Sunday, November 30, 2008

Wrecking Ball for the Kabuki-za

I was a bit shocked while reading a recent BBC News article concerning the Kabuki-za, a kabuki theater located in the Ginza district of Tokyo. The article, (here) reports that the iconic theater is slated to be demolished in 2010. One of the questionable reasons a company spokesman gave for the decision was that the theater "doesn't have enough toilets."

A notion persists that when it comes to urban planning, property owners have the final word. And that, generally speaking, the people in charge know best. There is little protection from demolition for landmark buildings, even when they are labelled - as the Kabuki-za is - "tangible cultural assets".

I had the opportunity of seeing some performances at the Kabuki-za last January, and I can attest that the building looks great. Its a bit of a jewel of Ginza I think, as there aren't many buildings like that left anywhere.

The article also mentions the 1968 destruction of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Imperial Hotel, a sacrilege to a resident of Springfield, home of Wright's Dana-Thomas House. I hope that everyone will come to their senses before Japan completely destroys its own physical heritage in favor of ugly and ever-larger concrete rectangles.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

An Easy Week

This is a nice little week for me. Monday was a holiday due to Labor Thanksgiving Day. Wednesday, I had only a couple of classes due to testing. Thursday and Friday, then, the ALT crew all goes to Utsunomiya for a teacher conference. Its a good thing.

I still have yet to visit the library to find some English books as I had planned. Its on the other side of town, so I figure I should wait until I have another reason to venture that far on my poor old bicycle. Maybe I'll enlist a friend to go check it out with me. On Google Book Search, I am currently reading Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. I am really enjoying it. Google lets me make a little library of what I've read, where I can give ratings and tags, write little reviews, and generally try to make myself look well read. I added a link to my library on the right under Interesting Links. Check it out. I think that my next purchases from will be the lonely planet guides for Hong Kong and Bangkok. I've gotta get my travel research done before winter break!

Speaking of my winter break plans, it seems that there is a bit of political unrest playing out in Bangkok recently. Masses of anti-government protesters are angrily demanding something or other, while completely ignoring my travels plans. Very rude. Can you guess where they are protesting?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ebisuko Festival: Colorful!

Last Thursday I was treated to a festival that I hadn't ever heard of before. Ebisuko. It was enough of a departure from previous festivals I've been to that I made a little video about it. Enjoy.


These plastic masks are a mainstay of the Japanese festival. They cost like 8 dollars a piece, which is a bit ambitious for something that probably cost a nickel to make.

These were pretty good. Just a grilled salted fish on a stick. Can't go wrong with that.

Here's another shot of the fishing guys. I wanted to be sure to show the cool little masks that they were wearing.

Another shot of the otakara.

I'm pretty sure that people tie bad fortunes here to make them go away.

This woman making jewelry was very mysterious.

I explained a bit about the god Ebisu in the video. Well, he is what the beer brand Yebisu is named after. I went to the Yebisu Beer Museum not too long ago, if you recall.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reading is Funtastic

I don't know what it is, but going to new places always puts me in a reading mood. I feel especially adventurous when I am not only on a train to someplace cool, but I am reading a good book along the way. It just has a classic gentlemanly feel to it that I like, and its a much better use of time than yapping to someone else about nothing or staring out the window. When I first got to Ashikaga, I hit the books left by my predecessors with a voracity. Its was just a jumble of different stuff, but I read it so fast that I soon ran out of things to read.

Larger books stores, in the Tokyo area especially, usually have English sections. The stores stock about half classic titles and half contemporary. Unfortunately they come with a "we know there's nowhere else in town you can find English" price tag.

Recently I have been playing around with Google Book Search. They won't let you just sit and read whole books that are still under copyright, but there's plenty of good stuff that's free. It might be a good way to spend half an hour if you just sit in front of a computer during your lunch break anyway, as I sometimes do. One issue I'm having is that I can't figure out how to place a bookmark or save my place somehow. It looks like I have to scroll around to find where I stopped every time I start reading. Maybe someone can figure that out for me.

As for the train rides, I think a visit to the Ashikaga public library is in my future.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Harvest Festival at Coco Farm & Winery

One of my reasons for staying in Ashikaga a second year was that I wanted to more completely experience life here. I am continually impressed by the awesome things that I managed to miss the first year around. The Coco Farm & Winery(English website) Harvest Festival was one of those things.

