Sunday, February 27, 2011

J-Music and Me: Shiina Ringo

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Recently Joe was asking around for Japanese music suggestions. I made a suggestion to him on Twitter, but due to the extremely transient nature of tweets, I'm not sure that he noticed it. But since this is a suggestion I'd make to anyone looking  for good J-music, I figure I'd write up a post.

I think if you're pretty into Japanese artists, there's a good chance you've at least heard of Shina Ringo [椎名林檎] (or Shiina Ringo, or Sheena Ringo, according to iTunes). She's been on the scene for a few years now, though I only became aware of her a year or two ago. Her music is a bit varied; if I had to assign her a genre, I'd say punky jazz rock.

A few weeks ago I bought her album Kalk Zamen Kurinohana. I had listened to random songs of hers on YouTube before, but this was the first album I've bought, and I really enjoy it. It's definitely rockish, but quite mellow, too. If you're interested in picking it up, it's definitely a lot cheaper to buy it via iTunes if you can. Amazon Japan carries it at a slightly more expensive price, and Amazon.com has an import version that is quite costly.

Anyway, don't take my word for it - check her out. Here are a couple songs from Kalk Zamen Kurinohana performed live. These versions are a little more rocky and less mellow than the album verion, but I like both styles. I particularly like the lyrics of the first song and the kick-ass piano and haunting melody of the second.


Friday, February 25, 2011

McD: Miami

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I swear I don't eat fast good that often. But...I did it again. After seeing how popular my post about the Texas 2 Burger was, I decided that I owed it to you...nay, to myself to try the Miami Burger, as well. 

Let's get down to brass tacks. I've "talked" to some people online who have claimed to have received perfectly nice-looking burgers at McDonalds. I'd like to know where they're going. This time I went to a completely different restaurant. Several towns away, as a matter of fact. Yet my Miami Burger still looked like it was slapped together in 5 seconds (which it probably was). Above is a candid shot of the burger just kind of hanging out.


Here's a more intimate photo of what's under the hood. Looks like a dab of chili-type sauce on top of three nacho chips, a Kraft single, and some shredded lettuce. Fortunately it tasted a lot better than it looked. The chili-ish sauce plus the nachos gave me the sensation of eating a taco wrapped in a burger, which wasn't entirely unpleasant. Actually reminded me of a Taco Bell double-decker taco. I was really thirsty after eating it, though. So much so that although I was curious about the nutrition facts, I was too scared to look at them, fearing that I had just consumed about two days worth of sodium.

I think this one's finished now, but who knows...maybe it'll be back for Big America 3?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lonely Japan: Onigiri

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This is part 4 of Lonely Japan, a series written by a friend of mine who used to live in Japan. [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

Woke up the next day to the sun light shining through the curtains onto my face and got out of bed. Dried the box-cutter that was still in the sink to keep it from rusting and moved a few of the boxes on the floor towards the door to take to the garbage room. Laid back down because of the pain in my forehead. Woke up again a few hours later and didn’t feel much better. Took some aspirin (I think it was aspirin) that I had bought at the drugstore near the local supermarket and thought about laying down again. Decided missing my tests wasn’t an option and headed off to school.


On the way to the train station I stopped at the conbini and bought a liter bottle of water and some onigiri. Breakfast at the dorm had ended long before I woke up and I figured I needed to eat something. Ate one of the onigiri while waiting for my train in the station. Couldn’t taste it so put the other one I had bought in my bag and sat there trying to drink the water, but it only amplified the bad taste in my mouth. On the wall across the track from the waiting area was an advertisement featuring a popstar/model (she might have been a model/popstar, not sure) squeezing a lemon in one hand and holding a sweating can of chu-hi in the other. She was winking and her tongue was curled up over her teeth. Was thinking about whether the lemon chu-hi was actually her favorite flavor when the train arrived.


Train was crowded enough that I couldn’t get a seat. I stood near the door holding the handles that hang down from the ceiling and hung my head towards the ground. A high school girl with yellow hair was squatting near the door typing very quickly on her phone with bright pink 3 inch nails. It looked difficult. The train headed underground and I stared out the window, could almost make out the gray shapes flying by. At one of those stations on the way to school another foreigner got on board. He noticed me, recognized that I had noticed him, and came over.


Him: Where you from?
Me: United States.
Him: I thought so.
Me: Where are you from?
Him: Australia. What brings you to Tokyo?
Me: Studying, how about you?
Him: (Ignoring my question) How you liking it so far? Enjoying the sushi?
Me: It’s going well. I actually haven’t eat as much sushi as I thought I would when I first got here.
Him: *laughing* No no no…I mean sushi. You know…the girls.
Me: Oh.
Him: Well you’re missing out, you should give it a go.
Me: Ok.


He got off at the next stop after telling me to go to a club he often went to. Made it to school in time to sit for my exams. Threw up a few times in the bathroom during the break in between sections. Thought I didn’t do too poorly on them. On the way home I had to get off at one of the stops along the way and threw up in a trashcan. When I was done, I sat on a bench and watched the branches of a nearby tree sway in the wind while I waited for the next train to come.

