Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween is Here!

One of my teachers inexplicably gave me a big bag of candy corn last week. I decided I should pass it out to my fellow teachers on Halloween, as opposed to being the fat kid and eating it all by myself. I enjoy giving things to the group, and I think that the goodwill of my coworkers is more enjoyable than a pound of corn syrup sitting in my stomach. Sometimes I wonder though... worse case scenario, I bring in something that has gone bad and poison every single employee at school. Or perhaps worse, I help someone discover an allergy they didn't know they had. Keep your fingers crossed for me, ok?

Yesterday I wore my Halloween costume to school. I don't have any pictures of it to post yet, so I'll keep it under my hat for the moment. This weekend has hopefully two costume parties in store for me, so I'll have some good shots soon. This is a good time to mention my fame from last year. A picture of me sorta in my costume made it into Ashikaga Magajin(I'm pretty sure that's a pun on magazine).

It looks like its the December issue.

A picture of Tung and I is dead center. Also visible on this page is Clarence and Babs on the bottom left, pretty much everyone from last year's crew except for Mike. He loved that. A better shot of my very simple costume can be found here.

A have a couple little random things I though were cool.

Tommy Lee Jones has been doing some extensive advertising work for BOSS brand coffee. Here is his ever-cheerful mug on the front of a vending machine. Did you know that vending machines here routinely sell hot drinks in cans as well as cold ones?

A unique claw game offering caught my eye. Popples are back!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Laserdiscs! The Future is Now

Every day after classes are finished, we have cleaning time. And every day during cleaning time, a CD with a few songs on it is played on the intercom. It is mildly annoying to hear the same songs day after day, but I'm usually so busy with my cleaning duties that I don't pay much attention. My least favorite of these songs is "Bad Day" by Daniel Powter. The only thing worse than bubblegum is old bubblegum.

In a completely separate situation, an English teacher that I work with likes to play an English song at the beginning of class. Its a nice way to get everyone in the English mood. Once it was the Beatles, another time it was Wham!, and last time it was a song by Billy Joel. This time, it's "Bad Day" by Daniel Powter.... I freakin hate that guy and his nonsense song, and I'm sick of hearing him whine about life three times a day!!

Hooo, deep breath.

I've been having people over to my apartment fairly regularly lately, which is good because it forces me to keep the place looking respectable. Movie nights are the big draw these days. After sneaking glances of it at the used electronics store for months and months, I finally purchased a Laserdisc player. Hurray me! Its sort of like a Blu-ray player, only so way better. The discs are the same size as a vinyl record but a movie can't fit on one side. Suckers then have to manually flip the disc mid-movie. My player does this automatically, with only a few seconds of electric can opener-type sounds, which is why my apartment is the coolest around. Sure 30% of my movies are on 2 discs and require me to change them out, but that's just cause they are filled with special features like "scene selection". Highlights from my library include Moonwalker, Short Circuit, and Blade Runner: The Director's Cut.

Oh, what a smooth champagne. I'm drinking you with my eyes.

Joe too is amazed at the power of the laser. Photo courtesy of Joe.

In addition to buying whimsically outdated electronics, I indulge in such nerdery as "collecting stamps". I bug the people that work in the school office now and then for their old stamps. I thought that this one was pretty cool. Its a scene from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Its only one of the best, most influential films ever made, so if you don't know about it you better get that taken care of or we can't be friends.

I took a picture of an excellent meal I had this weekend.

Sets are really the way to go. The noodles are called soba, a buckwheat noodle served cold. To the left is tempura, battered and deep fried seafood and vegetables. Below that is a bowl of rice topped with seaweed paper strips and some sort of pink fish mixture. Unique dipping sauces completed all three. This is one of my favorite combinations of Japanese food.

Here is dessert. Unfortunately I don't remember what this is called. Balls of chewy mochi rice and some sort of green tea lumps sat in a purple, sweet bean based liquid, topped off with a dollop of whipped cream. I'm not sure I'm making it sound very good with my amateur description, but it was quite good.

Last but not least, a couple of funny clips.

This one is pretty darn good. Will Ferrell getting some Bush impersonating done on SNL before its too late.

A Daily Show segment on the often dubious credentials of news pundits, titled: Who the F@#k Is That Guy?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Speech Contest Victory!

