Wednesday, February 27, 2008

2/29/08 The School Year's Dusk Approaches

Its been painfully gusty the past week or so. My daily bicycle commute is sort of like trying to row a sailboat against the wind.

The school year is starting to die down, with classes finishing up mid-March. For the 3 graders, though, classes are going to be finished next week, maybe on Tuesday. For me, that means I am teaching lots of "last classes". I am often supposed to give some closing comments to the students. I've mostly been telling them that I appreciated our time together, and giving them some hints for developing their English abilities in the future. I feel a bit guilty, as I don't really feel sad in the slightest. I only see each class once a week, and I still don't know most of their names. I feel like I have a good relationship with the students, but its usually at a pretty non-personal level, I think. We have fun, learn some grammar, I try to make them laugh, but after 50 or so minutes class is over and I move on to the next group.

I felt bad then. Yesterday, though, was much, much worse. I was saying my last goodbye at the end of yet another lesson, but this one was different. A couple of the students came to the front of the class and gave me some flowers and a card. I was really surprised and I thought it was very kind of them. I thanked them and put a little extra feeling into my last comments. Back, at my desk, I read the card. Inside was a fairly long, handwritten note. The student wrote their name at the bottom, but I couldn't tell you which one of those kids it was. I'm a terrible person.

The flowers never would have made it through the bike ride home, so they are currently sprucing up my desk.

Monday the students put on a ceremony for the third graders. It was much more showy than the usual long speech ridden assemblies. Curtains were pulled over every one of the windows to set the mood, and chairs were brought in: every other event I've been to, everyone just sits on the floor. In addition, the kids all had their fancy uniforms on.

I think the school uniforms deserve a bit of explanation. On usual days, the kids all wear these little tracksuits with stripes up the sides. There are three colors: gray, dark blue, and light blue, one for each grade. The colors follow a student, so the dark blue that the third graders are wearing now will soon roll back to the new first graders. A detail that I find a bit militaristic is the names. A student's last name is embroidered onto the front of their track shirt. And the front of their pants. And the backs of their shoes, as well as the front of the T-shirts that they wear under the heavier clothes. Sure, no one's clothes get lost, but what does is the sense that they are children, not soldiers or one big football team.

This ceremony was important, though, so everyone was wearing their dress uniforms. The clothes that the boys wear are particularly question-raising. "Japan's school system, established in the 1880's, took as its model the Prussian system, complete (for the boys) with black military uniforms with high collars and brass buttons. Today, even though the boys have dyed hair and wear earrings, they must continue to wear these uniforms" writes Alex Kerr, author of Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan (amazon). Wow. Say what you will, but the Japanese can keep a tradition alive like no people I have yet encountered.

Every day I walk by this painting hung beside the doorway that teachers and visitors use. Its Manet's Le Fifre, painted in 1866. I've checked it out once or twice, but I couldn't determine the significance. "Why the heck is this here?" I wondered. After reading about the uniforms, it hit me. The coat that this child soldier is wearing is just about identical to the ones in use at my school in the present day.

In case you've forgotten about the things I am daily forced to eat for lunch here, I present a reminder. Ahem, the menu today is a bowl full of noodles, with chunks of tofu and tiny bits of a meat. Half a kiwi and a tin of rice comprise the safe portion of the meal. For the main course, formless lump on a stick. My teacher said it was made of ground up fish meat and bones. Wow. "Hey, I'll trade you my fish lump for your kiwi." The cool thing was the milk. That little brown tube has chocolate stuff inside. You simply poke the sharp part through the hole in the milk box and squeeze to make chocolate milk. Delicious, but not a strong enough taste to wash out fish lump, unfortunately.

And now for something completely unrelated. Star Wars according to a 3 year old. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

2/24/08 I, Samurai

As is often the case with our extracurricular assignments, I had very little idea what I should expect. Information is usually short and vague at best, and is accompanied with a "you have no choice" sort of attitude, which annoys me greatly. However, this experience has definitely brightened my outlook for future tasks. So, the story we were given was that we were all going to dress like samurai and walk in a parade. We are city employees, and so are often called to do city sponsored events. Fine. Lets go.

The four of us began the night with a rendezvous at the board of education building. Keeble was still hanging out with us at the time (he has since left to mess around in New Zealand) but our boss wouldn't let him participate so he was delegated the duties of group photographer and cheerleader.

Keeble, how I think he'd like to be remembered: in Japan, at a cheap Italian restaurant, with a kid's menu stuck on his head. (I must have that T-shirt).

