fruit that we in the States don't. I have to admit, though, that peeled peach was good. But a few weeks ago I went to a party at a friend's house, and some people were eating grapes. Yes, they were peeling the grapes. I asked them why, and they said because fruit skin has chemicals. I know many farmers probably use pesticides or growth-enhancing chemicals, but that's why we wash fruit.

Am I off-base here? Is this a cultural difference or just a matter of preference? First one to use an "appeel" pun gets the Groaner Award.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Is Japan really that weird?

As I layed out when I started this operation, a lot of people have some crazy images of Japan. And yeah, there is some crazy $#*@ here. But is Japan really all that weird? Ok, it is - but just hear me out here.

A while ago I was helping run a summer international seminar at another high school, and durning our lunch break some students came in to talk to me and the other teachers. One of them had some kind of Anpanman paraphernalia (in retrospect I can't remember if it was a pencil case or doll or what), and somehow we drifted onto the topic. For those unfamiliar with him, Anpanman is the titular protagonist of a children's TV show here in Japan (incidentally, the show recently achieved a Guinness World Record). So we began to talk to the students about Anpanman, who explained to us the details of his existence. Here's what you need to know:

"Anpan" is a kind of pastry here. It's a sweetish bun filled with red bean paste. It's meant to be kind of desserty, I believe, but I'm not a fan - Japanese desserts aren't sweet enough for my Western tastebuds.

So Anpanman in English is roughly "Red Bean Paste Pastry Man." Apparently he was created by a kindly old baker to fight evil, or hunger - I'm not quite sure. As far as I can tell, he and his friends fight against the forces of Germ Man, and Anpanman frequently lets people eat his head, which is then replaced by the Baker. Weird, huh?

Then we started thinking of TV shows from our childhood, and Smurfs came up. The students looked at us in bewilderment and we tried to explain about the little blue people who lived in mushrooms, perpetually tormented by a wizard who wanted to capture them and either eat them or turn them into a potion of some kind. Oh, and there was only one girl smurf.

Suddenly, Anpanman didn't seem so ridiculous anymore.


I'll be heading back to the States for a couple weeks shortly - my flight is in the morning. I've prepared material for some posts while I'm away, but things will be a little slower around here for the rest of the month. I'm not bringing my laptop home, as I've ordered a new one and hope to take it back to Japan with me...unfortunately the model I picked is backordered at Best Buy (the exclusive merchant) at the moment, so I may have to go without for a while and have it shipped to me in Japan. Yuck.

Thanks for your understanding!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

You too can smell good...!

By following these two simple steps!

1. Import deodorant.
2. Use deodorant.

Being in Japan, I've had people tell me I smell good. I get it a lot from students, actually. Now I'm not denying the fact - I do smell like a fresh field of (manly) flowers on a brisk spring morning, but I get complimented a lot more on it here than back home. I've also noticed foreigner friends of mine receiving the same kind words. Why is that?

I think it's because of the pitiful status of the Japanese deodorant market. According to Japan Market Intelligence, either the Japanese place less emphasis on smelling fragrant, or they don't believe they smell as pungent as us Westerners. I've actually heard that claim from foreigners before - that Japanese people don't smell. I've also heard that Japanese don't sweat. I'm not going to argue racial biology/anatomy here -that's not my strong suit; but I've taught enough high school kids here to know that Japanese people do sweat and they can smell.

I will say this, though - they do a good job masking both. People over here all carry around little clothes or handkerchiefs that they use to clean their faces when they sweat. And for all the public transportation I've utilized, I haven't encountered many bad cases of BO. So generally I tend to think of Japanese people as smell-less.

If you're looking to smell nice, however, your options are limited. There are really only two types of deodorant you can get here: crappy roll-on and crappy spray. I've tried both, and using them seriously doesn't appear any different from dabbing some antiseptic under your arm. They smell suspiciously like rubbing alcohol and whatever protection they afford gets smacked down by the brutal force of the Japanese summer. Alternatively you could go with Axe body spray, which they do have here, or some cologne. But neither of those are anti-perspirant, are they?