I just got back from the annual junior high English speech contest (last year's here). All of my students put in quite a lot of effort. My student from 2nd year got first prize! Hurray. I am proud of them all. I put a lot of time into coaching the kids on their speeches, so its really nice to see one of them do so well.

Here we are with the bling. Her winning speech was actually about experiences with a home stay student from Springfield, which made it even better.

A new addition to the teachers' room this week was a large box of thin paperback books. I've seen several of them on the students' desks. On closer inspection I saw that they were Gideon Bibles. They were so small that they could only contain a few books of the New Testament. It seems those Gideons have finished filling every hotel with bibles and are now moving on to small town Japanese schools. Not the most logical progression, but whatever. I think the chances of these kids actually reading the bibles are seriously slim. Christianity isn't doing so hot around these parts. Japan's page in the CIA Factbook lays it down straight: observe both Shinto and Buddhist 84%, other 16% (including Christian 0.7%).

I don't usually do product endorsements, but here goes. I have been using a new brand of toilet paper recently, and its good times. I highly recommend for everyone to go out and buy strawberry scented Hello Kitty brand paper. I'm a man that works hard, and when I come home I want my bathroom to smell like delicious fruits.

I can't afford to eat strawberries in this country, but this is a close second.

Tung was nice enough to put up some of my lost sumo clips up on Youtube for me, so I added a couple in the previous article. Check it out.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sumo in Nagoya

The final destination of my whirlwind tour of Japan was Nagoya, on July 24th. I didn't know much about Nagoya before this trip, and I still don't. I didn't do any sightseeing there at all. I had only one interest in Nagoya: sumo wrestling.

Nagoya knew why we were here. I saw this advertisement for the match before I had even exited the train station.

I have been planning on going to a sumo match since I first came to Japan, now six years ago. Somewhere along the way I developed the opinion that sumo tickets were going to be prohibitively expensive, but seats in the back ended up costing us around 45 dollars. A movie at a normal theater in Japan costs a solid $18, so I don't think we did too bad considering sumo matches go from morning until around 6pm.

We spotted this wrestler on the train to the match. My understanding is that sumo wrestlers must wear traditional style clothing at all times.

I don't know about the Tokyo venue, but the building in Nagoya was small enough that even the nosebleed seats are adequately close to the action. The professional sumo season is very Tokyo-centric. The big boys wrestle in Tokyo, another city, Tokyo, and a different city, for a total of 6 matches a year, so it was just luck that we happened to be passing by the city where sumo was taking place. I could always catch the next Tokyo match, but as Tung was soon going home to work on his boomerang technique, it was his last chance.

In this building, only the last 7 or so rows of seating sported actual chairs. The rest of the spectators had to sit on cushions, so I was just as happy sitting on a big boy chair in the back. Wrestling was already in progress despite the early hour that we arrived. The lower levels of wrestler battle with almost no one watching. As a result, the vast majority of cushions were vacant. Tung and I decided to keep two in the front row warm for when their rich owners arrived later in the day. We got a really close view of the early action, and it gave me some time to read my little English sumo booklet and learn about what was happening.

I took this one soon after we arrived. Hardly anyone was watching them fight at this point. The few that were there were fairly vocal though, I wondered if maybe they were related to the wrestlers. The referee is much younger and less fancily dressed than those I would see later on.

Here I am sitting in someone else's chair, nice and close to the action during a bout a bit later in the day. You can see the stands are starting to fill up a bit.

I ate a chicken and vegetable stew type of thing called chanko. Sumo wrestlers eat this in large quantities. A PBS recipe website had this to say: "Chanko served during sumo tournaments features chicken rather than beef because a chicken is considered good luck in sumo. A chicken walks on two legs, not four; similarly, a sumo wrestler loses the match if he is knocked off his feet and touches the ground with his hands or any part of his body." It was pretty chunky.

The wrestlers are all organized into different levels, in a pyramid related to their win/loss record. Pretty much every aspect of these people's lives is governed by their rank. The clothes they can wear, they food they can eat, and how long they can sleep. The people on the bottom rungs have to do everything for the big guys. There's way too much for me to cover here, though. Check out the wikipedia entry for more on the wonderful world of sumo.

