風になりたい! Kaze ni naritai! 

A look at life in Japan through big, round, gaijin eyes. Relfections on life in Japan, America, from the faceless streets of Tokyo. Let's blogging!

Monday, January 31, 2005

Real food, for a change

Living in Japan is all about experiencing Japanese food. Since my buddy from Gtown, TJ, has been visiting since the 23rd of January, I've been enjoying some actual meals. Normally I eke out my existence by taking extra portions of 給食(shool lunch), and making frequent runs to the closest コンビニ (convenience store, or konbini)--the 7-11 about 2 minutes from my house. And even though my friend says he could spend hours exploring the marvels of the Japanese konbini, making someone eat nothing but cheap bentos and instant ramen (normally a quality meal, not to be confused with the crap stuff that I ate back home) is no way to treat a guest. Of course, gracious hosts end up with empty wallets and expanded waistlines, but I'm not complaining too much!
Here are some of the epicurian delights we indulged in on before I left TJ in Kyoto and took the overnight bus back home Sunday night to get back to work. It's a good sample of Japanese food, but by no means exhaustive! He's here for another week, after all...

  • Sunday, Jan. 23rd - Shinjuku, dinner: しゃぶしゃぶ食べ放題! 90 minutes of all you can eat shabu shabu (raw beef you boil at your table fondue style). Just a few seconds from bloody to burning your mouth! Only 1600 yen, just a few minutes from the West Exit of Shinjuku Station!
  • Monday, Jan. 24th- central Tokyo, breakfast: 築地市場で寿司! Nothing better for breakfast after a night out on the town in Roppongi than super fresh sushi at Tsukiji fish market. 大トロ、生うにも挑戦!At Tsukiji, the fish is pretty much still breathing. Splurging on an 8 dollar piece of fatty tuna (o-toro) is totally worth it, as is the fresh sea urchin (nama uni), which Rudy thinks looks like... nevermind! Even at 6am, my standard tuna, salmon, and scallop nigiri all melt in my mouth. Tsukiji we love you!
  • Monday, Jan. 24th- Fujiyoshida, dinner: 焼き魚、キムチ鍋、餅入り鍋うどん+初めての馬刺し After a tough karate practice, a special treat from Sensei, who foots most of the bill. We hit up a local 居酒屋(izakaya, or Japanese-style bar)for some grilled fish, a kimchi and seafood hotpot, and some basashi (*raw* horse sashimi). Not only a regional favorite, according to Sensei basashi is great for stamina in battle. We top the meal off with Yoshida udon with mochi in a hotpot. Starchy! 先生、ごちそう様!押す!
  • Tuesday, Jan. 25th- Fujiyoshida, lunch:美也川で吉田うどん Snuck away from school for some 冷したぬきうどん(hiyashi tanuki udon), a local cold udon noodle specialty. Fujiyoshida is famous for udon. Many families (about 47, according to the Yoshida Udon map) open up their living rooms at lunchtime only to serve handmade udon noodles to hungry customers for 300-500 yen a bowl. It's a phenomenon unique to Fujiyoshida. Favorites are hiyashi tanuki(cold noodles with wasabi, tempura crispies, and cabbage), nikuten (hot soup with beef or horse and fried veggies), and tsuke udon (cold noodles with a bowl of hot soup). The only hard part is deciding where to eat.
  • Tuesday, Jan. 25th-Fujiyoshida, dinner: 回転すし Kaiten sushi joints are to Japan what pizza places are to America. Ubiquitous, affordable, delicious family fare! Fresh--well... defrosted, at least-- sushi rotates around the restaurant on a conveyor belt. Customers choose and pile up color coded plates of various prices, depending on the rarity/quality of the fish, though chains like kappa sushi offer everything for 100¥. Though the point is cheap, delicious seafood, there are fries and fried chicken (and octopus) for folks like my dad who think sushi is for "sick, twisted, sorry excuses for human beings" Actually, I once saw the Captain put down 24 plates and 3 pieces of cake... so it's possible my dad is right.
  • Wednesday, Jan. 26th- Kawaguchiko, dinner: 韓国風焼肉+牛刺しチャレンジ Wednesday night we gathered the troops for grill-your-own Korean BBQ! Copious amounts of juicy red meat. No need to fire up the old Weber out back--there are gas grills at the center of every table. Order the cuts you like and fire away. As an added bonus, ひのまるin Kawaguchiko offers gyuu-sashi, that is raw beef, for the brave souls among you. Can you say BSE?
  • Thursday, Jan. 27th-Shibuya, late-night snack: たこ焼き Only once, my dad made the mistake of asking what I had eaten for dinner over the phone. Upon hearing my enthusiastic reply, he spit out, "Octopus Balls? What the hell did they do to you over there?" before hanging up to go retch up his breakfast. Not those balls, dad! Takoyaki are round, golden, doughy goodness with a chewy piece of octupus in the center cooked in a special griddle like pan. 10 for 600 yen at the chain store 銀だこ, found in Shibuya and nationwide. Not TJ's favorite, but great for festivals or anytime!
  • Friday, Jan. 28th - Shinjuku, dinner: 豆腐料理 Nothing says 和食like tofu. There's always a wait at the popular 月の雫 (Drops of the Moon) restaurant chain in Tokyo. Light, healthy, delicious food and a very Japanese ambiance make it one of my favorite Japanese restaurants.
  • Saturday, Jan. 29th - Kyoto, lunch: ざるそば Cold buckwheat noodles served on a bamboo lattice with a special soy sauce, nori seaweed, and wasabi. Nothing could be more appropriate as a quick lunch stop while temple-hopping in Japan's historical and cultural epicenter. Some like it hot, but for me, nothing but zarusoba!
  • Saturday, Jan. 29th - Kyoto, dinner:焼き鳥 Yakitori! Chicken + sticks + fire = good!
  • Sunday, Jan. 30th - Kyoto, dinner: もつ鍋 The last item on our list, and certainly the most daring. Nabe hotpot you boil at the table made with miso soup broth, veggies, and cow innards. In this case, mostly tripe (which is why we preferred to think of it as "fish" while we were eating). Soft and sweet, the meat melts in your mouth! Add a glass of plum wine and it's pure bliss. As the menu said, "もつ鍋のだしは命だ" (Motsu nabe soup is life!)