Once fully assembled, our party then rode our bikes to a nearby school where an army was being outfitted. The gymnasium was lined full of crates brimming with all sorts of clothing, armor, and weaponry. At this point I realized how cool this was going to be. Several seniors we strolling around fully decked out in their armor, complete with helmets sporting a large metal centerpiece.

After a bit of monkeying around with the various costume pieces, one of the staff helped us with everything. It soon became apparent that we couldn't have put everything on ourselves even if we had known what the heck we were doing, due to the various straps that needed to be tied off in awkward places. While I waited my turn to get suited up, I did a bit of preparation. They had warned us days earlier about how cold it was going to be, so I put several little adhesive chemically heated pads all over myself. I didn't know how long we would be marching through wind and snow, so I was a bit worried that my heat source mightn't make the trip. I then pulled on a few layers of provided black two-toed ninja socks, and patiently waited my turn.

You can see one of the toasty little squares stuck to my shirt.

I had assumed the assistant people were just volunteers at first, but they applied everything with an efficiency that I decided must belong to a professional samurai dresser. Perhaps they work for the same company that the armor was rented from? I don't know.

When it was finally my time to shine, everything went smoothly. There were almost 20 pieces in all. It wasn't genuine stuff, obviously, but I felt like everything had a movie-prop sort of quality.

Putting on some puffy pants.

The rope shoes were amusingly small.

The one small snag that did occur was the arm and shoulder covers. The first one we tried was too small, and the second pair they managed to find just barely fit. It was so tight that I couldn't raise my arm past my shoulder, which really cut down on my fighting effectiveness.

Squeezing into the shoulder sections. I am cursed with beefy arms, I'm afraid.

I would have looked pretty cool even without the actual armor.

Soon we moved on to the breastplate. Maybe a little bit small, but not by much.

The helmet was one of the coolest parts. The part that covers the neck was made of several smaller plates tied together. This made it possible for the armor to flex with the movement of the head.

One by one everything was strapped into place. Once everything was finished I could concentrate of the serious business of whipping my sword out and pretend-stabbing everyone I walked past.

I'm not gonna lie. This is going to hurt.

And thus, my transformation was complete.

The other guys were similarly excited about their new toys, and we played around for quite some time.

The whole squad.

Mike, about to get stabbed by myself.

Clarence striking an impressive pose.

Katherine in an example of the girls' uniforms, and one of the older guys with the much nicer outfits.

The little circles with the two lines through them are the seal of the Ashikaga clan.

Once a bit of time passed, we were all directed outside. I immediately realized the issues that would arrise involving my several sizes too small rope shoes and the cold, wet, and snowy earth. I hadn't yet made it to the bus when the moisture began to soak through my socks.

A bus. Full of samurai.

The whole army was carted in a couple of trips to the parking lot where the parade would begin. A couple of speeches and a roll call later, and we were on the march.

When it began to snow, we were all covered with ponchos, in an effort probably meant to protect our clothes more than our bodies.

I had a rope shoe malfunction that was slowing me down, but otherwise the armor held up great.

There were a few people in scattered groups watching the parade as we marched down the center of the street. Standing in the snow in the middle of the night wasn't on a whole lot of peoples' calendars though. Most of our fans consisted of the poor souls waiting in their cars, idling through several green lights until the last of us had passed the intersection.

A few times, due to pictures or whatever, our section of the line fell behind a bit. A few of us took this opportunity to catch up with a bit of a jog, swords at the ready. It felt pretty cool, and the armor made satisfying clanking sounds as we moved.

When we approached the end of the line, we all ripped off our silly trash bags and donned our game faces. Here I am about to be assassinated by an evil Mike.

Nobue from the International Office at city hall was attempting to get her picture with us, but I was forced to chop her in half for interrupting the parade. Pity, that.

We walked and walked. Then walked some more, until we finally arrived at Bannaji temple, where a sizable amount of people had gathered. One of the reasons for the whole parade was the festival of Setsubun.

Setsubun, which marks the beginning of spring, is interesting in its application of roasted soybeans. A popular practice at Japanese homes is for a member to put on a devil mask, while the rest of the family berates and throws these beans at the "evil spirit", convincing it to get the heck out of their house in a symbolic purification process. People then eat one bean for each year they have lived, for good luck (of course!).

Typical little Setsubun devil mask that I picked up at the supermarket.

Our army made several lines on the steps of the shrines. It was a pretty exciting feeling, as a rope semi-circle held back quite a large crowd of people that had come to see us. I was a bit surprised at the popularity of the event, although if each person in the parade had one loved one show, it would have been a crowd on its own. Maybe ten or so press people with large cameras occupied one section of the crowd, some of them standing on ladders to get a better shot. Wooden boxes filled with beans were passed out to all of us. Then, at the signal, we heaved handfuls of the beans into the crowd. Many of the people were attempting to catch the airborne legumes, I assume in order to eat them for good luck. The whole scene was pretty intense:brights lights, beans everywhere. I heaved a handful or two at the press section, which I am sure they appreciated.