Conference for Returning JETs, 2011: Information you can use!

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There really was a wealth of information disseminated at the Conference. Although it was geared towards soon-to-be JET alumns, there was a lot of information that is just generally useful to anyone seeking a job or applying for graduate school, especially for those who have lived or worked abroad. I may follow up this post in the future with more tips, but for now I'm just going to share some notes and takeaways.

Networking


It may be a dirty word in some circles, but it's the reality of things. If you're a former JET, you may already have used some connections to strengthen your application. I know I did. While JET has a great network of alumni, there are also many other sources to be tapped. If you went to a prominent high school, there's one source. If you're interest in a job at X Corp, call up your school's office of Alumni Affairs and inquire if there are any grads working at X Corp. You can also try asking your university for alumni-related connections if you're a college grad.

If you're interested in Japan, there are usually Japan-related societies and organizations in metropolitan areas. Live near D.C.? Check out the Japan-America Society of Washing D.C. If you're interested in a specific industry, consider joining a chamber of commerce. There are a lot of organizations out there that hold periodic professional or social events that can be used to meet people and network.

Cast a wide net

Don't just apply for one thing at a time. For one thing, having more than one offer puts you in a good position when it comes time to discuss salary and benefits. There are tons of Japanese firms out there that may be willing to hire you if you've got ambition and interest. Some places to look for opportunities: JETRO, government agencies like the State Department, and Japanese trading companies like Marubeni, Mitsubishi, Sojitz, and Mitsui. I learned that trading companies aren't what they sound like. They engage in a broad range of business and research, from importing and exporting to investment to technological development. I'm framing this in the context of Japan-related employment/study, but it can apply to just about any field of interest. And if you're unsure if you want to work or study some more, apply to companies and to grad schools. It's a lot off work, but you're unemployed, so you have the time. Plus you can honestly tell potential employers about your job search, which will show you're active and ambitious.

Do something

Whether it be volunteering, working part time, taking classes, or running a small business on Ebay, do something productive that you can talk about in a positive way. Improve yourself and build your personal brand equity, to borrow a  phrase.

Positivity and selling yourself


Don't confuse "selling yourself" with "selling your body." That doesn't play so well on resumes. One simple fact is that people with confidence can inspire others to have confidence in them. Now I'm not talking about arrogance or empty, meaningless cockiness. But know your own value and the value of your experiences. Many people don't realize that potential employers are often looking for traits that many people can demonstrate if they have the wit to realize what they possess. For example, some JETs may wonder "How do I justify to employers that I want to work as an engineer, but I spent the last 3 years in Japan teaching English?"

Well, you adapted to a foreign culture (adaptability). Perhaps you learned some Japanese (ability to learn). Probably being the only foreigner at your school, you worked in a challenging and potentially stressful work environment (perseverance). You taught (communication, ability to speak in front of groups)!

Working as an ALT is just one example. Really think about what you've done and try to pick out how you've developed your skills and what you've learned.

Patience


Beyond that, do your best to be positive and patient. If you're just returning from living in another country, you'll probably have to readapt to life at home and may deal with reverse culture shock (an actual thing). While you may want to take some time to process, also keep in mind that keeping busy can relieve stress to some degree and make you feel more productive.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Conference for Returning JETs, 2011: Impressions

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I just returned this afternoon from a trip to Yokohama. For those of you who are familiar with the talented, titular Loco of Loco in Yokohama (of which I've become a big fan - go check out the site!), you'll recognize exactly where I was.


That fin-shaped building that marks a part of the famous Yokohama skyline is the Yokohama Pacifico, one of Japan's premier conference centers, and the venue of the Conference for Returning JETs. The aim of the conference is to provide support, guidance, and networking opportunities for members of the JET Programme who are not renewing their contracts. Tomorrow I'll write a post about some of the contents of the conference, but for now I'd just like to share a few thoughts about the experience, because it was rather interesting.

First off, I think it was a very well-planned, well-run, and useful event. Let me state that flat out. That said, I did have some negative, and perhaps peculiar thoughts. Just a warning - not all of these are directly related to the conference itself.

So I set off Monday morning to Yokohama. I had decided to stay one station away from the venue by subway, and wound up choosing to patron the アッパホテル (APA Hotel), because I've stayed at several of their hotels at other locations and have always been generally satisfied. On my way to the hotel, which was at 馬車道 off of the みなとみらい線, I noted that although the area was very nice - many shops and restaurants, something was out of place. It came to me later. Lawson's has won the turf war at 馬車道. There are at least 4 Lawson's convenience stores within two blocks in any direction of the hotel I stayed at. From one Lawson's store, you need not walk more than 2 or 3 minutes to reach another one. I only saw one non-Lawon's conbini near the station. A little freaky.

On my way in to Pacifico (Shin-Yokohama, Yokohama, Bashamichi), I saw hardly any foreigners, no less anyone identifiable as a JET. I started to get a little nervous, until I was right outside the Pacifico, and BAM - hundreds of us!