(note: written Monday, Jan 31st; posted Feb 2nd)

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Something I don't love about Japan

I got a skymail on my keitai [mobile phone] from Juri tonight that read (translated):
"I'm sad, because a Korean woman who lives in Japan, named Ms. Chong, lost an appeal in the Japanese Supreme Court. Japan is a country that discriminates against foreigners without hesitation. There's no future for a country like that."

I didn't know what Juri was talking about, but later she explained. Chong was born in Japan but is a Korean citizen, even though her mother is Japanese. Her father is also South Korean. Juri wasn't sure of all the details, but she knew that Chong had been denied the opportunity to take a test for a promotion to a management-level position at her job because she was a foreigner. Originally there were no regulations in place about foreigners taking that particular test, but after Chong's application was rejected the first time a stipulation was added that the test was only open to Japanese citizens the next year. Chong sued on the basis that this violated the Japanese constitution, which guarantees the equality of all people under the law and bars against discrimination based or race or origin. She lost because the court decided that there were other positions available in other fields that allowed foreigners to get promotions, so that her right to work in a position of authority was not being violated. She just had chosen the wrong line of work. Chong appealed this decision and won, in 1997.

"Fast forward" 7 years through the Japanese legal system. Chong still hadn't gotten the monetary award dictated by the appeals court because there had been another appeal by the original defendants to the supreme court. Not only did it take 7 years to hear the case, but today the 15 judge panel decided 13 to 2 against Chong. The decision, ironic given that Japan is currently caught in the throes of a 韓流[Korean style/media] boom, sets a frustrating legal precedent. It becomes just another obstacle standing in the way of foreigners, especially people of Korean descent, getting true equal treatment in Japan.