A shot of us all lined up, from the crowd. Somehow I managed to end up front and center of the whole group, and thus in all the pictures. Not sure how that happened... Ahem.

Once the crowds dispersed and all the bean tossing had ceased, our army gathered around a bonfire and did some "huzzahs", honoring our victorious vegetable assault. You can make out my gimpy arm futilely trying to reach above my own head.

Afterwards there was a thank-you party. It felt strange. Most of the speakers were thanking us for participating, but I felt like I was the one who needed to be doing the thanking. This experience, free of cost to me from beginning to end, was one of the best times I've ever had.


Aftermath. I was told that because of all the reporters, that I should keep an eye on the news outlets for coverage of the event. Apparently, although the parade happens every year, it is a noteworthy occasion in the area. I was pleased to see a color picture of the event had made it into the shimotsuke shimbun, the paper that serves Ashikaga and the rest of the prefecture.

Give it a click to enlarge. You can see Clarence, arm outstretched like an angel, beans captured in midair. I, on the otherhand, am the faceless person standing directly in front of him, smiling as I shovel another handful of beans from my little box. The other guys all got stuck way in the back though, so I guess I can't complain too much.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

2/18/08 Valentine's Day

I didn't do anything for Valentine's Day for obvious reasons, but I wasn't alone. In Japan, February 14th is the day when women give chocolate to men. The men, well, they sit and eat chocolate. I read a bit about it a couple days before in a small paragraph in a wikipedia article. It mentioned something called giri-choco, combined from the words for "obligation" and "chocolate". So every woman in the office is supposed to give all the men in the office some kind of treat. We have quite a bit of staff, so they didn't each go buy something for everyone, but I did have one decent-sized box of chocolate waiting for me on my desk. I assume that all the women teachers put money in on it.

The men, then, are supposed to reciprocate on March 14, or White Day. Its looks like the idea is to give back white chocolate to all the ladies that graced you the month before. An interesting spin on a familiar marketing fueled ritual.


I had an interesting conversation with one of the other teachers at school on Friday. I was casually chatting with a coworker concerning their weekend plans. She mentioned that she was planning to go see a movie, and I commented that I think that theater tickets in Japan are outrageous (I don't know why, but I take a dark pleasure in reminding people here about how much cheaper just about everything single man-made object is in the US). There is only one movie theater in Ashikaga(that I have seen or heard about), and a normal ticket costs almost 17USD.

Another teacher heard this, and interjected that the reason ticket prices are so high is that the theaters in Japan must pay high fees back to the American movie companies. Not quite buying the explanation, I swiftly reminded him that Sony, headquartered in Tokyo, is one of the biggest companies in the entertainment business. Furthermore, domestically produced movies cost the same price at the ticket booth, and they needn't pay tribute to the Hun tribe known as Hollywood. He replied that the movie companies all have an agreement to keep the prices high. I replied that in the US, that is illegal. By this time the teacher had lost interest in this particular line of conversation, and walked away muttering, probably something amounting to "I know you are, but what am I?" Ah, internationalization is beautiful.

Another little tidbit thrown in was that the mayor has some sort of connection to the company that built the theater. They mentioned this while pointing to a fat stack of advertisements and coupons for movies that were meant to be passed out to each of our almost 800 students, I assume at the mayor's behest. Very interesting.

Hey remember when Sony was embarrassed by the revelation that it had created a fake movie critic(David Manning) who consistently gave good reviews to Sony-made movies? I sure do. He called Rob Schneider's The Animal "Another Winner!". That line must've blown his cover, as no genuine human would speak such nonsense. You can relive Sony's pain here.

Monday, February 11, 2008

2/16/08 Capsule Hotel in Akihabara

Akihabara. This wasn't my first time in this mythical district of Tokyo.

Back during my first few weeks here, the usual suspects and I all made a pass at Akihabara. We were naive and inexperienced in those days, and we showed up mapless and clueless about what exactly we were looking for, assuming we would be showered with entertainment with one shoe still on the train station. We toured a couple of large but otherwise predictable electronics superstores, lost interest, then moved on. I was disappointed with the experience to the extent that I figured (hoped?) we must have missed something. Well, my tortured heart can now finally rest. We revisted Akihabara with a vengeful, neon-lit passion.