Two things that struck me during the conference:

After all of the presentations, there was Q&A time to ask the visiting professionals whatever we wanted. There were some intelligent questions, but there were many asked by young JETs that embarrassed me. They sounded like they came from people used to being guided and coddled through everything - like those stupid questions you might hear in a high school or university classroom from someone who wanted a good participation grade but couldn't think of anything useful to contribute. You know, like "Um, isn't the answer the same if you multiply by .1 instead of dividing by 10?" Yes. The end.

There were some JETs who have grown too used to the system by which they were taught. The girl sitting next to me in one of the lectures (and many others I saw) was fiercely scribbling notes that she would never, could never hope to need. I swear she copied the slide about the stages of reverse cultures shock and even drew the little "W-curve." I wanted to tell her this wouldn't be on the test.

Second, I noticed an amusing dietary stereotype go right out the window. At lunch time on Day 2, many JETs headed downstairs to the Queen's Court food court, which consisted of a McDonalds, Subway, KFC, and a sit-down place called American House, which had stuff like burgers and hot dogs. I am not kidding - 98% of the foreign crowd lined up at Subway. I saw one guy get KFC, and a group of 3 guys go into American House. The McDonald's queue was all Japanese people. And they imagine us as the burger-eaters.

As for the actual useful information...more on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Just Another Manga Monday #6

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Death Note is a pretty popular title here in the states. I imagine it would be decently popular in Japan as well. Usually I am not particularly drawn to many of the mainstream titles promoted in the US, but I won’t knock ‘em before I’ve tried them.




I was introduced to Death Note at Otakon 2007 (an anime convention located in Baltimore) through a screening of the Death Note Live movie. It was interesting…a long film, twisted, calculating, entertaining and surreal. I wanted to learn more. I started reading the manga series and was given the complete box set as a gift one year.






There are 12 volumes + a bonus 13th on “How to Read” the series. This 13th volume is full of character profiles, interviews, origins of chapter titles, story commentaries, design secrets, rules and tricks, and the pilot chapter. Yes. The series is that involved. Let me tell you a bit about it.


The death note is a notebook. Shinigami, or gods of death, use books called death notes to kill human beings. To start the story, one Shinigami named Ryuk becomes bored with the realm of Shinigami and drops his notebook in the human world. A human boy discovers it and opens it to discover the death note rules inside, the first of which being “The human whose name is written in this note shall die.” [Also included with the box set is an additional booklet with all the death note rules.] This boy’s name is Light Yagami, son of the chief of Japanese police. This makes for an interesting mix when Light decides to test the powers of the death note and his own father is investigating the cases. Light decides to use the notebook…but for good. Killing for good? A highly debatable issue. Is killing off criminals in the interest of justice really fair? The public debates this within the story. Those who are in favor of the killings name their savior Kira. They fear and respect him. Meanwhile, a high level investigator named L has been brought in as a specialist due to the growing number of murders throughout Japan.


The character development is great with several key characters: Light, Ryuk, L, Misa Amane, and Rem just to name a few. This series is mind boggling with its intricate plot details. It is a battle of the wits between Light and L with many twists and turns along the way. There is hatred, betrayal and sacrifice. If you like criminal investigations you will enjoy trying to see where the story is going. Death Note is not the mushy shojo I’ve reviewed before. It is a favorite of guys and girls alike- more just to those who appreciate an intellectual story.


There are several live movies, spinoff novels, and an anime series in addition to the manga. Personally I’ve only seen the first movie and own all the manga. I would like the watch the anime when I have the time, especially because I’ve cosplayed as Misa Amane before. If you would like to see more, here is the main website: http://deathnote.viz.com/

If you’re looking for a manga series that is complex, intriguing, stimulating, and twisted look no further than Death Note!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Odori time!

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This is an entry written for the February 2011 Blog Matsuri, which can be found this month at Lonelee Planet. So first a shout-out and thanks to our gracious host, Reesan! 

It's that time again. What? Spring? Oh, yeah...that. I was referring to Miyako Odori, but of course you can't have that without spring. What is Miyako Odori? Well...

Actually, until I did a little research five minutes ago, I had little idea, either. Although normally 踊り (おどり)means "dance," 都をどり has a special way of being written. You'll recognize 「都」as the "to" part of 京都 (Kyoto). 「都」indicates "city" or in this case "capital." So Miyako Odori is sometimes translated as "Dance of the Old Capital." It's also sometimes called the "Cherry Dance," as it seems to be associated with sakura blossoms and is performed in April, around the time when the flowers are in bloom.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I have to give the Japanese people credit for their enthusiasm in sharing their culture. I must have asked one of the English teachers I work with some time ago about it (or maybe he asked me if I knew it), because the other day he came up to me and asked if I was still interested in it. Instead of telling him I had no recollection of our conversation about Miyako Odori, I told him sure. Well, fast forward a couple days and he's reserved tickets for me to go see the dance in April with him and his wife. He's even paying for half of my ticket as a gift. Apparently this is a yearly event, and tickets sell out fairly quick. A bit expensive, too - about 4000 yen ($40+) per person.