Entry to the winery cost about 20 dollars and came with a bottle of wine and other valuable gifts.

The festival wasn't anything complicated. A very large amount of people laid out tarps on the side of a big hill, underneath the grape vines intertwined with wires above. We sat and enjoyed wine, a bit of food, live music, and each other's company. It was a massive celebration of nothing in particular. It was a much needed chance for the people of Ashikaga(and people from miles around) to relax and enjoy themselves.

I bumped into a few teachers from my school at the fest and spent a bit of time chatting with them. I mistakenly had this picture of us taken next to the most despondent pile of walking grapes you will ever, ever see.
I was like, "hey, why so blue?" hehe. Ok, sorry. What I really said was "hey, buddy, put a cork in it!". Seriously, though, "nobody likes a whiner!"

So, Ashikaga has a winery. I was a bit surprised, myself. I always imagined grapes being grown in places with sun, and warmth. As I write this in the neon-red glow of an electric heater, there isn't much of either. The winery has a great story that I think makes the wine much more special. The vast majority of those who tend the grapes and make the wine are mentally disabled. The reason for founding the winery was to give them the opportunity to live a full life.

I found an interesting Wall Street Journal article that gives a bit of background on Bruce Gutlove, the American oenologist who transformed the winery (article here). There is a bit of an explanation of why the vines are spread out up in the air instead of in big bushes like I usually see. My favorite quote from the article? "There's not a big difference between being a foreigner in Japan and being mentally disabled". Well said.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Japanese Museums Are Too Expensive

Its starting to cool down in Ashikaga. This week was the first that I fired up my little electric space heaters.

There is a new exhibit at the Ashikaga Art Museum that I wouldn't mind checking out. I can't read the advertisements, but the pictures show religious themed paintings that seem to mix Western Christian and Indian traditions. I'm not super interested in religious art usually, but the prints I saw were very eye catching. My gripe is the 7 dollars it costs to enter the museum. Most(maybe even all) museums that I have visited in Japan have had an entry fee. I wonder why that is. I really don't want to pay to get into that museum again... I've already been in there three times.

Normally I would say they could let people in free, and then try to make up the money from purchases at the gift shop or some other way. But that business model depends on the ravenous demand for everything that Americans have. Maybe the Japanese just don't spend enough for that to work. I don't know.

Here is yesterday's school lunch. My favorite part was the peeled hard boiled eggs. The kids only get one, but I am special. Next is the "cheese bread", which was a bit rough. Imagine a normal dinner roll with some shredded mozzarella mixed into the dough. The cheese had hardened again in weird lumps within the bread... bad idea. The fruit was good times, can't go wrong there. The little bag contains dried whole shrimp, which aren't too bad. I told the kids that I was sitting with a story about how I had a pet turtle when I was a kid, and that I fed it dried shrimp not unlike the ones I was now eating. The kids didn't think that was too funny, but I think the turtle would see the humor in it. There was a bowl of noodle soup offered as well, but the soup in the teachers' room is always cold, and cold soup on a cold day isn't very good for my soul.

A few of these signs have popped up around town. They are advertising the mugs of the candidates vying to become the governor of Tochigi Prefecture, of which I am a most loyal subject. Very exciting.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A New Trip

I just bought the plane tickets for a nice little excursion. Clarence and I are going to visit Mike(from last year's crew) who is now teaching in Hong Kong with his lady friend. The four of us will then go and check out Thailand. We'll be out 12/19-1/5 and divide our time about evenly between the two. Now I can start reading about interesting things to see and do. I love going places!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Halloween Weekend in Roppongi

I finally gathered a few pictures from Halloween weekend to share. I am bad. I always forget to take pictures at parties, but I like to think that's because I am too busy enjoying myself. I managed to gather a few shots, mostly taken by other people. This year I dressed as Indiana Jones. My parents were nice enough to send a few things from home... no way would I have found the right stuff in the right size over here. I am a big Indy buff and could tell you 10 things wrong with my costume, but most strangers I met seemed to know who I was, so I'd say that's mission accomplished.

