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!

Sunday, February 27, 2005

白馬:五竜 Ski Resort

Our heroes after a long day at Goryu, in Hakuba, Nagano


五竜: 5 dragons? Nice snow with some deep powder up top. No goggles in a whiteout snowstorm=stupid=me.
Props to the peeps at the Lady Diana & St. George's Hotel. That was some good 鍋 (hotpot).

Next stop, Gtown alumni luncheon at noon, today. So, goodnight.

Friday, February 25, 2005


It's Friday, and it's been too long a week to make an effort at a real post. Have some quick hit stuff that isn't good enough for it's own post instead.

-I recommend you check out Todd's Japan album on www.ofoto.com. You can also see some of my old, unorganized albums. Login email: very_fuji_dream@hotmail.com; Password: fujimidai; under "My friends albums."

-Price of a set of school uniforms for Fujigakuen private high school: about 240,000 yen (approx $2,414US at current exchange rates)

-Actual email sent to myself and a few other folks around here:

The following is no joke, I actually had this crazy dream last night.In my dream I was captured, and somehow ended up in North Korea. When I arrived, I was informed that I was to perform for Kim Il Jong's birthday party. Feeling very confused, I asked for them to give me a cello, since that's the only thing I can really perfomance with. However, they had no cellos and gave me a double bass instead. I didn't want to say I don't know how to play double bass, because, well it's N. Korea and you don't want to piss Kim Il off. But at the last instant it was decided that, because I live in Japan, it would be more entertaining if I performed the MatsuKen Samba instead. So, I actually dreamt that I performed the matsuken samba for Kim Il Jong.I'm going nuts apparently. Paul

-Reply from Peter: re:> >"I'm going nuts apparently." And you're getting uglier by the minute!

-"You're asking me if I'll be ready?!" Andy, responding to my inquery on whether or not he had finished packing for a weekend ski trip.

-Survey results for my 7th graders (中1年生): Favorite place to be at school: #1 gym, #2 bathroom; Favorite time of day: #1 school lunch, #2 sleeping; Desired age for marriage: #1 (tie) 16, 25

- "You mean other ALTs speak English to their students? What are we gonna do next year?"- Soon to be graduating 9th grader

-In Japan, it's generally accepted that your blood type denotes your personality. At a staff dinner party on Wednesday, my coworkers were discussing everyone based on their type. I raised a few eyebrows by saying I disagreed with the theory. But I positively floored everyone when I told them I'm type A--the punctual, neat freak, task master of the four types. "Ok, we can see why you don't believe the theory!"

-I am the only person I know who doesn't have snow tires or chains on my car at the moment. People look at my car and are stunned. Well, that and the fact that the bumpers are slowly falling off. I miss my old car--but I only have to survive with this one til August...

-At enkai dinners (the aforementioned dinner party being an example) the price of the food and the taste are inversely proportional.

Alright, time to head home. I'm off to Nagano for some boarding tomorrow. Should be good times. じゃあ、ね

Thursday, February 24, 2005

春一番 VS.大雪

Yesterday, the 春一番(haru ichi ban), the first wind of spring blew through the Fujigoko. Tonight, 30 centimeters of snow is dumping on us.

When Andy first got to Fujiyoshida, he remarked (or so I hear), "it looks like a battle between man and nature, and nature's winning." The Japanese are supposed to be very in tune with nature because of their Shinto roots, or so we're told in the West. Thus it's always shocking to see the way the construction industry has ravaged the once beautiful Japanese countryside since the Japanese began rebuilding their country in the latter half of the 20th century. Modern Japan is obsessed with concrete and neon. The Japanese line their rivers (and everything else) in concrete, block out the sky with wires, build dams and electrical towers on every mountain, and seem to think the only thing better than burning trash is throwing it into the woods. And yet almost in spite of all this, the power of nature is keenly felt here.
Maybe it's the earthquakes that shake the ground every little while, hinting at destruction. Maybe it's the the sudden downpours and the spring thaws that flood the paved rivers, overflow the dams, and tear the steel lattices off the hillsides, sending them tumbling down onto the never-should-have-been-built mountain roads below. Maybe it's the silent cone of Fuji-san, sleeping, for now, in a dream of inevitable fire, like a poem waiting to be written. As a foreigner, sometimes I feel I can only guess what it is that gives nature such influence here over the rhythms and cadences of Japanese life.
In Tokyo, which is just about the most unnatural place on the face of the planet, the turn of the seasons and the weather somehow resonate with the people there, even though to me to the city represents the triumph of the manmade. There's a strange minor key harmony between the nature still left here and that which threatens to destroy it for good, but I often have trouble hearing the notes. I'm used to nature being big, bold, and beautiful, not small, subtle, and fading. Yet one of the most stunning things I've seen since coming here is snow falling on the A-bomb Dome in Hiroshima.