Source

Honestly I usually find these kind of performances interesting for a few minutes tops, but it's just this once and he's a nice guy, so I'll give it a shot. It was generous of him to think of me and pay for half my ticket, so what the hey. Anyhow, here's what the dance looks like. Sheesh, now I don't even have the surprise factor to look forward to!



To check out the other entries in this month's blog matsuri, go here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Advice for my successor #3

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No, I didn't intent to keep writing these, but they just come to me like an epiphany:

  • There's a whole bunch of bulky stuff in the closets that I've never used before, and most likely neither will you. But since it's such a pain to dispose of, it's become a game of hot potato, and the loser will be the ALT who's living here when the school decides to find a new place for its ALTs to live (or stops hiring or housing ALTs).
  • If you're like me and have a hard time remembering students names, if any students ask you if you remember their names, jokingly say something like "Oh yeah, it's Mary, isn't it?" They'll laugh.
  • The "Oh yeah, it's Mary, isn't it?" trick only works so many times. And if there's a big group and you start giving them all Western names, they will catch on that you're not joking and really don't know if their name is Yuka, Yuki, Yukino, Yukinu, or Yukina.
  • None of the teachers take the time to banter much with the lunch ladies, but they're really pretty nice (that one doesn't only apply to Japan).
  • There are three main types of noodles in Japan: ramen, udon, and soba. Of course there are others, but these are the big three. You must decide for yourself how you will rank them in terms of goodness.
  • Soba sucks.
Correction: You must rank udon and ramen for yourself. Soba has officially been pegged last.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Japan and My Tonsils: An Epic Tale of Love, Tribulations, and Redemption(?)

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Part 1

I hate my tonsils. I hate them and I want them out. Years I've spent alternating between agony and fear. Agony as they swell to the size of
golf balls in my throat, raising my temperature, and preventing me from eating delicious foods since starving always seems the better option to the pain of swallowing. The fear would set in as soon as I felt better. As soon as they shrunk to a size that could pass for normal I'd worry about the next time. Possibly the cruelest part was that one of my greatest joys, a night out with friends singing karaoke and drinking beer, seemed to be the magical combination that would nearly always lead to my personal tonsil apocalypse.

Why don't I just get them out? The issue is complicated by my current location. In America I'd simply go to an ear, nose, and throat doctor, pay $5000, and my tonsils would be gone as soon as the check cleared. But I'm not in America anymore. I'm in Japan. The medical system here works a bit differently. But I'm not going to tell you about it. I'm going to show you. I will take you on my
adventure from my very first week in Japan until today.

July 2008


It was a long flight. I left from Los Angeles International Airport and arrived in
Haneda after 11 hours of flight time. It was also a late night as my new friends and I celebrated our first night in Tokyo, Japan. Long flights, new germs, lack of sleep, and alcohol: the perfect recipe for getting sick. My comrades and I spent four days in close quarters as we attended lectures on how to adapt to our new lives as English teachers in Japan. This time for me was one of wide-eyed discovery. To the new, unwelcome residents of my tonsils however, it was the incubation period.

The morning of the fourth day we set off on the
Shinkansen to Osaka. I noticed I had a bit of a scratchiness in my throat and voiced my concern to my new friend, Brian. "It's just allergies!" Oh the young fool I was believed him. We enjoyed the 3 hour trip, making new friends and drinking green tea.

We finally arrived in Osaka and switched to buses to continue our journey to
Hyogo Prefecture where we would meet our representatives from each of our respective schools. I was starting to feel a bit cold despite the hot, humid, Japanese summer. I felt a pang of worry as I realized I was indeed becoming sick. "No matter," thought I, being the burly, young man I was, "Immune system! I leave this to you! I have other matters to attend to." My immune system was too busy to respond. My mind moved on to other things as we arrived at the meeting hall. There I met my school's representative who was to be my English speaking go-between. He would help me in all matters in which I may need help while adapting to Japanese life. I said goodbye to my new friends, swearing to contact each other once we acquired mobile phones and the Internet, and continued traveling to the high school in which I would be an English instructor.

The ride was pleasant with interesting conversation. I was happy to learn I would be teaching with this person. My new friend.


Arrived at school. Something wrong. I was hot now. Couldn't think... straightly. Tired. Meeting principal. Hello! Bow. I
konnichiwa... hajime... yoroshiku... Bow? Ah tea, yes tea is good. It reminds me of... other hot drinks I've drunk. Yes, let's see the school. It looks nice... where are your beds? I would like to try out... pillows. Tired...

After a couple hours it was finally time to see my apartment. My go-between and the office clerk took me. The bed looked wonderful and I yearned to simply jump inside. But first I had to be shown all the other wonderful details of my new apartment. Push this button for hot water, push this button for hot air, push this button for flushing the toilet, buttons, buttons, buttons. Switches for lights, switches for power, switches, switches, switches. Plugs and outlets and appliances and machines. Cracks and holes and dents and dings. How much time had passed? I wasn't sure. Now it's time for the tour of the city. "NO! BED! Bed would then be too far for sleeping in!" the voice of my immune system yelled in my head.
Ol' immuney finally spoke, and he was right. I was sad to admit defeat after trying so hard to make a good first impression as a young, go-getting teacher, but I was finished. I told them I felt sick and just needed to sleep. My predecessor was still around the city and he could give me the tour later. They exchanged looks (concern? disappointment?) and wished me well.