After a few hours of the lower grade fights, it was time for the big boys. One of the privileges that the group of upper echelon wrestlers enjoy is a grand entrance. They paraded towards the ring from opposite directions of the stadium, wearing an intricate apron-looking thing called a kesho-mawashi. They are made of colorful silk and the designs on them are surprisingly diverse. In addition to the generic suns, mountains, and eagles, their were some fun ones. One looked like a little mighty mouse holding up his beefy arms. One of the few European guys had the EU flag on his. As the champions filed in, their name and birthplace was announced. Crowd favorites got a lot of noise when they stepped up. Once they had all squished themselves into the circle, they did a little dance, waving their arms around a bit.

The bells of the ball.

I believe this happened twice during the day. That was lucky for me, because I spent the first time by the entrance taking pictures of the wrestlers as they walked in, and I missed the ceremony completely. The second of the little dances is when the very top ranking guys, called yokozuna, enter the ring.

The wrestlers were very polite on their way in. Here a big guy is shaking the hand of a supporter.

The yokozuna get to have their own little entrance ceremony. This is Hakuho breakin it down sumo style.

And then once the little displays were over it was time again for the sound of large amounts of flesh smacking each other. By this time the seats were almost completely filled, and we were sitting in our rightful spot at the back of the arena.

A match goes something like this. The two wrestlers are announced. They stand on their little bases on opposite sides on the ring. They wash their mouth out with a little bamboo ladle of water, then grab a handful of salt and whip it up into the air over the ring as they step inside. Once inside the ring, the big guys have some ceremonial little maneuvers and stretches that they do to prepare themselves. This is the part when they lift their big legs up in the air and stomp the ground, something that I think has reached general awareness in the US. They squat down low and eye ball each other, sending unspoken messages of horrible pain to their opponent. Then, they stand up, walk out of the ring, and do it all over again. The highest ranked fighters did this several times, while the guys at the beginning of the day didn't get to do it at all.

A wrestler's thrown salt in midair.

The winner is the guy who can either push his opponent out of the ring, or cause his opponent to touch the ground with something other than the soles of the feet. Occasionally there would be a sneaky guy would would try to dodge the initial thrust of his opponent and push him down with his own momentum, matador style. Kind of a cheap way to win, but it worked.

The wrestlers are expected to be stoic and not show the pride or shame they feel after a bout. One though, was sort of the class clown. He showed little glimpses of an American professional wrestler hidden inside. The masses in the arena had a special little cheer for him, and he sort of “pumped up” before the match like you might expect Hulk Hogan to do. In the end he lost the match, but rather than march blank faced out of the arena, he hung his head a little in sadness. Everyone let out a big “awww”. I imagine sumo has an interesting time balancing its tradition with its need to be entertaining. Somebody has to buy this product in order to keep the lights on, after all.

Here is the score board marking the win and losses of the day.

On a couple of occasions the judges all met in the center of the ring to deliberate on a close call. Pretty similar to just about every other sport humanity plays.

The end of the night was marked by another cool little dance. This one was done with twirling a large bow around. I seem to recall it has something to do with being thankful for victory.

And that concludes my coverage of the little traveler that could. I plotted the cities out on a little map to give you a better understanding of the photographic warpath I burned through the country. Enjoy.

View Larger Map

Thursday, October 16, 2008

10/16/08 Its Votin' Time!

My absentee voter's packet appeared in my mail slot today. Its nice to still be a small part of the democratic process despite the distance between myself and my homeland. Luckily the internets allow me to be just as informed as anyone when choosing a candidate.

Mmm, smells like liberty.

From talking with Tung I learned that the Australian government requires citizens to vote, with a fine imposed on those who don't. While it is nice for an important civic responsibility like voting to be encouraged, I think that requiring it isn't such a great idea. If a person doesn't have the time or interest to vote, they most likely don't have the time or interest necessary to develop an informed opinion on the character and politics of the candidates. I think its best if these people not be forced to make a decision.

One of my favorite campy movies, Starship Troopers, is set in a future where humanity is at war with an alien race. Its definitely low budget science fiction, but it is loosely based on a book with some interesting views on society(I've only seen summaries of this book, but I hope to actually read it one of these days). In this world, one becomes a citizen through military service rather than by birth or declaration. I wonder if this would be a good idea for the present day United States. Exclusively requiring military service for citizenship is a bit harsh, but there could be other opportunities such as the peace corp or other domestic alternatives. Would it be fair if citizenship was earned by one's actions rather than where one happened to be born, and voting would be a privilege earned only with service?