So yes, Japan, I do smell good. What's my secret? Real deodorant.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Getting there is half the fun: Part ni

"Were you nervous?" I was asked that a lot; I'd never really flown before, and there I was, alone and flying from New York to Tokyo nonstop on a 14 1/2 hour flight. Truth, I wasn't nervous. I don't know why I wasn't. My biggest fears were not making my connecting flight to Osaka in time, and throwing up. As I mentioned in the previous entry, my only other plane trip was at 4 years of age. And I threw up.

However, as an airplane rookie, I wanted to be the best damn passenger American Airlines had ever seen. I followed every rule, obeyed every instruction. I buckled the hell out of that safety belt. However, certain situations will drive a man to deviate from proper behavior. And an impending situation was creeping closer. One that would "out" me as a flying newbie.

I had to pee.

We had been flying for a few hours now; the pamphlet clearly states that after reaching our cruising altitude, the seatbelt sign would turn off, and we'd be free to move about the cabin. Blast that infernal glowing sign! It became a staring contest. I lost. Perhaps if I looked away for a minute, when I looked back it wou...damn! Tensions were rising. Bladders were filling. Paul Blart was stumbling. I had to admit defeat. With wounded pride, I asked the stewardess (oh, I'm sorry, 'flight attendant') when they would turn off the seatbelt sign, so that I could use the restroom.

Her reply? "Hey, if you gotta go, you gotta go."

Made sense. If the plane were to crash at 30, 40, 50,000 feet, I doubt that seatbelt would be the difference-maker.

"Were sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Tiembi. The engines lost power at 50,000 feet, and the plane crashed somewhere in the mountains of Alaska, followed by a large explosion. Your son was the only casualty. If only he held it in for another 10 minutes, he would have survived. Autopsy showed he was in mid-stream. You have our condolences."

Upon returning to my seat, the stewardess asked, "Excuse me, but...are you in the military?" Perhaps it was my shaved head. Perhaps it was my amazing physique attained by years of video games and Lean Pockets. No, I have never served in the military. I kick ass with a sniper rifle in Call of Duty 4, though.

"Oh...because you've been so polite during this flight."

I guess if you're American, and were raised on a steady diet of P's and Q's (what does the "Q" stand for??), you're the exception, not the rule.

14 1/2 hours later, after several episodes of The Office and 30 Rock, after Paul Blart saves the day, the Nintendo DS was put away, and my tray table was in its upright and locked position, we landed. I stared out my window the entire time, as a foreign land grew bigger and bigger underneath me. I tried to make out giant words on buildings and billboards, to see if I recognized any from my Japanese tutorial DS game (Midori!! That means 'green!'). My biggest concern, though, was making my connecting flight. I was landing in Tokyo, but had to catch a flight to Osaka in less than two hours. Plenty of time, right?

Not if swine flu had anything to say about it.

Will Jeff make his connecting flight? Will he succumb to swine flu and die before touching Japanese soil? All this and more in the thrilling conclusion of "Getting there is half the fun."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Kanji number riddle...things

A couple months ago, my friend's girlfriend taught me a couple of interesting kanji-riddle-number things, for lack of a better term. I beg your indulgence if you're not very familiar with kanji, but you may find this interesting nonetheless.

(こめ;べい), usually pronounced "kome" or "bei," is the kanji for "rice." It can also mean "America." I imagine this is because America is the country with vast fields of grain. But this kanji can also mean 88 years old. Let me show you why.

is the kanji for "eight."
is the kanji for "ten."

We draw by this process:

1) We draw two intersecting lines, like the kanji for 10.
2) We add two diagonal lines orginating from the intersection, like the kanji for 8.
3) We add two more diagonal lines, this time sticking up, like an upside down "8" kanji.
4) are the components: 10, 8, and 8.

I suppose since 10 x 8 + 8 = 88, 米 can represent 88 years old.

