Monday, June 30, 2008

7/1/08 Springfield Student Delegation

On the 23rd of June the Springfield Sister Cities Student Delegation returned to Narita Airport for the conclusion of their 10-day long stay in Japan.

On a sunny Saturday morning I joined the small welcoming group to Narita to collect everyone and bring them back to Ashikaga on a charter bus. I am pleased to announce that we arrived back in town without casualty.

One of my duties during their stay was to judge the Gettysburg Speech Contest along with the chaperones from Springfield. Listening to the same speech 31 times was quite the exercise in patience, but I think that the kids had all worked really hard on it. A student that graduated from Yamabe last year was one of the winners. The top six students get a paid trip to Springfield. Not bad at all.

The contest wieners receiving their prize.

Another interesting footnote was Japan Night. It's a little cultural festival thing held at the local civic center. A few Asian foods were available for tasting, as well as one or two American things. The Springfield kids sang some songs and did a dance. Theirs was much more modern than the one that I was made to do. I think we did swing dancing. Also present was a smaller group of college students from the University of Illinois at Springfield.

A little bit of the kids dancing at Japan Night. Clarence hopped on stage and joined them for some "Crank That (Soulja Boy)".

It is fun to show people new to Japan around as I can share in a bit of their excitement, plus I feel like a freakin' genius when I can order a sandwich and they can't. I was happy to hear a couple of the kids talk about wanting to be an English teacher when they grow up. I am quite the role model (scary, I know).


Not related to anything, but behold! The most awful looking car I have ever seen. Branded as a Suzuki Alto. Yuck!

Monday, June 23, 2008

6/25/08 Ricefall

It's rice planting time in Ashikaga. Each little square of land or two has its very own hunched-over caretaker toiling away. They seem almost identical, with their wide brimmed hats and tall rubber boots.

Clumps of bright green little plants arrive from someplace unseen, which are then plugged into the mushy earth by hand, one by one in long rows.

A single soul sloshing around not a block from my apartment.

A significant percentage of the open space in town has been converted into marshland almost overnight. The smell is much like you'd expect from the swamp. The frogs join a deafening chorus at nightfall.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

6/23/08 American Politics in Japan

I read an interesting article on CNN, titled Poll: World has more confidence in Obama: Either major candidate seen as improving global relations. It comments on a Pew Research Center poll questioning two dozen countries on subjects including on the US vs. world economy, Iraq/Afghanistan issues, and the US presidential hopefuls. One line in particular really stood out.

"Substantial numbers in most countries said they are closely following the U.S. presidential election, including 83 percent in Japan — about the same proportion who said so in the U.S." I can personally attest to this: Hillary and Obama are household names in Ashikaga, with every twist in the Democratic primaries being meticulously noted in the local papers.

An article on the front page of the June 5th edition of the Sankei Shimbun. The headlines read: Obama something something first black person something something from now on. The graph details the delegate counts.

Even my kids like to talk about them, although the conversation is usually pretty shallow for obvious reasons (in my early days I recall trying to explain the primary election process to a class and it will live on in the bad idea hall of fame). "Which one do you like Hillary or Obama?" is a small talk question that came up often in the heat of the primary contest. I usually replied that I preferred Obama because he was from Illinois. It seemed like a simple and logical enough answer for me to give them. My mom taught me not to talk politics with anyone but those that you trust, and sometimes not even with them. I thought this a safe exception to my rule.

Japan's Favorite Bar Food: Yakitori

Now that the weather has warmed up, I have resumed my legendary quest to visit every restaurant and bar in town. As a result of the apparent lack of zoning laws, tiny little restaurants and other shops are often tucked away within the gnarled web of residential streets. This makes about every foray into a new area likely to produce a new place to patronize.

One day after school I was feeling particularly energetic and I wanted to do some exploring. My usual companions were either occupied or uninterested, so I went it alone. I rode my bike around Ashikaga's central train station a bit, just zagging down the narrow streets in the direction of anything that caught my interest. I enjoy riding my bike without any purpose: it gives me some time to reflect as well as a bit of exercise.

Eventually I found a place that looked good. It seemed small enough that it would have some character to it. One of those restaurants where the owner lives in the back room. When I entered, the worn man behind the counter didn't react. He hesitated, probably waiting for me to ask directions in some language he didn't care to understand. I asked him if he was open in Japanese, and that seemed to placate him. He snapped back into service mode and brought a hot towel to the counter where I had decided to sit.

The humble front door to "Michan".

I ordered a beer first to give him something to do. We were the only two souls in the place, and I needed time to make sense of the menu without him standing and eyeballing me. I wasn't having much luck. I could read many of the words, I just didn't grasp their meaning. I had hit a wall and I needed to make a choice fast. Not wanting to just sit and order the cheese sticks, I just winged it and ordered one of everything under the menu heading "yakitori".

This was a yakitori pub, I had gathered that much from the sign outside. Yakitori is literally "grilled chicken". Its just a bit of chicken or other animals grilled on a mini kebab: the fun part is what bit of the chicken is being offered.

So one by one the skewered animal bits came, on a stick alternating with slices of leek. The barman kindly added salt or tare sauce to give them flavor.

Tan. It means tongue. I'm pretty sure that this is cow tongue rather than any piece of a chicken.

Hatsu. Heart, of a chicken I believe.

Kashira. Temple. I assume that this is from a cow because I can't imagine there being a ton of meat on a chicken's forehead.

Nankotsu. Cartilage. I have actually developed a taste for tiny bits of fried chicken cartilage. Its both crunchy and chewy in parts. Knees, knuckles, ears? I don't care to know.