Occasionally I learn something about my own language from middle school English class. Yesterday was one of those days. My teacher informed me about a rule governing the pronunciation of questions. In English, when a yes or no question is asked, the intonation at the end of the sentence rises. When a more open ended question is asked, the intonation lowers at the end. For example, try saying the following sentences out loud: What is your favorite food? Is pizza your favorite food? Notice the difference in the way you say “food”. I did not know that.

There was a strange addition to my lunch today. "Peanut Honey" is written down there in the pink. Peanuts and sesame seeds are mixed in with a thick honeyish mixture. The kids just ate it right out of the package, so I followed suit. It was like eating peanut brittle before it hardens. A bit strange, and way too sweet for my liking.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

10/15/08 Tokyo Game Show 2008

This Sunday I went to the Tokyo Game Show 2008 with some of the Ashikaga crew. It bore a striking resemblence to last year's show. I think that it might have actually been more crowded than it was last year though. It is located in the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba.

The big ticket game being previewed this year was Resident Evil 5. The little movie about it on display made it look pretty darn cool. I wouldn't have minded checking it out, but the line to play it was 3 HOURS LONG! Ahhhh! Ok, I need to address this. I think that Japan is way too accepting of this waiting in line business. Come on people, can't you give me a ticket with a time to come back on it? Do I really need to be physically in the same spot long enough to give myself a blood clot? This is ridiculous. You might not hear about the dark side of the game show from the usual news outlets, because reporters and other people whose time has value get to go on the business days, which I assume aren't so awful. Bah!

Although I didn't get to see the beloved Resident Evil, I got a chance to play the Dead Rising port for the Wii called Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop. While it is always fun to bash zombies' heads in, I must say that this game is a miss. One of the things that made this game great on Xbox 360 was the huge amount of zombies that can be on the screen at one time. When your character opens a door and finds three hundred undead on the other side, it can be a bit unnerving, but in a good way. I think that the Wii's hardware limitations will really take some of the flair away from this game, as I hear that only 100 enemies can be onscreen. That combined with a general arcade style overhall makes the game feel like it is geared towards very casual players with short attention spans. Catch the 360 version if you wanna be cool.

While waiting in line we were given these cards that explain the controls. They even had an English one! Its a nice idea considering the copious amount of free time that a line provides. Studying this also lets one avoid looking like a dope when everyone is watching you play.

Just as last year, a highlight of the show is all of the people dressed up as video game characters. Most of these people are very serious, and often their costumes are flawless. I wondered how they constructed some of their props. Unfortunately I only recognized a few of the characters.

Here are some random people preparing.

They seemed to have a pretty tight community going on, and often they were taking pictures of eachother. Here are a couple of girls from Street Fighter taking shots of Tidus from Final Fantasy X.

This was my favorite group of the day. These are just about movie-quality representations of Rikku, Tidus, and Yuna from Final Fantasy X, and yes I realize that I am a big nerd.

Here is a short little clip of the costume area. It is located between two giant buildings.

Next are a few shots to give a bit of perspective on the show.

Our crew has a few new faces. Kim, Clarence, Me, Shaun, Joe, and Zishan.

It was fun, but I think that this will be my last Game Show, one way or another.

Later in the day I found something beautiful. Its a claw game with Nintendo cartridges inside! I know! Wow!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

10/8/08 Korean War National Museum

Today and yesterday the kids have been experiencing the joy of school-wide exams. Bad for them, good for me. It gives me a bit of time to address the magical, self replenishing stack of papers on my desk that need grading. There is an English listening component to each classes' tests, which I record a tape for. The tape is then played over the intercom at the appropriate time. They say that everyone hates the sound of their own voice. How about the sound of that voice reverberating through the halls?

I stumbled onto a bit of Springfield news on the internets. It seems that The Korean War National Museum(website here) is slated to be constructed in Springfield, "across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum". An article on the project features some comments from advisory board member Buzz Aldrin, famed astronaut and Vietnam veteran. I look forward to visiting the museum, especially after the lengthy introduction to the war I received at the War Museum of Korea in Seoul, although its probable that the point of views expressed will be similar between allies. The museum should be a welcome addition to the tourism opportunities available in my hometown.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

10/6/08 On Japanese Social Networking Sites

I found this article on that I thought was interesting. It comments on Japanese society in relation to social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, or the Japanese native Mixi. I can personally relate to this article. I signed up to Mixi about 2 years ago in order to stay in touch with Japanese friends after I returned to the US. It was really a pain finding the people whom I know. Someone would add me as their friend, and I would check out their page to try to figure out who they were, only to find a picture of a dog wearing a hat. No additional photos. What the heck!?