Kudos and an e-cookie for anyone who can tell me what number represents and why.

Know any other kanji-riddle things like this, or if these have a proper name? If so, please share them!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More on the Atom Bomb

The Mainichi daily news recently interviewed Morris Jeppson, a crew member of the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. This is serious stuff, and agree with what the US's position at the time or not, I think this is a fascinating and important look at history.

H/t to Japan Probe.

Here are the three parts of the interview. I personally think Part 3 is the most interesting, as I agree with Mr. Jeppson's rationale about apologizing for the past. Sometimes it may be a prudent and meaningful diplomatic gesture, but I don't think anyone should have to apologize for the actions or mistakes of their ancestors. After all, does guilt of any specific crime carry over from father to son, from generation to generation?

Just another scary bug

I've never been a fan of certain insects...anything that will bite or sting or looks like it may bite or sting. For that matter, I'm not a fan of any animal that will unprovokedly (that may not be a real word, but I'm an English teacher so it is now) and suicidally attack me. I mean, I'm a jillion times bigger than any bug. Attack me if you must, but if you don't haul ass out of there right away afterwards, I'm gonna squash the crapola out of you.

Anyway, one of my least favorite bugs is the wasp. Could be because I was stung in the head by one as a kid, but does one really need a reason like that to hate wasps? Now, wasps in America are an annoyance. In Japan, they are friggin scary. I saw a Japanese hornet for the first time the other day (I've been lucky not to have encountered on up until now) and it scared the crap out of me. Well, until I decided to try to photo it. But it wouldn't stay still, and as it buzzed towards me the fear kicked back in and I beat a retreat back to my apartment.

Moral of the story?

That's not a wasp.

(Photo: Top News)

This is a wasp.

Just another picture of the day 8/13/09

Image Hosted by
(Photo provided by The Gobbler)

"Strawberry monkey jam! Now with 20% more monkey!"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ahh, ok - they came from "a foreigner"

Right now the big story the Japanese media is focusing on is the apparently impossible-to-accept-and-move-on-with-life tale of Noriko Sakai, a 38 year-old Japanese pop singer who was recently arrested. As far as I can gather, the story is that her estranged husband was arrested on suspicion of drug possession and told police that she was involved. Her apartment was searched and drugs found, and a warrant was put out for her arrest. She disappeared with her kid for a couple of days, but was eventually found and apprehended. Although she has admitted to the possession charges, she has also said that she didn't take the drugs herself.

The part that has the gaijin community somewhat upset is a statement that was made to police and then leaked to the Japanese media. Apparently Noriko got her drugs "from a foreigner." At first, the media's coverage of the event consisted of every TV show centering in on stupid little details of her life - for example, her decision to dye her hair. I saw one TV show that was studying a picture of her from a few years back, trying to determine if she had a tattoo. Oooh, that must have been where she went wrong.

Now, as you might imagine, the media is focusing in on this foreigner business. See, Japan is a pure society. If people are using drugs, foreigners must be connected somehow. Despite the fact that Noriko's brother has ties to the yakuza. I think there's a lot of blame to go around, but the police and the media deserve a fair share, considering how much coverage this story is getting in Japan. If a celebrity were busted for drugs in America, do you think they would be able to deflect so much attention by claiming they bought the drugs from a black man or a hispanic? I would hope not. Then again, this is Japan. More on the story at Japan Probe.

(Photo Source: AFP via Yahoo)

Getting there is half the fun

I'm not much of a traveler. I've lived in NYC all my life, and have only been as far west as Pennsylvania, and as far south as North Carolina. Prior to my trip to Japan, I had been on a plane once (twice if you count the return flight) which was a family trip to Bermuda. It lasted two hours. I was 4 years old. I vaguely remember throwing up.

Apparently, air travel has changed a bit in the past 25 years since.