You can say many things about this time of year in Japan. Spring is upon us; the 春一番has blown. Yet it's also 残雪の頃, the time of the remaining snow, lining the sides of the roads in stubborn dirty piles that refuse to melt. If I was Japanese, I wonder if I would understand that in my bones in a different way than I do as an American.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


Happy birthday, Roundy!


Monday, February 21, 2005

It's very catch a cold...

Alas, 3 days of teaching elementary students last week caught up to me over the weekend, as I went down with a nasty cold(風邪). By Friday afternoon, I was running a mild fever, and I was in bed by 6pm. I spent the weekend in bed with a fever, blocked ears and sinuses, sore throat, runny nose, massive internal and external bleeding... etc.

In Japan, nothing will get you out of work quicker than a cold. At the first sniffle or cough, everyone wants to know (with a horrified look of concern?) 「風邪ですか?」"Jason-sensei, catch cold?" If indeed, I did... catch cold... there are only a few possible cures.
  1. The first is immediate hospitalization. This is the best bet, according to my co-workers. Just imagine if America had good, cheap national health care... Over here the hospital is the place to be. (I hear there's a law that nurses have to be single women under 25 years old, but I have yet to verify if this is true or not.) The doctors and, by extension, the actual treatments can be dangerous though...or so I hear.
  2. Option two is bed rest. In this situation, since I don't live with my mother, any of my middle aged female co-workers would gladly come over and play the role. God forbid a young single man take care of himself. Since I would hate to have someone clean up around my apartment, I'd have no choice but to decline their generous offers, probably insulting them all in the process. In that case our working relationships would be forever damaged.
  3. Option 3 is a ninja mask. Although most people who have colds are left for dead, anyone who decides to put on a white gauze surgical mask and continue going to work is being tough and must be respected. Plus that person has the option to carry around swords and throwing stars at all times to relieve pent up stress. (Unfortunately, my "high" foreign nose was not taken into account when the ninja mask was designed. It doesn't exactly keep the bad air in me or the good air out of me, or whatever it's supposed to do because it's perched a good distance away from my face as opposed to making a tight seal.)
  4. The last option is a plastic eye patch. I'm not quite sure how this works, but there are too many of them, worn for way too short a time period for them to be treating anything other than a runny nose or itchy throat. Gotta love a Japanese woman done up in impeccable makeup wearing expensive designer clothing (and carrying the appropriate Louis Vuitton bag) with a white plastic eyepatch on. That'll zap that cold!

Anyway, I was sick on Saturday and Sunday, but well enough to head to school this morning. The worst way to time it, or so I would have thought. I actually said something to my dad like, "at least I didn't miss any work," on the phone this morning. I must have still been delirious. Missed Saturday's karate practice though... without a serious injury (loss of a limb, 3rd degree burns) to use as an excuse. At least during the moments of clarity when the fever subsided I was able to work on the script for my upcoming martial arts action film, which I'm tentatively calling, Fist of Beating 1:Not Yet Subtitled . Below is a scene from the training of the two young protagonists. Eventually they will have a falling out and start rival factions, probably because of the death of an honored senpai.

Unfortunately, the two handsome fighters pictured here in the shooting of the of the promo trailer fell through the ice and may have succumbed to hypothermia. Or maybe it's just catch a cold(-o).