One paragraph is especially striking. It concerns the online dating site

Match has increased its paying users in Japan by tailoring its approach to better fit marriage-minded Japanese women, timing advertising campaigns with national holidays when they travel home and face pressure from parents to find a mate.

Maybe its just me, but this sounds a bit predatory.

10/5/08 A Baseball Game, Finally!

I finally got to see a baseball game in Japan. My friend Kazu invited us to a match in Yokohama, which is south of Tokyo and takes almost three hours to reach by train. The home team is called the Yokohama Baystars, but Kazu loves the Hiroshima Carp, hence the slightly distant venue. I would still like to check out the Tokyo Dome where the Giants play one of these days.

Unfortunately for my friend, the Carp ended up getting their faces stomped 14 to 5. He wasn't very happy.

What should I mention? First of all, the field was a bit different. In addition to everything being much smaller than I am used to, everything was artificial. The grass was all AstroTurf, and the diamond looked artificial as well. Only a small patch around the bases was even dirt, I assume to allow players to slide.

There were people walking up and down the isles selling beer just like in the US. They sold beer Japanese style, though. They would just walk around and do a little wave, rather than yelling "BEER!" at the top of their lungs all day.

I felt that it was absolutely necessary to have a hotdog. Everything was there, the meat, the bun, ketchup & mustard, but wow, they sure don't taste like they do at home. The mustard that is often available in Japan is interesting. It has lots of little mustard seeds mixed into it which gives it a nice texture, and it contains some wasabi for an added kick. Not bad.

The fans in the outfield were divided according to what team they supported. I was impressed by the number of Carp fans present. They were close to equal the number of home team fans, despite being based on the opposite end of the country. Die hard, I guess.

Speaking of die hard, the fans exhibited more of the ultra organized cheering that I have come to love. They had a small band and several little cheer routines, bearing some resemblance to the fans at the soccer game.

Here is a tiny bit of a kind of two layered wave type cheer.

We had several hours of free time before we needed to catch our train home, so we did a bit of walking around. Yokohama has a vibrant Chinatown, and I had a good appetite, so it worked out pretty well.

I am a big fan of Chinatowns in general. They are always so colorful and bustling.

This display bowl of plastic soup even had a spoon suspended from it. Next there will be plastic hands holding forks.

It was a very satisfying day.

Here are a couple of fake news clips that I thought were funny. Enjoy.

Is our wealth hurting Africa's feelings?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

10/02/08 The Sports Festival, The Second Time Around

Today there were no classes due to the annual sports festival. It seems strange to have this and the tournament day so close to each other, but no one is going to hear me complain about it. This morning was actually a bit cold, and it was misting rain intermittently, a pretty rough time to be running around outside. I sat under one of the many tents most of the time, half watching the kids play and half working on my kanji. I've gotta learn 300 of those little beasts.

The kids competed with each other based on which little class they are in. They did group jump rope, tug of war, relay races, and a few other things I have only seen in Japan. I didn't bother taking any photos this time, as I feel like I covered it pretty well last year. As far as I could tell, it was the exact same program only with a few new faces. You can relive the magic and see the story and video of the practice here, and the blog about the real deal festival is here.

Several parts, most notably the marching and the calisthenics, seem a bit militaristic at times. Watching them practice sometimes felt like watching a little boot camp. Most of the students seem to really enjoy it, though, so whatever. During one marching practice, some of the kids in the back row mentioned something about North Korea, then he and his buddies did a bit of sarcastic goosestepping when their teachers weren't looking. Maybe there is hope for these kids after all.

I've been trying to keep up with the news on the American economy, but the situation seems to be changing so fast that I can't keep up. All of this delicious news has been a smorgasbord for the likes of John Stewart and Steven Colbert. I think that they have a really good position for commenting on our society. They can say whatever they want as long as its funny, but it often comes out very true as well. Stewart especially comes down with some scathing commentary that I cant seem to find anyplace else.

Here are a few of my favorite clips from the Daily Show episode on September 25th. Alas, they are a couple of days old, but they age like a fine ginger ale. Enjoy.