Several people said I was insane. A two hour flight with my family at age 4 is not quite as daunting as a 14 1/2 flight by myself to Japan. But, I've wanted to see Japan for most of my life, and since the subway doesn't go across the Pacific, my options were limited. Air travel it was. I did some research online on how to survive (not literally) a long flight. Later I researched online how to survive (quite literally) a long flight. Apparently there are situations where cannibalism is acceptable.

I did my homework as to what you can/can't bring on an airplane. Books are okay. Bombs are not. Books on how to build bombs...that's sort of a grey area. I invested in my very first handheld gaming device, a Nintendo DS, along with Final Fantasy Tactics and Chrono Trigger, a tactical RPG and an RPG, respectively. For those of you who aren't keen on the gaming lingo, "RPG" is a type of game that can easily suck countless hours from your life. Like a 'Saved By the Bell' marathon, only, y'know...enjoyable.

1pm Friday. Onto the flight! After saying my goodbyes at the airport, I boarded. Well, no. First I had to take off my shoes to prove I wasn't carrying any weapons, then I boarded. Window seat -- score! A Chinese man sat next to me, but quickly changed seats. Everyone on board was fortunate that less than half the seats were occupied after the final boarding call; people were able to spread out so that everyone had empty seats next to them. The captain introduced himself over the intercom (at least, I think that's what he was doing. The voice was so muffled, he could've been sharing his recipe for meatloaf). We took off, which was most impressive. I was awed, watching the world below get smaller and smaller; the landscape reminded me of a miniature train set my father and I worked on when I was a kid.

I forced myself to be awed for as long as possible. I knew the deal. 14 1/2 hours trapped in my seat, I needed to become a master of time. I needed to prolong things as much as possible. If I dipped into my bag of toys too soon, I risked being bored with far too many hours remaining on my flight. Unfortunately, we eventually reached a height where all I could see were clouds. Fun at first...but it's hard to be awed by clouds for more than 45 minutes. Luckily, our first meal was about to be served. Now, I've heard plenty of jokes about airline food, but...I enjoyed it. Not quite as good as an Ikea cafeteria (Ikea : adult Jeff :: Toys R Us : kid Jeff), but enjoyable. Then again, I live off Lean Pockets and cereal, so what do I know?

The headrest in front of me had a small television built into it, with all sorts of movies and TV shows on tap. A few episodes of The Office and 30 Rock killed some time. I also watched
Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

That's right. "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

I like Kevin James. I've even seen a few episodes of King of Queens, and found it enjoyable. But this movie....hoo-boy, this movie. People have asked me what I thought of it. First -- it is exactly what you expect the movie to be. Fat guy does slapstick for two hours. And second -- it wasn't bad, considering I was trapped on an airplane flying between 30,000 and 50,000 feet in the air. Because that's probably the only condition that would have led me to watch the movie.

That's enough for now, I suppose. Paul, our honorable blog owner and all-around decent fella, hasn't specified how long these entries should be, though he's aware of my ability to stretch a story about shoe-tying into a three hour epic on par with Ben Hur. Until next time!

Just another picture of the day 8/12/09

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It's amazing how many picturesque locales you can find in Japan; not the fact that they exist, but that they can be found in such unexpected places. This pavilion is hidden in a little park right near my house, yet it took me two or three months to discover it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Prayers and thoughts for Sayo-cho

Typhoon season usually arrives in Japan about midway through the summer and peaks in September. Some years are worse than others. Early this week, the town of Sayo, located in Hyogo prefecture (where I am living), was hit hard. There was a significant amount of damage and at least 8 people are dead, with others still missing.

A 55-year-old office worker said he saw three women washed away by waters Sunday night.

"I heard them scream and saw three women washed away. The current was so fast the three disappeared in seconds," he said.

Before the women were swept away, they were walking together while only a little rain was falling, the man said.

In the town's Hongo district, Satomi Kobayashi, 40, was evacuating from her home to a nearby elementary school with her three children when she was swept away in a flood of muddy water. The bodies of Kobayashi and her 16-year-old daughter, Ayano, were found nearby.

A nearby bridge was washed away and rice paddies in the area were submerged in mud.