The next day I decided I was sick. Seriously sick. My throat hurt. It was a test of will to swallow. My tonsils were not looking good. They obviously were taking one for the team. I knew what was wrong now though. I had seen this before in childhood. Strep. I was sure of it. I got it fairly often as a kid but hadn't had it in years. I had just arrived in Japan but I thought it was already time to meet my first Japanese doctor.


Strep throat isn't a disease to be taken lightly. Caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria, strep throat usually starts with the swelling of the tonsils which soon become covered in white patches. Other common symptoms are pain/difficulty swallowing, nausea, high fever, and low energy. It differentiates from other throat infections by a lack of coughing and congestion. It is very common in children but rare in adults. It's seen as an annoyance nowadays. Start on a
regimen of antibiotics and you'll feel better almost immediately. It's easy to forget the days before Penicillin. This disease was the deadly and feared scarlet fever. If you've ever read the children's story The Velveteen Rabbit the very sick child had strep. Strep if left untreated can do serious damage to heart, kidneys, and other organs. Friends of my parents made the decision to let their daughter recover naturally from strep without antibiotics. Sadly, a month later, she passed away from a ruptured appendix. The link between the untreated strep and her appendix was theorized but not proven. Having recently heard this story I knew that I needed some good, strong medicine.

I went into work and talked to my go-between, "I need a doctor. And medicine." OK! Phone calls were made and he took me to a nearby English speaking doctor. It was his one day a week at that location so I was lucky. I explained my problem, told him I was allergic to Penicillin, and he prescribed me another antibiotic, a
cephalosporin. Four days worth. Four days? I thought the worldwide standard for antibiotics was seven to ten days? Isn't four days the point when you feel completely better and stupid people stop taking their medicine and end up creating unstoppable, drug-resistant super-bugs? Well, maybe this is some powerful stuff. I paid my 1000yen, about $10 then, for the drugs and office visit (thank you cheap, Japanese health care!).

I took the medicine and after four days felt great.

But it was not to last.


This tale is not over. It is merely beginning. This was simply the first act. The start of my three year tonsil hell. Stay tuned for the next edition, Japan and My Tonsils: The Healthcare Strikes Back!

Advice for my successor #2

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I thought of some more pearls I'd like to share. I don't know who you are yet, and neither do you, but listen up:


  • Don't be one of those ALTs who complains that you have too much free time. During breaks you can read a book, study, do some blogging (wink), chat with teachers and/or students, wander around the school, watch a club activity, or if you're at the visit school you can grab a nap on one of the couches. You'll be missing that time when you have four classes in a day, plus ESS after school, plus a meeting with a teacher during your only free period (Can you guess why I'm thinking about this right now? =P).

  • There are some pretty cool JETs, but don't get caught in a clique. You're in Japan, so hang out with some Japanese, too!

  • The brakes on the bicycle I'm leaving you suck, but don't bother buying a new one. The brakes on all the bikes suck.

  • If you go to the Indian place in town or the one near the station often enough, they will give you free stuff on occasion. No matter how often you go to the ramen shop down the street, they'll never give you anything on the house.

  • Clean the apartment as often as you feel necessary, but don't kill yourself dusting and vacuuming. Literally like 20 seconds after you clean an area you will spot some more dust there. It's an uphill battle.

Advice for my successor

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Of course I'll impart similar nuggets in a letter or email when I find out who he or she will be, but I'm starting to think about the next person to serve at this post, and what they'll need to know. Here are a few things I've come up with:

  • If you have to go number two, don't be afraid to use the handicapped bathroom. All the teachers do it.
  • Both schools you'll work at have libraries. If you're already literate or want to study Japanese, there are some good resources there to be used.
  • Don't try to keep track of which teachers give you candy/chocolate/snacks. Just be nice and share little (edible) souvenirs or ethnic foods from time to time. 
  • Mr. S (the English teacher) will always act like he understands what you say to him, so never take it for granted.
  • I don't know if one of your goals is saving money, but however much you save during your time here, know that you could have saved more if you hadn't gone out or drank so much.
  • I don't know who these ALTs are that actively join clubs at their school, but good on you if you do. My first year here the judo teacher kept trying to get my to join, but I couldn't imagine throwing or rolling around on the mat with my students.
  • I don't have it quite as good as my predecessor, but you will have it better than me.
  • That food isn't what you think it is.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Just Another Manga Monday #5

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Julie's a little busy lately taking care of her new puppy (it's a Japanese breed, so maybe she'll post a few pictures sometime soon), so I'll be standing in this week.