Japan is famous for its insider vs. outsider social structures, the broadest being我々日本人[we the Japanese]vs. 外国人(gaikokujin--literally outside/strange country people). As a gaikokujin--frequently shortened to 外人[gaijin], or just outsider/stranger--living in Japan I find it impossible not to get caught up sometimes in the us vs. them mindset. I think in terms of Japanese and foreigners. I watch my friend Todd, visiting from America for 2 weeks, make a "gaijin" faux-pas by standing in the wrong place while changing from his shoes to a pair of slippers at a visit to my school and I want to come apologize to someone for him. At the same time, I tell my students in class to make sure to talk to him, because it's rare for them to meet a "real foreigner" who is completely new to the social customs and rules of Japan.

A lot of times I feel caught in the middle, and thus the ultimate outsider. I am not Japanese, and I never will be. Yet I speak Japanese, I live in Japan, and I know (at least) the surface level of Japanese etiquette. I am not like other "foreigners," people who live outside of Japan and know nothing about what it is like here, but that makes me no more "Japanese" in the eyes of 我々日本人. It just makes me an exceptional foreigner--outside of other outsiders even. Living here creates a confusing tension inside of me: it's not that I want to give up my identity or be treated like I was Japanese-just that it grows tiring to be always be thought of as different (not in an individual sense), of being pre-judged based on my foreignness, and of ultimately being separated from the people around me--even close friends.

From a Western perspective, it is easy to throw stones at the insider/outsider mentality and not see it's merits (especially the security and identity it provides for people on the inside). Besides, Neither myself nor anyone I know personally has yet to experience the type of discrimination faced by Ms. Chong (who in America would be an American citizen--yet is gaijin in Japan). In fact, for the most part I am still treated by many people like an honored guest. Still, after 2 and a half years, it'd be ok be treated with a little less politeness and formality. Politeness can be just as effective a barrier between people as rudeness.

Anyway, the silver lining is that at least my girlfriend is open-minded and introspective about the situation in Japan. I'm lucky to have found her, and luckier still that she'll have me. Still, as much as I am worried about the situation of other gaijin in Japan, I wonder just as much how in an increasingly internationalized world Japan can continue to function without changing the way it looks at foreign nations and foreign people. It would seem either the current attitude or Japanese relevance in the international community will have to give way.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Things I love in Japan

Fresh seafood

富士五湖The Fujigoko

Mario-Style Magic Mushrooms

激辛ラーメン"Extremely" Spicy Ramen

Going home from school

The girl. Juri Kanno

Friday, January 14, 2005

Haiku #1

Man, yesterday's post was a mess... That's what happens when I have an afternoon with nothing to do...

Anyway, here's the first in what I hope will be a series of haiku. I've never done this before, so bear with me.

You probably know that the format for haiku is 3 lines of 5, 7, and then 5 syllables. In Japanese, each Japanese character has a vowel sound in it (except the nasal sound n, which can be a syllable by itself, though it has no meaning without another character). However, the Japanese almost always use Chinese kanji in addition to the two sets of Japanese characters, hiragana (which are rounded-looking) and katakana (which are more angular). Kanji, which usually look more complicated than the Japanese kana, often have readings that are more than one syllable. Haiku must be about nature, and it is normal to use 季語 (kigo), or words that relate to the four seasons. Really good haiku have many meanings and interpretations packed into seventeen little syllables, often hinging on multiple readings of the same characters/syllables. I'll let you know when I get that good.

So this one is in honor of the evening's weather forecast. I'll write it with kanji, then in kana, then in a romanized form of Japanese called romaji. Then I'll write it in English. I kept it in 5-7-5 form even if that meant I had to be creative on the translation and use the crappy word, "aroma." Sorry if your browser can't read Japanese. Also sorry I can't make it look right unless I line em up vertically.

chiru bosetsu
takibi no nioi
fuyu no kaze
snowfall at twilight
the aroma of woodsmoke
the winter wind

Thursday, January 13, 2005

気をつけ!礼! Back to school for 2005

So today we're back in business at Fujimidai Junior High School after winter break. A lot of people ask what Japanese school is like. I thought I'd describe part of the first day back in a little detail, because a lot of little differences come out. I think it could go without saying that in my third year, I'm showing signs of jadedness. When I first arrived, a day like today would have been filled with wonder and confusion. Familiarity breeds boredom.