Naomi Ikeda, 45, said her husband was missing.

She found his car stuck against a tree in the Sayo River.

Kazuma Ikeda, 54, left their home in the car at around 8 p.m. Sunday to take a flashlight to his mother's house, where the electricity had been knocked out.

"I shouldn't have let him go," Naomi Ikeda said.

She said that soon after her husband left home, the rain turned into a downpour and within five minutes the house was filled with water, coming up to her chest.

Forty minutes later, she called her husband to ask him to come home, but that was the last contact she had with him.

I think this is a good time to offer up our prayers and/or thoughts for the vitcims of the typhoon.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Japan and Dating: Part 2

Last week we briefly explored one aspect of Japanese courting practices. If you've ever seen the Japanese classic Battle Royale, you'll no doubt have heard "suki" (I love you) more than a few times before everyone was dead. Today, however, I want to talk about another, harder to observe side of dating in Japan.

Again, a quick disclaimer: I'm nowhere near an expert on this subject matter. I'm just sharing my observations. That said, it really is a difficult subject to analyze. It's a secret little world that is very nearly impossible to completely infiltrate, although glimpses are plentiful to those who pay attention.

Yay, freedom! When you get married, you can finally tell people you're seeing someone!
Photo Source: Digital World Tokyo

Many Japanese relationships, prior to marriage, are characterized by a sense of secrecy and discretion that is taken very seriously. Of course the degree of this behavior varies from couple to couple, and I think younger Japanese today, although still affected by this social more, are somewhat more open in general than those of prior generations. I'm sure this tendency towards stealth dating is part of the overarching societal social phenomena of honne and tatema. Basically, it's separation of the "real" (private) self and the "outward" (public) self. In Japan, there is a much stricter distinction between the spheres of public and private life than in many Western countries. It may also have to do with old Confucian influences. Regardless of why, though, this is how it is.

My first girlfriend, though we started dating in America, was very shy in public at first. She was embarrassed to hold hands or have any real physical contact when there were any people around or when we were near her university. When we were with our mutual friends, she acted as if we weren't a couple. It was very frustrating and took a while to work through, and she couldn't really explain why she behaved like that - it was just what felt right to her. Two of my other female Japanese friends explained that she was "too Japanese," which left me scratching my head as to what the problem was.

A friend of mine who is dating a Japanese girl noted to me that she has always been rather reserved about introducing him to her friends, and they have been together for over 3 years now. A work friend of mine (who is Japanese) practically never talks about his girlfriend. All I know is that they've been together for 14 years and he is going to propose to her sometime soon. Another work friend of mine (who is Japanese and female) has a secret boyfriend. In other words, I found out that she is dating someone (a former coworker) through outside channels - she never talks about him or the fact that she is even in a relationship.

My last relationship was a good example of this aspect of Japanese dating. Let's just say that in Japanese schools (and perhaps many other work settings), dating your coworkers is discouraged. If the school authorities find out, one of the offending parties will most likely be transferred out to another school. That's not to say that it doesn't happen - it does, quite often from what I hear. But man, keeping it hush-hush is hard work. You might be thinking "Oh, it's like an adventure! Keeping secrets is fun!" Wrong. You have to watch how you interact in view of coworkers. And you can't just ignore each other, because that is too obvious. No, you have to be friendly, but not too friendly. You have to be careful not to get too familiar at work. And when you go out, you have to be careful...if you run into a student or a coworker, you're in for it. The rumors at school will start, and...well, let's just say I didn't want to deal with it anymore after a couple months.

These are just a few examples - it really is a very widespread behavior from what I've heard and seen. But what do you have to say on the topic? Have you dated someone from Japan or another country? In your experience, were they more or less open about dating than we are in the States?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Look Ma, no English: EVO

Last night I plopped down on the couch and decided I was in the mood for a game. Not just any game - an old SNES game (or Super Famicom, as the natives call it). Browsing through the posibilities, I settled on an old favorite - a unique game that never got as much play as it truly deserved - EVO: Search for Eden. I don't know if you've ever played it before, but it's quite the hidden gem. As I've played through it many times, I decided to mix it up a little this time. That's right: we're going through it in Japanese! Let's go! (Get ready for a long post)!