Thursday, February 17, 2005

the useless mushroom


The Japanese word for mushroom is "kinoko." Please let me know if you think of a way to use this. (No, I cannot hold it over my head and get taller. Shut up.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


I'm sitting here in a staff meeting. We've spent the first 49 minutes discussing suggestions by the student council about such controversial and stimulating topics as enforcing the uniform codes, asking students to be in their seats at the bell (remember, Japanese kids have 10 minutes between classes and don't change classrooms), and most daring-- checking student bags for prohibited items (candy, manga, magazines, makeup, cell phones, weapons, pets, etc.). Important stuff, but there's no end in sight, and several of the less interested teachers have died during the procedings. Later we will have to report this to their families, and it will be a tragic scene.

Since I'll be here awhile, I thought I'd take a chance to answer a letter from a faithful reader. Actually, I'm not sure if he's faithful or not. In fact, I'm pretty sure he'd never even read my blog before I told him I'd answer his question in this forum. I'd be willing to do this regularly, so if you've got any other questions about Japan, hit me up with an email.

-So I read (on wikipedia.org) that Japan has, as it has with every other Christian holiday, warped Valentine's Day beyond repair. The article claimed that women are obligated to buy all of their male co-workers chocolate. Any truth to this rumor? -Vince

Well, as you may have noticed, Monday was Valentine's Day. Like every civilized country, St. Valentine's Day in Japan is commercialized to the saturation point and beyond. It's not quite as bad as in America, but as soon as the お正月(New Year's) season ends around mid-January, Valentine's Day displays start going up everywhere from high class department stores to the local 7-11. Per most Japanese interpretations of Western events/holidays, most of the meaning (for V-day, idealistically we'll say expressing love, romance, and intimacy) has been completely subverted into mere adherence to a form. As far as I can see, for a change there's one big upside to this. In America, generally there's a fair amount of pressure to get V-day just right: guys better be planning the perfect romantic evening and have bought an thoughtful [expensive] gift; women better not have to spend it at home with their girlfriends watching Bridget Jones. Here there is not enough leeway to get it wrong, really, especially if you're a guy.

The rules are simple. Girls give guys chocolate. Traditionally, if they like a guy, they give him chocolate and say 「好きです」(suki desu), or "I like you." They either have to buy expensive chocolate or hand make it from scratch, using cocoa and a confectionary kit. Since giving chocolate to just that special someone in your school or workplace would cause a scandal, women tend to give chocolate to everyone they have a working relationship/friendship with, or no one. But then they are regarded as a cold bitch by their middle-aged, chauvinistic male colleagues.

Boys should say thank you. If they feel like it, there's White Day on March 14th (a brilliant marketing coup by chocolate companies about 30 years ago) in which men are supposed to give women chocolate. For most married salarymen at least, this means they bring a box of cookies for their favorite lady at their usual hostess bar or soapland. I am sort of exaggerating.

That's it. No rose petals and fragrant bath oils. No intimate dinner at a high priced restaurant (that's Christmas Eve). No requirement to speak to each other or spend time together. Still, this doesn't mean that the week or two before Valentine's Day aren't completely insane. Various products that have no business being chocolatized come with free chocolates or in chocolate varieties. Men are given chocolate if they go to the bank, the electronics store, the grocery store, gym, etc.. Every TV and radio show has to spend time discussing chocolate. FM Fuji, the only FM channel I can get, spends hours responding to reader letters from women aged 12-29 like, "Do you think my man would prefer expensive chocolate, or homemade chocolate?" (either will make him happy, depends on if you want to seem generous or domestic) and "What should I do if he doesn't like chocolate?" (One DJ advised, "Make some chocolate anyway, or he won't know how you feel.") A heartwarming ad for a chocolate company says, "Dear Taro, last year I failed you, but this year I'll do my best!"

I'd say 90-95% of the women in Japan give someone chocolate. Something outlandish like 40% of annual chocolate sales happen in the 2 weeks before Valentine's day. Meanwhile, guys have made it into a sort of popularity contest. "How many girls gave you chocolate, Jason-sensei?" a "cool" fifth grader asked me yesterday at an elementary school visit. "10," I replied (mostly from students). He was crestfallen. "I only got chocolate from 8."