Honestly it's hard to feel like I'm not a student myself as long as I have summer and winter vacation. There's the same sort of excitment to see my coworkers and students that I used to get, mixed with the dread of actually having to be at work again. Winter vacation in Japan is especially long it seems. The second school term finished up on December 24th, and the third term starts today, 3 weeks later. My coworkers have been coming to work every day and "working hard" with all the paperwork that would be handled by administration/guidance in America but is dealth with by the other teachers, but I've done little more than make a few afternoon cameos. Coming in, even while on break isn't so bad--there's a more relaxed, almost fun atmosphere to the large, common teachers' room that evaporates when the students are around. Still, something about working during vacation bothers me. I'm supposed to have taken vacation days for all the days I didn't come to school, but I chose to play the "get out of responsability free card" that I get as a foreigner. Anyway, the end of winter break means it's the first day that the students (many of whom came to school almost every day during vacation for club activities or to see their friends) and I absolutely have to report.

Not that real classes (meaning actual teaching for me) begin or anything. After the morning staff meeting and homeroom for the kiddies, it's time for the opening ceremony at 9am. The students and faculty members stand/sit on the wooden floor of the unheated, uninsulated gym. The girls are in skirts (with the waistbands rolled up to make them as short as possible), of course. Students line up by class and gender with first years in the center, 2nd years on the right, and 3rd year students on the left. The head teacher (教務主任-kyomu shunin) barks at them to form straighter lines, and then announces that the opening statement will begin the ceremony. He calls us all to attention and directs us to bow to the school vice principal (教頭 kyo-to), a small, nervous, man with square glasses and two gold front teeth, who has mounted the stage to deliver the formulaic opening address. Kyoto-sensei intones in his high-pitched voice: "Good morning...Thank you for your attention on this very[fill in the weather, i.e. cold] morning... I humbly accept the honorable duty to announce the start of the opening ceremony for the 3rd term of the 2004-2005 academic year... Now, let the opening ceremony for the 3rd term of the 2004-2005 academic year commence... Thank you very much," and then we stand at attention and bow again. This was followed by (attention, bow!) a mumbled rendition of the first verse of the school song led by the music teacher with piano accompaniment provided by a 3rd year boy--white breath puffing in front of the faces of the few students actually singing. The words are on the far wall of the gym in white letters against a wooden background, and I've never stood close enough to actually read all of them... then another attention! Bow!

The head teacher calls for a representative from each grade to make a speech. (Attention, bow!) Three pre-selected students are called forward. First up, from the first years (7th grade) is Shoma-kun. (Attention, bow!) Shoma is a cool kid in training. But he is a good student, so I can't hold that against him. Last I knew, one of the 3rd grade girls was dating him because apparently she prefers cute, pre-pubescent boys who have yet to develop secondary sexual characteristics to hormone charged adolescents. He's a little nervous so he's talking too fast and the mike is too tall, but he's worked hard on his speech even though he's just a lowly first year. Apparently, he confesses, in the first term, the first year students didn't know anything and were still learning how to be junior high school students. Second term, they started to fall into some bad patterns of behaviour. They weren't in their seats when the chime sounded (students have 10 minutes between classes and don't have to change classrooms), they were loud and disruptive, and frequently late to school in the morning. Some students were caught cheating, others brought their mobile phones to school, and still others were punished for fighting. Nor were their grades particularly good. Nor their exploits in club activities very impressive. Etc. They were a disgrace to the school and they were lucky that everyone was so patient with them. Fortunately third term offers them a chance to turn things around. A litany of promised improvements follows and Shoma finishes his speech. (Attention, bow! applause).