On the Friday of Halloween I went with the crew to a part of Tokyo called Roppongi. Roppongi is generally known as the foreigner neighborhood of Tokyo. It also has the unfortunate reputation of being a bit shady. As such, I usually stay away from Roppongi, and instead enjoy myself in Shibuya or Ebisu, but this was a special occasion so what the heck. My main worry was that we would pay to get into some club and once we got inside, no one would even know it was Halloween and no one would be in costume. And then I would have to whip someone in the eye.

My fears were very quickly addressed. Even in the train station, there were several clusters of people who were in costumes. We met several British people while we were waiting in line for the bathroom in a convenience store.

I don't remember these guys' names, but they were pretty funny.

We went to a three-storied club called "alife"(website in Japanese). The basement was the happenin' party where a majority of the people were completely decked out Halloween style. The 2nd floor was a more chilled out sort of space, with tables and chairs to rest at.

Several strangers demanded pictures with us. Who am I to deny my fans? Joe is on the left in his jailbird outfit. (Photo is Joe's)

The first floor was interesting. I haven't been to so many clubs, but this one was something I haven't seen before. The main floor was sort of a cafe setting with many tables and chairs. The other half of the the floor looked like it was being offered to whomever would pay. There were one or two people getting their hair styled in one area. In another, some Microsoft Windows incarnation was being demonstrated. I saw a big freezer full of various kinds of ice cream for sale as well. I guess its a good place for companies to get access to the young crowd, but it was really at odds with the wild atmosphere downstairs.

So we rocked out at the party in Tokyo until the trains started again in the morning... lets say 6am. We had another party in Ashikaga the next night. I was notably slower moving by then, but it was still a great time. It was held at a small bar/club on the north side, and I knew most of the people in the room. Nice and cozy.

Joe and I chilling with some of the girls at the nearby supermarket. We picked up a few provisions before hitting the party, and got plenty of weird looks from pedestrians along the way. (Photo is Zishan's)

Clarence was a pimp and Shaun was a ninja. I couldn't find a good picture of Zishan, but he was a cowboy. Good times were had by all. (Photo is Joe's)

Earlier in the week a few of us went on a little field trip in order to find everyone's costumes. One stop was Toys R Us, which had a decent sized Halloween section. I am ashamed to report that I made a small impulse buy.

A very Japanese-styled Indiana Jones figurine, with ridiculously large head. It was cheap, and I thought it would be cool to have a little Indy to commemorate my Halloween. Inside this little box was a random character from one of the four movies. How could I lose?

I got this little punk. I don't know whats up with the googly eyes. Worst character ever!!

Back at school, this week the first year students are learning about the fun little "s" that materializes when we use verbs in the third person, such as "John misses the hell out of pizza". The little narrative that the book uses to teach this is a bit unentertaining, though. It tells a story about a Japanese lady and her assistance dog. I have been out and about in Japan for a year and change, and I don't recall ever seeing a single one of these dogs... surely a story could be found that better relates to the students' lives. Well, in Friday's class the teacher I was working with put me on the spot, and asked me to explain the concept of assistance dogs in simple English.

"Assistance dogs are dogs... that help people.... who... need help". I didn't have a whole lot of material. There's not a whole lot of secret meaning hiding in the word, ya know? Then I thought I would be clever and tell the kids that because my position is assistant teacher, that I was sort of like an assistance dog. One kid thought that was especially funny, so he called me "Assistance John" the rest of class. It was a nice little moment.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama Wins

Barack Obama's election win is a huge milestone in the history of the United States, regardless of his performance as president. I only hope that he will use the power he will be given and the hope that he has inspired to lead my country through the daunting challenges that it now faces. The pride that many feel in his success will be matched by the disappointment they will harbor if he fails to live up to his promises.

Back in Ashikaga, today the kids had an all-day chorus contest at the civic center on the north side of town, so I had to wait forever to see some election news.

First up is John McCain's concession speech.

Next we have Barack Obama's acceptance speech given in Chicago's Grant Park. I notice a glaring lack of Springfield shout-outs in this one. I hope he hasn't forgotten about us already... hehe.

And just in case you need to be reminded of the challenges we face, I present a loosely related clip from 2007. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I'm So Excited!

What an interesting race this has been. I've got all sorts of ideas for my campaign.

Some fun pictures of Halloween weekend are on their way. Check back soon!