As I may have mentioned, I'm not a huge manga or anime enthusiast. But that's not to say I dislike them categorically. As for manga, I've tried reading a bunch of different stuff, but I find that the genre that most appeals to me is education, if that's a real thing. Of course one of the main reasons for a non-native speaker to read Japanese manga is to pick up the language. I think this has to go hand-in-hand with enjoyment. If you try reading something you don't really like, you'll eventually get bored or discouraged and give up. On the other hand, though, I don't think there's much immediate practical benefit from learning the words for things like "sword of divine destiny" or "robotic fusion core." Sure, you may want to work up to that if your ultimate goal is fluency, but it's not going to help you in daily life. I like to read manga that are more down-to-earth and focus on normal(ish) people and situations.



The first manga I read that I really enjoyed and sparked my interest in this "genre" is called ダーリンは外国人 (My Darling is a Foreigner). Several people I've spoken to about it have been aware of the movie by the same title that came out in 2010, but disappointingly haven't been familiar with the comic. This is unfortunate, because from what I've read and heard about the movie, it fails to do the manga justice. While the cinema version is a love story between characters Saori and Tony (the husband and wife of the manga series), the comic isn't a story at all, per say. It's a collection of little dialogues and interactions between Saori (who is the author and illustrator of the series) and her husband Tony (who writes small essays that are inserted between segments). Their episodes together vary greatly by topic, but tend to gravitate both towards language and comparative culture. Not only is Tony a foreigner living in Japan, but he is also a linguaphile both by interest and profession. As such, he is constantly offering up anecdotes about life abroad or lessons about the languages or histories of foreign cultures.

Tony is also very knowledgeable about ketchup...
There are several volumes out now, including "My Darling is a Foreigner" 1&2, "Inside My Darling's Head" 1&2, "With Baby," and a few that I haven't throughly investigated. At least the first one has also been released in English, though I'm not sure if it's being sold abroad.

If you like language or education-oriented manga, I suggest you give this one a try.

Friday, February 11, 2011

For the Record: Harmony

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If you've lived abroad, or even visited another country, chances are you enjoy comparing notes with others who have done the same. One of the primary reasons I enjoy reading other J-blogs is because I like to see other peoples' take on Japan. In my real, non-internet life (if such a thing exists anymore), I talk to Joe (and Dylan, too) about Japan quite frequently. As such, I wanted to bring you some of our thoughts. Because they can be both lengthy and rather dry at times, we've tried to set up an easily readable and digestible format. Since neither one of us loves or hates Japan in an absolute sense, one of us will be playing the wide-eyed newb-like character, and the other person the Japan-basher. These characters just reflect a kind of amalgamation of our thoughts - not that one of us is really pro or against Japan. I look forward to getting some feedback on this. Anyway, for now, let me introduce "For the Record," a conversation about Japan between Joe and I.
-Paul


Joe: Hey, Paul.  As you and I know, Japan is both the "Land of the Rising Sun" and the "Land of Harmony."  Recently I've been kind of surprised to see people doubting the accuracy of those statements.  Specifically about the harmony.  We've been in Japan about the same amount of time.  You agree with me right?  You couldn't get a more harmonious country without soma (if you remember your high school reading materials).

Paul: Hiya, Joe. Well, I'm no scientist, so I can't speak to from which country the sun rises, but the "Land of Harmony?" Are you kidding me? Japan is a brave new world, all right, but try stopping by Best Buy the next time Black Friday rolls around. That's zen compared to Japan. Hell, I've seen monkey pits at the zoo that were more orderly than Japan. And the poop, Joe! Oh the poop they threw!


Joe: Are you crazy?  If we're talking about orderliness, there is no better example than Japan.  They've got their stuff together.  For example I went to McDonald's the other day and they didn't mess up my order.  They also didn't mess it up the time before.  Or the time before.  Or before that.  Or before that into time immemorial.  In America, once my McChicken didn't even have a bottom bun (true story).  With Harmony comes Order (either Yoda said that, or it's something Yoda 
should say).  Therefore the root of Japan's excellent record of correctly prepared fast food orders comes from it's Harmony.  

Paul: Don't get me started on Japanese fast food. Two little pieces of bread and a flimsy, sterile piece of beef does not a hamburger make. Bring on the grease! But I guess that's an argument for another time. If Yoda were going to say something like that, it would be in the following format, which shares the same grammatical structure as Japanese: (subject [optional]) (everything else) (verb). So really it would be "Harmony with Order comes." Or actually, it would be whatever the hell he felt like saying, because Yoda basically speaks Japanese. And as we both know, when you speak Japanese you can just say whatever the hell you want and leave it to the listener to sort out. Take the word "行く" as a simple example. You and I both know it most simply means "to go." But without a context it's basically "he/she/it/they/you go(es)/will go." And forget the fact that it can be used to mean other things, as well. That is utter chaos, my friend! The Japanese language itself is a perfect example of ordered chaos. Sure, it has rules and structure, but it's also completely insane.

Joe: Oh Paul, you just proved my point.  Could you have a language so lacking in specifics without a country whose people are so in harmony with each other?  When two Japanese people are having a conversation and one drops the subject of the sentence, the subject is still there.  It's in the minds of our communicators.  They understand because they're on the same page, on the same wavelength, and just possibly on the same boat.  Compare that to America where, with all the subjects in the world, my McChickens still lack bottom buns.