Next (attention, bow!) is Erika-chan, for the 2nd year students. She is the quiet, bookish type, but the 2nd grade teachers are impressed by her grades and trying to mine her for leadership qualities. After all, her classmates are... well... lacking in positive leadership qualities. Her speech is better than Shoma's--at least she delivers it more slowly and hits the mike. After a few apologies for the blight that they have been on the school reputation so far, she focuses on the positive direction that her grade seems to be moving in. At the end of the last term, after one of the 2nd grade homeroom teachers was stressed back into medical leave and with the other preparing for maternity leave, they called on themselves to start actually paying attention in class. As they get ready to move onto third grade soon, she calls on her classmates to continue improving their classroom behavior and attitudes. They have to start being serious now that they're approaching the one year out of their first 9 years of school that actually counts. (Attention, bow! applause)

Now Asuka-chan (attention, bow!) is up for the third graders. She is a good kid, one of the shining stars of her year. She starts by pointing out that even though their last year of junior high has only 30 days of class left, it's still not to late to fix the problems and go down in history as a good year at Fujimidai. They have to be better about being on time, paying attention in class, not getting out of their seats, not talking over the teachers, not fighting, not breaking windows, and following school uniform codes, not smoking cigarrettes in the baseball clubhouse, getting good grades, and most importantly passing their entrance exams. But there's no reason why they can't mend their ways for the last little push up until graduation! (attention, bow! applause).

The main event (attention, bow!) is the address from the school principal (校長 ko-cho). Fortunately my kocho-sensei is comparatively short-winded, which means only 5-10 minutes of a rambling, off the cuff speech. My old kocho-sensei could impart his wisdom on the students for 20 minutes or more without ever using a logical transition to junction two trains of thought. Still, I liked his speeches though. He tended to shoot for the moon with some lofty ideas and beautiful imagery. My current principal tends to be less subtle, and a lot more banal: cherry blossoms in the spring, changing leaves in the fall--nothing far from orthodox. He is the big-shot at the school, so he doesn't apologize or reflect on the honor of being on the stage. Besides the obligatory weather commentary, today's speech includes a brush stroke over the tsunami victims, a tangent about old people falling asleep at the wheel and Kocho-sensei's own impending old age which segues into a reflection on the briefness of life being like the briefness of the rest of the school year (which ends in March), and a stirring call to make every day important, one day at a time (attention, bow!) .

Finally, (attention, bow!) Kyoto-sensei is back for the closing statement of the ceremony. After a few He extols the merits of having a healthy student body and implores us to be careful of falling on ice, getting in traffic accidents, or burning ourselves to death. Then he concludes the opening ceremony. (Attention, bow!) and comes down off the stage.

Of course, that means it's time to start the awards presentation ceremony (attention, bow!)... which means Kyoto-sensei has to climb back up on the stage for his next opening address (attention, bow!). I will spare most of the details. This time it's an academic award ceremony for 2nd term, the keynote address is from Akio sensei (who is the gym teacher--a former sumo wrestler-- and is kind of funny), and the students are allowed to sit (at attention, ready to bow at any time.) Otherwise the same.

After the ceremonies (believe it or not that was only about 45 minutes) there is a big school cleanup, which means there is a big water fight with the hose for the 3rd graders. For the students, the hour of cleaning time is really 10 minutes of chatting while holding brooms, while the staff run around and try to keep the peace. Fun stuff. Eventually, they go off and do homeroom stuff, lunch happens, and then round 1 of the post-vacation tests. After cleaning, with the other teachers involved in proctoring the test/administrative duties, I spend the rest of the day trying to look busy on the internet... Unfortunately, my desk is next to the stove in charge of heating the whole teachers' room, which means I'm in constant mortal peril. I'm looking forward to spending the next two months trying to keep from accidentally combusting.

And so it goes until I eventually I go home... if I don't fall asleep at my desk first...

Monday, January 10, 2005

Faces of Kamo Danchi and Fuji Goko