As for me personally... I'm an American. I am just as trained as any Japanese woman to make sure the person I care about gets a present. I definitely got the present right this year. It's a lot easier when I know that if I'd messed up and gotten something she didn't really like, there is no chance Juri would have been upset: if I was Japanese she wouldn't have gotten anything.

As for the other side of the coin, Juri is not one of the masses. Honestly, I couldn't be dating her if she was a typical Japanese girl. Instead of chocolate she gave me a giant, plush Mario Bros.-esque red and white polka-dot mushroom. She explained, "I'm sorry this isn't very useful. It's a mushroom but you can't eat it. It's too small to sit on, and too big to use as a pillow. I tried but it made my neck hurt. It doesn't speak, move, or do anything. You could use it to decorate your house but it's not particularly attractive. In fact, it's completely useless (役に立たない). But I knew you'd like it." That's why I love her.

Wow. The meeting is over! We stood up and bowed and said thank you for tiring yourselves out to the people who were talking the whole time. Not surprisingly nothing was decided. We don't want the students to think that we mistrust them right before graduation (3 weeks away), but we don't want to be too easy on them... Right. I don't care. Time to go home! Until next time, じゃあ、ね.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Quotable TJ, part 2

[Note: if your name doesn't start with the letter j, feel free to skip the first paragraph.]

So, I'd like to start by pointing out that just because Todd said he wasn't really attracted to Japanese girls before he came to Japan doesn't mean he doesn't think you are attractive, dear Japanese ladyfriend who met Todd in Boston with me in November but who shall here remain unnamed so she doesn't lose face. There are complex unwritten rules about what you are supposed to say about your friends' girlfriends in American society.... just um... trust me on this one. Todd had a good time visiting you again, so please stop threatening to crush him already. Really. It's scary. And yes, Josh, in case you were wondering, you did say you were gonna order fish and chips about 47 times before ordering at that pub in Shimokitazawa. We did notice.

Anyway, you can probably extrapolate a bit from the food post from before, but here's a quick rundown of Todd's itinerary:

Arrive at Narita--> Jan 23rd, spend night in Tokyo--> to Fujiyoshida Monday morning-Wednesday--> back to Tokyo on Thursday and Friday--> Kyoto, Saturday and Sunday--> Osaka on Monday--> Hiroshima on Tuesday--> back to Tokyo Wednesday night through Friday--> Sapporo Friday morning through Sunday Feb. 6th--> fly out the evening of the 6th.

I'd recommend a similar route for anyone with a JR railpass for a first time trip to Japan. If you can't spring for the railpass (actually, you are pretty much out of luck if you want to do Japan for cheap), you're probably best off staying just in Kanto, near Tokyo.
Here are some more of Todd's impressions, this time with my notes instead of pictures. Sorry. As before, I'm sure he said this stuff. Kinda. Or if he didn't, I bet he wishes he had.