By the time we arrived it was late enough in the day that the flashy lights were on in force and carpeting the walls of the buildings, casting an electric aura over the people shopping on the streets below.

This place is geek heaven. We walked into a little indoor strip mall and were exposed to a barrage of interest. Entire stores were devoted to model robots and all the tools and supplies needed to dress them up. In more than one instance, the iles of toys were so tightly packed that I had to take off my backpack just to manuver, as it was still laden with beer jell-o and posters. Video games, comic books, DVDs, and all manner of anti-social products abound.

The arcades were numerous and on steroids. Best to check a directory before venturing in too far, as entire floors are dedicated to something as specific as fighting or racing arcade games. Everywhere I looked was well populated with button mashing patrons.

An absolutely mammoth electronics store. So. Many. Lights.

This business looked to be devoted solely to wires of various kinds.

In spite of the huge amount of things for sale, I didnt have much desire of purchase anything myself. The frenzy of activity was foreign enough to my senses that I didnt feel as though I was a part of the action, but merely a wide-eyed observer passing through.

All the nerdery had us tuckered and hungry. We made a pit stop at this awesome Turkish kebab stand.

It was delicious smelling, but at the same time strange to watch a man hack at a rotating, solid log of meat with a knife the size of a machete.

Once we were all one blinking light away from a seizure, we went on a bit of a side trip.

Tung suggested that we check out this restaurant in Shibuya called The Lock Up (if I remember correctly). The place was heavily themed, although I felt like the decor looked a bit thrown together at times. When we arrived we were greeted at the door by a line 20 people deep and growing. Luckily I had called and made a reservation earlier in the day, because the wait time probably would have been long enough to break our resolve. Upon entering we were subjected to a couple of automated, jumpy creatures, not at all different from the sort one would find at a haunted house on Halloween. After those encounters we paused for a short time at another little waiting area. Here we were briefed by a couple of women dressed as police officers of a sort. After a short introduction, one of the girls slapped a handcuff on my wrist and led us through the dark corridors. It seemed to be a fairly large building overall, but it was divided into a maze of narrow hallways, flanked on either side by a honeycomb of little rooms. Most of the rooms featured bars of some sort over the little windows and doors. Most of the cells that I peeked into while we walked had occupants intent on enjoying themselves.

A lively Shibuya street near the restaurant.

A small sidetrack, if I may: Japanese restaurants. This honeycomb layout is unfortunately quite common in Ashikaga's eateries. For me, part of the fun of eating out is seeing other people. Maybe happening to spot a friend and have a quick chat or throw them a wave in recognition. I enjoy a social atmosphere, you know? Here, though, especially in some of the nicer places, everyone is ushered into little booths with walls, which sometimes even have their own doors. I don't know if the place is crowded or empty. I don't know if the group sitting in the room four feet next to me are strangers, coworkers, or the cast from Heroes having a celebratory meal after some filming on location in Japan. It annoys me a bit. Why would I even be at a restaurant if I didn't want to see other people? If I wanted so much privacy I could just get takeout and eat at home, perhaps in the closet with the lights out. I wonder how Japanese people make friends in this country, as there doesn't seem to be a wealth of opportunities.

Wow. So there you have it. We finally made it our little cell. I was uncuffed, and we got down to the business of eating and drinking. The food was pretty normal, but many of the drinks had a bit of theme to them, coming in beakers like a potion, while others were served with fake little syringes filled with flavoring. We were minding our own business when suddenly the lights went out, strobe lights came on, and crazy music began blaring seemingly from several directions at the same time. During the "jail break", a masked beast of a man began roaming the halls and generally doing the things one might expect a long-imprisoned monster to do. Eventually the policegirls caught up with it, subduing the creature with a hail of capgun fire.

Our waiter/prison mate whips us up a little something while Mike experiments with a beverage.

One of the main reasons for the whole trip was to show Mike's friend Keeble a good, Japanese time. So when we were all too tired to walk, it was time to return to Akihabara, where we had booked our accommodations. We arrived back late enough that everything nerdy was closed, and as a result all the lights were turned off. Wow. I honestly barely recognized the place without all that glittering going on. I was shocked at the difference.

To top off our Japan experience, we decided it would be a good idea to stay at the Capsule Inn Akihabara(the only capsule hotel in Akihabara!). And let me tell you, it was awesome.

I had heard about these things several times before, and I was a bit apprehensive about how small the capsules were going to be. I'll say I was pleasantly surprised. I had imagined shoving myself into a coffin and then spending the night trying not to claustrophobically freak out, but it was nothing like that. If I was a bit taller, I might have had an issue as far as length, but the width was more than enough. It felt a lot like sleeping in a bunk bed, which was reinforced by the ladder needed to climb into my top row capsule.