Paul: Well, sometimes it does seem like the Japanese have telepathy or some kind of hive mind, the way we're always being told things like "we Japanese like skiing" or "we Japanese don't like sweet food." But I don't think Japanese people really understand their language. I mean, it's not easy (mostly because of its insanity). Why is it that most katakana words are bastardizations of English, but if you pronounce them in actual English or heaven forbid mistakenly pronounce an "ah" as "oh," all of a sudden they have absolutely no clue what you're talking about?

Foreigner: すみません、コンヴィニ (convini) はどこですか?
Japanese: えっ?
Foreigner: コンヴィニ (convini)...Uhh...
Japanese: ごめんなさい、英語無理です。No English.
Foreigner: Uhh...Oh! コンビに(conbini)!
Japanese: あっ!コンビにか!むこうですね!

And you know that's not far-fetched at all. That kind of lingual rigidity isn't harmonious, it's crazy. And kanji, man! Next time you're walking around with your girlfriend, ask her to read some random town or station names for you. If she's like mine, she won't know half of them. Who makes a language with readings so ambiguous that most people have to guess at a pronunciation?

Joe: OK, you got me on the station names. Or names in general really.  There's the famous one: 小鳥遊 whose Kanji means "small birds play" that's actually pronounced like 鷹無し - Takanashi, which means "no hawks".  But is that a lack of harmony, or just a written language that has a lot of neat trivia?

That kind of language rigidity in katakana isn't harmonious when it comes to the outside world, but in Japan everyone is in perfect harmony.  They all know what a conbini is!  And it's not like we don't bastardize their words.  But hey!  Never mind this argument, let's go sing some carry-okie in Ko-bee.
  


Paul: As to that I can't say (not being an exclusive VIP member card-holder of Japanese society), but I have my doubts. You'll get no argument from me about the English language or American society being harmonious. Maybe I'm just too Americanized to recognize true harmony when it's practically biting my nose off. Anyhow, that sounds good, Joe. I'll just take my little bubble of chaos and be right over. Let's drink some sak-ee, too! 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Robot Salarymen

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Here's a cool one I got from Dylan:



This is a band called World Order, led by Genki Sudo, a retired martial artist who was known for being somewhat flamboyant. I don't know if the salarymen's robotic manner is some kind of social statement or just interesting choreography, but it's entertaining to watch either way.

I got a potato!

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Sometimes high school students will cook outside with their classmates, especially during the winter. Usually they make mochi or grilled meat, but looks like today they cooked some sweat potatoes! Some first-grade girls just came in to give me a 焼き芋 (grilled sweet potato). At first I thought it was wrapped mochi. Phew!


Update: Apparently you're not supposed to eat the skin. Ooops. Thanks, VeryMango!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I don't get it

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Is this supposed to be funny or something? Come on - my neighbor does this all the time. She's Japanese, after all.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Just Another Manga Monday #4

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When I opened up the cover to this week’s manga, staring me in the face was VIZ’s definition of ‘shojo.’ They define shojo as:
“1. Manga appealing to both female and male readers. 2. Exciting stories with true-to-life characters and the thrill of exotic locales. 3. Connecting the heart and mind through real human relationships.”

Interesting. I consider shojo in general to be geared more towards girls with all the mushy romance I think that guys would skim over, but hey, I guess they’re trying to create a new shojo.

This week’s manga is Ceres: Celestial Legend (Ayashi No Ceres). Like last week manga’s Absolute Boyfriend, it was also written by Yuu Watase, author of Fushigi Yuugi. It is also rated T+ for older teen. I would attribute this to violence, sexuality and slight nudity.




Ceres is a 14 volume series (also an anime) based on a global legend about an angel’s cloak. In the legend, an angel is bathing and a fisherman steals her heavenly robes. Without them, she cannot return to heaven and is forced to live out her days on earth and marry the fisherman. One day, she learns from her children where her robe is hidden and returns to heaven.


In this story, Aya and Aki Mikage are 16 year old twins who are descendants of a Celestial angel named Ceres and her fisherman husband. Aya (left), Aki (right):


As the fates have allowed, Aya was born with enough pure blood for the maiden Ceres to find her body suitable, thus, Ceres possesses Aya and demonstrates supernatural powers. The angel Ceres is angered because her heavenly robes were never returned to her and seeks revenge on the Mikage family, most of all her fisherman husband. In turn, the Mikage family is trying to kill Aya to defend themselves from Ceres.

Throughout the series, Aya faces many challenges. She must survive on her own while avoiding the Mikage family, looking for her brother, and trying to repress Ceres’s destructive powers. Along the way, though, Aya is met with help. A boy named Yuhi comes to her aid as well as a mysterious and attractive man named Toya. Even though her life is in danger she still finds time for romance!


I enjoyed this series a lot. Maybe it’s because I’m a little sappy… I cried while reading Steinbeck’s The Red Pony just like I cried while reading this series. Since there are 14 volumes, the author is able to develop the characters in a way that one becomes attached to them.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The J Office

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Have you seen this one? Dylan linked it to me last night. I'd seen it before but it was still funny, nonetheless. Unless you don't care for The Office, I guess. In which case go away.