  • "So basically if I want to sound Japanese, I just have to say 'let's' a lot more?"- Actually, this is true. Japanese speakers of English use the construction "let's + verb" way more than native speakers. This is becuase of the way that "let's" is taught in junior high school as the equivalent of a very common construction in Japanese to express the volition of the speaker the speaker's group ~しまししょう (~shimashou). When compounded with the overuse of the present participle and the verb enjoy, even some English teachers (and people like me whose English has gone Engrish) might say something like, "Let's enjoy having a meal," or worse, "Let's enjoying play snowboard together." Type that in on an internet English/Japanese translation program and I bet you get good Japanese though. One of Todd's favorites was the simple, clearly illustrated, "Let's eat a crab!!!" on a menu. Actually, a menu that features both correct grammar and spelling is pretty rare, so I was impressed.
  • "People here are more polite, but I feel like Americans are more genuine."- Japanese society is based on rules of interaction based on the context of the relationship between people at any given time. A famous characteristic of doing business in Japan is the exchange of business cards. This is so everyone can figure out right off the bat how their status relates to that of everyone else they are working with, and a social pecking order can be smoothly established. Guests and customers have honored places, so as a visitor to Japan you are often blown away by how polite people are. Even at a convenience store, the employees are always (graveyard shift too) polite, friendly, and willing to bend over backwards. Those same employees might act like complete jerks though to obliging workers at another convenience store when the role of served and server are reversed. The biggest problems arise when there is no clear social order, such as when walking through a busy station, or driving. It's everybody for one's self, with literal pushing, shoving, and knocking others out of one's way, sans apologies. No one holds doors, no one yields the right of way, and no one spares a glance even if they slam right into you. It's an incredible contradiction in Japanese society that doesn't really exist in America.
  • "I can't believe you people can do karaoke stone sober. We need that song... 'I think I'm turning Japanese I think I'm turning Japanese'... but it's too late for you all."- Yes, karaoke is big in Japan. But if you go to a karaoke box, it's nothing like an open mike, big room karaoke place in the States. Each party gets it's own small private room with two or more mics, a high tech audio video system, and a little phone for ordering food and drinks. You pay a set fee per person per half hour for the room. Often there are add-on all you can drink packages for alcohol or soft drinks. Non-Japanese songs are limited to more mainstream stuff, but not to the degree that it is impossible to find more eclectic stuff. Unfortunately, the music videos on foreign songs repeat from a small generic pool. Generally, good karaoke manners mean you keep your door shut and stay out of other people's rooms. This is why Todd reported, "those Japanese girls were starting at me like I just came down from Mars," when he burst into another room for a surprise solo on the air guitar.
  • "I dropped my ice cream on the train platform. It was funny. I busted up laughing. But no one else even cracked a smile. I wanted to shake them. 'C'mon, you can laugh! It's ok!' "- As mentioned before Japanese society is based on a lot of complex rules. Laughing at a stranger's mishap would be rude, because you would be causing that person who might have very high status to lose face. Plus, especially in big cities, people get into routines and don't shake them, or rather, can't get outside of them for anything. It's like, "There isn't usually some big strange foreigner here laughing, so there probably isn't today, either." People can be so caught in the mundane that they are unable to see the unordinary.
  • {whispered}"Oh my god... EVERYONE IS JAPANESE!!!!!"- Yeah. That's why after 2 and a half years of living here I refer to me, you, and everyone who is not Japanese foreigners. Todd was surprised that 99% of the people you see anywhere but one small part of Tokyo called Roppongi are the same race. For an American, it's almost completely impossible to comprehend the lack of racial diversity here until you actually see it with your own eyes. It's not an "all Asians look alike" thing. It's hard to explain. The converse is that when I did come home to New York for the first time, back in May 2003, I remember thinking, "Look at all the gaijin everywhere. Weird." Also, you can generally tell how long a foreigner has been in Japan very quickly. If I see another foreigner who has been here a long time, we are both likely to try to completely ignore each others' presence. Newcomers always gawk, maybe even strike up a conversation.
  • "It seems like there is more money here than in America... except it doesn't."- It is hard to figure out why everyone has designer clothes and (the same hideous) Louis Vuitton bags and yet my house does not have insulation, heating, or air conditioning. People change high tech cell phones like I go through disposable contact lenses--once a month, though once every two weeks is better. Food prices are amongst the most expensive in the world. By many standards, Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world. Yet Japan is also the home of the wabi/sabi aesthetic of the tea ceremony- where plain, even shabby is preferred, and the beauty of that which is dying is celebrated. I'll save any more commentary for the contrast between what we would call the modern, materialistic (by Western standards) Japan, and the old, traditional Japan for another post. Or a book.
  • "Let's enjoy MONSTER ATTRACTION!" - Actually, that's one of the slogans for The Lockup, the best prison themed restaurant in the Tokyo area. It's the only place in town you can indulge in food and drinks that looks, but doesn't taste like a science experiment gone wrong. Don't forget the monster jailbreak that interrupts dinner and the handcuff toting (and using) ミニスカポリス (minisukaporisu, er miniskirt police). If that's your thing.
  • "Uh-oh, better call the thought police..."- A Japanese proverb says "the nail that sticks up gets hamerred down. (出てる釘が打たれる。)It only takes a few days to figure out the prevailing attitude in Japan is that of conformity. Even the counter-culture all dresses alike. It's cool to rebel as long as you rebel the same way as everyone else. Truly different people are out there, but you have to look hard to find them. Of course, that is because the Japanese government monitors the thoughts of all citizens with subcranial electronic implants and delivers a constant barrage of subliminal instructions through cell phones. Did you just laugh in public? The thought police might be coming...
  • "Every time somebody hears I go to Harvard Law they totally flip out. Much mor than in the US. The other night, some girls even took their picture with me."- Japanese girls are really, really, really attracted to money. Or the prospects thereof. I'm not trying to stereotype... but did I mention they're REAALLLLLLY into money?
  • "I see about 2 or 3 things a day that just blow my mind away.... I'm just like, whoa, no way."- Whoa. I know.
  • "How about that Mika Nakashima...?"- No comment.
  • "I've been to a lot of great places... but I think this might have been the best international trip I've ever had."- Despite all the whackiness, Japan is a great place. Let's coming back soon, Todd!