Ah, glorious. In Japanese, the game is called 46 Okunen Monogatari: Haruka Naru Eden E. In English, that's roughly "4.6 Billion Year Story: To Reach Distant Eden." Are you as excited as I am?
Ah, so here's Gaia, the Sun's daughter. She's explaining that we're going to get a chance to go through the ages and do our best to survive - all that good stuff. If we do make it through, we get to enter Eden. Hurrah! What are we waiting for? Let's rock this world.

All right, so we're starting off as a fish. Took us 3 billion years to get to this point. Thanks, Gaia. Oceans, get ready to be owned.

Here we co- oh, yeah. So as you can see, this is what 3 billion years of evolution gets us - the wimp fish. Well, no matter. Pretty soon we'll be BA.

Mr. Jellyfish tells us that in order to survive and evolve, we must attack other creatures and eat them. It's a harsh world, he says. It sure is, Mr. Jellyfish!

Let's repay him for his kind advice. As you can see, our wussy fish bite attack only does 1 damage. Fortunately, these jellyfish are weak sauce.

A couple bites and the jellyfish meat is ours!

We eat the meat, and it restores HP and gives EVO points, which we can use to evolve. Speaking of evolving, let's evolve up some better chompers, shall we?

Ok, so first we go to our menu. #1 says evolve, so let's pick that.

Here are the different body parts we can evolve. Looks like jaws, horn, body, limbs, fin, and tail are available at the moment. Let's pick the first one, アゴ - jaws.

Moving things along a little bit - that brought us to a menu with different kinds of jaws to choose from. I'm no fish expert, so I don't know a great deal of fish names in English. In Japanese, I have no I just picked the next best set of jaws - maybe they belong to some type of shark or something. As you can see, the mystical time stream is allowing us to change, represented by our wimp fish blinking yellow. Aaaannnd...

Ta-daaa! Look - he seems meaner now, doesn't he? Let's check it out.

Sweet - our attack power appears to have tripled.

With the arrival of our newfound power, a jellyfish slaughter ensues. All are helpless before our new teeth.

After a little more evolution, we become some sort of pickle fish and seek new quarry. Here are some eels. They quickly fall to our might. Ooo, a cave.

Inside we encounter some weird-@$$ green sluggy thing. Shall we take a bite?

Apparently it splits when bitten. Weird.

Two meats are our reward. Eat up, picklefish.

We then encountered some weird out-of-place crystal. Apparently these things have been appearing unnaturally and throwing off the intended course of evolution. So I decided we should eat one of these crystals. Why not, right? Everyone else is doing it. And behold - we have become an eel, with a crap ton of HP.

After a while, we returned to our original form. To speed things up a bit - we ate some more fish, evolved some more. One of the few faults I find with this game is that when you choose to evolve the best pieces of different kinds of animals, your creature often winds up looking rather dumb.

I mean, look - here is our ultimate BA fish form. He's quick, tough, powerful...but he looks like a freak of nature. Anyway, we're on the last stage of this Age, so let's proceed into the ominous cave.

Ah, a boss. Ouch. Ok, let's teach Sharky a thing or two.

And look, here's another thing. I think it's cool that bosses yield huge chunks of meat, but at this point we don't need them. Each one of these babies gives us +250 Evo points, but we're already decked out.

Well, I guess there's nothing left to do but evolve lungs.

And our reward: we are stripped of all our evolution points and changed into a wussy frog-reptile. On to the second Age.

Anyhow, that's the first part of the game. I believe there are three Ages in total. It's quite a fun game, with a great soundtrack and a lot of personality. There are also some surprises along the way. If you have access to an SNES, I highly recommend seeking out EVO. And if you don't, well...I can't officially condone using emulators, but, erm...