Himo. This one is a bit worrying. After a bit of asking around, I was told that this was fallopian tube. I got a second opinion who says the word means something more general like "blood vessel".

Rebaa. Liver. I enjoy the liver to the point that I purposefully order it on occasion.

Gatsu. I think this is what you call tripe. Stomach or intestines, around that area.

I don't think I would knowingly eat all of these things in one sitting. My partial ignorance meant that I had to wait until the next day at work to ask my teachers what exactly I had eaten. It wasn't half bad really.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

6/11/08 Bad News

I don't usually like to comment on violence and disasters in the news: there's way too much of it. I think the media's over-coverage of bad things happening makes people more afraid of each other than they have need to be. Anyway, there's been quite a bit of talk about the attack in Tokyo that occurred on Sunday. It seems particularly relevant to me because it happened in Akihabara, the nerd wonderland that we have visited a couple of times. I think the fact that everyone is shocked by it underlines the fact that things like this don't happen very often.

Anyway... I promise to have something more upbeat to talk about shortly!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

6/04/08 Obama Declares Victory

I just read that Obama has "declared himself the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States" in an article on BBC News(article here). I was pleased to see a little shout out in Obama's speech, when he stated: "Sixteen months have passed since we first stood together on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois". Heck yeah we stood there. Stood there a real long time. And it was real cold. And thats when we both realized how much you like to talk. Man, that was a lot of talking.

Here is a bit of Obama's speech in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Monday, June 02, 2008

6/03/08 An Interview with Phillip

In further evidence of Phillip David Hunter's coolness, he agreed to answer a few questions for JMAA. What a swell guy. I recently went to a private party in Tokyo where he performed. You can relive the magic two posts down.

Here is an excerpt from a little email interview.

Me: Could you introduce yourself and talk a bit about your life?

Phillip: My name is Phillip David Hunter. I'm a singer/songwriter originally from L.A. Growing up and working in L.A. was great because it gave me an opportunity to develop as an artist, and work with some of the best names in the business: Chaka Khan, Brian McKnight, Michael Bolton, Gloria Estafan, and Peabo Bryson to name a few.

Me: How long have you lived in Japan, and how did you make the decision to make the move?

Phillip: My first time coming to Japan was Nov. 17, 2001. The first gig was Motown Cafe in Sendai, a laid back family-town a few hours north of Tokyo on the shinkansen. It was a nice introduction into the culture. Everyone was so kind and patient, teaching me new words and phrases. Vocally it was great for me because I had to sing 6 nights/week for 3 months at a time(something I never had to do before). This strengthened me and taught me how to "pace" myself...Looking back, I believe I came to Japan an average of two times per year, up until July 2005, when the last Motown Cafe finished it's run at the end of that same month.

After my last gig at Motown Cafe, I worked briefly at a club in Yokohama, and then went back to L.A. Work in L.A. was spotty at best... afterall, I'd been off the scene for a while. With little work, contacts that had completely forgotten me, combined with the excruciatingly high gas prices of California, well, let's just say life was pretty hard.

After being home for a year getting very little work, I got a call to perform at a club in Fujisawa. My bags were packed faster than you could say "jet engine". On Dec. 1, 2006 I landed in Narita with every intent to make a go of it here. After gigs in Fujisawa, Kagoshima, and Kyoto..I finally secured regular work in Tokyo. I wish I could take credit for that, but it was definitely an act of God. The timing was just too perfect, just when I needed it most, deepening my belief that this is where I was supposed to be.

Me: What do you find challenging about life in Japan?

Phillip: I'd have to say the biggest challenge for me has been learning Japanese. There are so many levels. It's one thing to learn a language, and how to communicate... but how about understanding when you are being spoken to in rapid fire Nihongo[the Japanese word for the Japanese language]!! What about learning the kanji, hiragana, and katakana??? Once again, It's the kindness and patience of the Japanese that has helped me a great deal. Maybe their desire to speak English tempers any negative attitudes toward my communicative ignorance... who knows. Maybe they've just grown accustomed to foreigners who desire to live here, but who haven't quite grasped the language as yet.

Me: What was your favorite gig in Japan and why?

Phillip: In terms of gigs here in Japan, I'd have to say my favorite has been my jazz gig at Singles Bar Encounter. I perform with a piano and bass player, real instruments!! There's a certain freedom that can't be explained when acoustic instruments are used. So many of the jobs nowadays require MD's(mini-discs). All the music and backing vocals are on the tracks. Very convenient for private parties, hostess clubs, restaurants and bars... but nothing beats real players on the gig.

Me: Have you seen the movie Office Space, and how do you feel about the movie's statement that Michael Bolton is a "no-talent ass-clown"?

Phillip: In reference to a comment made by a character in the movie Office Space(one of my all-time favorites) about one of the aforementioned singers I've worked with. One of the main characters(in the movie) named "Michael Bolton" refers to the singer Michael Bolton as a "no talent ass-clown". Do I agree with that statement after working with the singer??... absolutely not! In reality, he's a great singer with a large fan-base.

Me: Do you have any interesting or funny stories about working with the big names? Who was your favorite/least favorite person to work with and why?

Phillip: Sorry, no funny stories about artists, but I do have a favorite. I'd have to say meeting and singing with Chaka Khan(one of the most versatile singers in the world and my favorite female singer) was quite a thrill for me. She has covered pretty much every genre and never lost her vocal identity...she's always Chaka! In case you're wondering...yes, I did get a kiss and a hug!

You can listen to a few of Phillip's songs, both covers and originals, at