Now rather than attempting to adequately describe the tubes on my own, allow me to offer up a few highlights from the Capsule Inn's website.

At the Capsule Inn Akihabara, a separate capsule unit is available for each guest, as a sleeping space. Each room has blinds to be drawn for complete privacy. In the capsule unit, amenities like a TV, radio, alarm clock and adjustable lighting are provided. You can control all these devices in a sleeping position, as if you were in a cockpit of an aircraft, or spacecraft.

You might recall the movie The Fifth Element, directed by Luc Besson. Our capsule units will remind you of the main character, Bruce Willis' small living and sleeping area.

Ladies and gentlemen, I was, for a night, just like Bruce Willis. Yes!

"I demand that you address me as Bruce!"

Here's a cool little rendition of the interior.

There were bathrooms, lounging areas, and vending machines on every floor, and men and women slept on separate levels. It reminded me of a bit of a college dorm. The next morning, a half an hour before check-out, a recorded message blared telling us to wake up and get the heck out, in a super polite way of course.

This little machine in the inn lobby could charge any number of brands of cell phone for a small fee.

It was cheap and convenient enough that I could definitely see myself staying there again, despite the reduced novelty.


Next are a few little randoms from the trip that I thought worth sharing.

Everyone is probably tired of seeing pictures of kaminarimon, but this time it was lightly snowing, so I couldn't resist.

This one is from a storefront in Akihabara that caught my eye. Their specialty seems to consist solely of pimping things out with rhinestones.

I could get "Amazing Adventures" all gemmed out on my sneakers. That'd be smooth.

Got a shot of one of my beer jell-o packs before it got devoured. Its an interesting flavor, sort of a sweet yet beery taste... unique.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tokyo: Beer Museum

Mike's friend Keeble was in Japan visiting, and that was really all the reason we needed to do some fun stuff. Last weekend we all headed to Tokyo to see what sort of unexpected things we might be able to make happen.

The thing about Tokyo is that it's huge, and without a perfect grasp of the language it can be a bit of a challenge to properly cover as a sightseer. So even after going to Tokyo several times, there are still a very large amount of experiences waiting to be had. Luckily we had a half-plan ahead of time, rather than just show up and wandering around in circles like we usually do. One thing that I had been wanting to check off of my wish list was a visit to the Beer Museum Yebisu in the Ebisu district of Tokyo. Yebisu is a brand produced by one of the big three beer makers in Japan, Sapporo Breweries Limited.

The museum was located in Yebisu Garden Place, a little collection of restaurants and stores. From what I've seen of the rest of Ebisu, this museum complex seems to be the only thing going on and, having covered the museum, I can't imagine returning back there anytime soon.

The museum's lobby was dominated by a large copper beer tank polished to a shine.

We may have gotten a bit overemotional with all the excitement.

"There's good times ahead".

I enjoyed a gallery that was devoted to the brand's marketing posters, some from as far back as the 1950's. It was interesting to see how the products seemed to be aimed at different groups over the years. Some of the older posters seem to show a fairly upper class crowd, while the contemporary pieces had a more accessible feel to them.

1963: This guy seems to be pretty spellbound.



Tung and Clarence critiquing.

The highlight of the museum was the Magic Vision Theater:

Here, a wondrous 3D "Magic Vision" cut will tell of the mysteries of the good taste of beer in an interesting manner. In this allegorical fantasy, Gambrinus, the king of beer, engages in a desperate contest of wits over the good taste of beer with The Evil One of the forest. To the victor goes the heart of the beautiful Beer Fairy.

Rather than try and describe in print how wondrous the magic was, I decided to let my trusty camera do the work for me. Take a look.

Other than the few highlights, my inability to read much made the historical and beer making facts from the rest of the museum little more than a picture book quickly flipped through. At the end of the museum was an unsurprising opportunity to sample all the wonderful products we had learned so much about. Unfortunately said products were not free.

Clarence glances at a case of glasses full of fake plastic beer. He then proceeded to buy a beer token from the vending machine and hand it to the bartender.

Learning is fun!

The gift shop was amusing. Out-of-the-ordinary offerings included beer soap and beer jell-o, both of which I purchased. I also picked up a few nice copies of vintage beer posters, including a trio of geisha loving some classy beer.

I waved a tearful goodbye to the beer museum, and then it was gone. We next headed to Akihabara, the geek capital of the world.

The good people at were nice enough to add this blog entry to their website describing the wonders of Japan. They linked to me here, about midway down the page under "Dining&Shopping". I do believe that means I'm famous.