Link here: http://www.noob.us/humor/the-office-japanese-version/

Another little thing

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There are small, really unimportant things in life that sometimes make you smile, or that you at least find amusing and add to your day. It can be difficult to put your finger on why, exactly. One little thing that I think I may miss when I leave Japan is seeing this black cat on my way to my part-time school. It's often sitting outside this building, looking inside the sliding door. Sometimes it rests underneath the car parked outside, and every now and then it's inside looking out. But most of the time when I see it, it's just sitting there, ignoring the world around it, studying the door or inside.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lonely Japan: Fish

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This is part 3 of Lonely Japan, an ongoing series written by a friend of mine. If you haven't, check out part 1 and part 2.
-Paul

Wasn’t much to do where I got off. I went to a conbini (think it was an AMPM-not as good as Lawson), bought a drink and decided I should go to a bar. Japanese bars are nice in that they tell you their beer prices before you go in, usually on a little blackboard folding sign outside the bar. Draft beer for 500 yen was the price point I was looking for. Found one nestled in between what looked like a house and a restaurant that specialized in shiny hambagu and cabbage (if the plastic food in the window was any indication). Had to go down some narrow stairs to get to the bar. Slipped once, but managed to catch myself before falling too far.


There were 5 people in the bar - the bartender, a guy in his 20’s (maybe 30’s?) with a girl of around the same age, a salary man, and me. I sat at the bar, leaving a stool in between myself and the salary man, and started drinking a medium mug of whatever happened to be on tap. The bar tender put a little dish of what looked like tuna and maybe some daikon in front of me. I ate it—wasn’t bad. On my second mug the salary man turned to me (he was drunk too) and started speaking to me in Japanese. I think he was talking about nuclear bombs. He didn’t leave much room for me to add anything to the conversation so it didn't matter that I couldn’t really understand him. I didn’t notice him getting annoyed either, so I continued to nod along with whatever he was saying and ordered a third mug. I spilled the last half of my third beer all over the bar and the floor. Some of it got on the girl’s shoes. She looked unhappy. I decided to leave.


Managed to arrive at the train station close to my dorm and set about retrieving my bicycle from the underground parking garage. There weren’t many bicycles left at that hour so it was easy to find. I remember someone telling me once that riding a bicycle while intoxicated was illegal in Japan. I’m not sure why it is (if it is), the only person you are going to hurt is yourself. I was an expert at drunk riding and there were no koban on the way to my dorm so I rode on down the street. Stopped at the Lawson on the way and picked up some chips, a plate of pepperoncini pasta, a box-cutter, some Black Nikka, coke, and a little cup of ice.


Near the dorm was a bridge crossing a little creek. Moon was bright enough to see the water and the blue tarps and cardboard set up underneath, maybe it was just the light from the surrounding houses. I remember some people used to fish in the creek during the day. Don’t remember ever seeing any fish, though I’m not sure you should eat them even if there were. I stopped on the bridge and stared down at the light reflecting off the water. Reminded me of stars. Looked up at the sky and saw only the moon and darkness.


The dorm I lived in was home to mostly unmarried salary men and a handful of foreigners. I rarely saw any of the salary men. There was one time when I first arrived at the dorm that one of them invited me to hang out. We sat in his room drinking awful tasting Korean alcohol that came in some kind of juice box while he showed me his computer and his manga collection I brought him to my room and showed him my computer, he said the fan on it sounded like a hair dryer. We finished our alcohol boxes and I never saw him again. If not for the blue light that sometimes came out from underneath their doors at night you’d think no one lived there at all.


When I got home the hallway was completely dark. I went into my room, stepped over the piles of clothes and empty boxes, made myself a drink and sat down in front of the computer. After a while I couldn’t read the words on the screen anymore and figured it was probably a good time to go to sleep. I had exams the next day.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

J-Dessert

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Although I don't really have that much of a sweet tooth, I do appreciate a good dessert from time to time. In Japan, I find I'm partial to 杏仁豆腐 (almond jelly). While the recipe originated in China, the Japanese know how to make a mean, uh...cube.

File:Almond jelly.jpg
Source: Wikipedia
What got me thinking about this topic, though, was yesterday's post by Orchid over at 1000 Things About Japan. She put into words something that I've been thinking for years. I've been aware of the fact that the Japanese don't much like sugar (which I suppose isn't a bad thing when you consider overall health). All I have to do is try to share a dessert with my girlfriend or bring some American candy into work to be reminded of that. Though sometimes I don't understand the big deal, as there are plenty of sweet things in Japan - ice cream, chocolate, lollipops, pretty much all the cereals and dried fruits...

Anyhow, now and then I'll be with a friend at a shopping center or supermarket and remark that a cake or pastry looks really good. Looks really good. My experience has informed me that Japanese pastries never taste as good as they look. And I think Orchid just gave me my "why." The (lack of) sugar doesn't just detract from the sweetness, but it causes a loss of moistness. Damn your disappointing, dry cakes, Japan!