Friday, February 11, 2005

Quotable TJ, part 1

So one of my best friends from Georgetown, my rowing 後輩(kohai, younger teammate) Todd Johnson, swang through Japan on a two week whilrwind tour fron January 23rd through February 6th. A lot of good times were had. Plus I got to watch one of my good friends falling in love with the country I have chosen to live in. There's nothing that comes closer to giving me another chance to relive my first days in Japan.

Here's part one of his reactions. Part two is planned for later on tonight or more likely tomorrow. He did say most of this stuff, really.

The future Mrs. Todd Johnson?

"When I came to Japan, I didn't think the women were that attractive...[but now] I want to start a race of Afro-Hellenic-Japanese people with Mika Nakashima."

Todd at Rad Brothers' bar in Susukino

"For a good time, make it Suntory time!"

- Capsule hotel beds in Shinjuku

"I stayed in a capsule hotel in Osaka last night. Very interesting. A strange mix between spa, Star Trek living quarters, and futuristic prison."
Todd and Yon-sama at the Sapporo Snow festival

"What's up with this guy, Yo... jo... what's his name again? Why are there [snow] statues of him everywhere?" - [note: I'm not responsible for foul language in the [second] link to a pretty accurate analysis of the 韓流 Korean-wave boom in Japan]
Josh, Paul, and Todd in Tsukiji, Japan's #1 fish market

About living in Japan, "Aren't you all here on a two or three year vacation anyway?"
Mocking Josh (good naturedly): "'Guys, did I mention I'm gonna get the fish and chips? And then not shave ever?' Yes, now GET THE FISH AND CHIPS ALREADY!"

Thursday, February 03, 2005

鬼 vs. Punxatawney Phil

Today is Setsubun (節分). It's one of those non-day off type holidays that seem to be cooler than the day off holidays in Japan (like National Physical Education Day and Constitution Day). It is celebrated every year on February 3rd to portend the coming of spring.

Setsubun is just like Groundhog's Day. In America we wait for the groundhog to see or not see his shadow. If it's a nice sunny day, we have 6 more weeks of winter. If it's cloudy, rainy, and/or snowing, spring is "right around the corner," probably doing something illicit. On Setsubun, Japanese people run around throwing beans into corners and yelling 「鬼は外、福は内!」 ("Out with demons, in with happiness!") .

All this raises some important questions:
  1. What does the groundhog do the rest of the year?
  2. Why do demons like beans? Or NOT like beans?
  3. How do you say groundhog in Japanese? Peter says ハリネズミ (harinezumi), but my Japanese-English dictionary says マーモット(maamotto, or Marmot). And it says that Groundhog's Day is really Candlemas! 聖燭節の日(seishokusetsu no hi). Who knew?!
  4. What would happen if you threw beans at a groundhog? (Straight into Autumn?)