The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Monday, May 30, 2005

Sore Feet

This past weekend was kind of fun. On Friday, 3 of the teachers and I went to a nice restaurant in Kashiwa for dinner. Very cheap and quite tasty - it was Korean-style barbecue which means they bring a little grill with charcoal to your table, and you cook your own meat and vegetables on the grill. It's fun to cook your own food just the way you like it. Then we went to a Japanese style bar. The other teachers aren't shy at all so they were trying to talk to the people at the other tables almost immediately. The people around us didn't speak much English but everyone seemed to find it very amusing and a good time was had by all, as they say.

On Saturday I went out with my friend James (a former teacher here) and his girlfriend. We met for dinner and then went to a tiny little hole-in-the-wall bar where some friends of his were playing with their band. The bar held about 30 people, and was packed. The band was actually pretty good. The one thing that really surprised me was that the volume was actually set to a reasonable level. So often you go to a show like that and the music is completely deafening. Anyway, not particularly memorable music (I'm not going to go out and buy their CD) but they were decent. Obviously big fans of 80's Brit pop...

On Sunday I met a friend-of-a-friend who got roped (by the connecting friend) into showing me around Tokyo. She was born and raised in the city and so knows it pretty well inside and out. Nevertheless, we managed to get lost looking for a tiny little sword shop that I wanted to check out, located in a residential district near the Japanese Sword Museum. We did find it eventually, and now I know how I'll spend my money when I win the lottery.

After that, we wandered over all of Tokyo for the rest of the day. I can't remember what we did because it was so exhausting. Actually, it was quite fun. We went to the really tourist-y places in Tokyo, which is nice to do once in a while. It was also fun for me to practice my Japanese for the whole day, but that too became mentally exhausting by the end of it. I was dragging my feet and speaking gibberish by the time we sat down for supper at a yakitori restaurant. Yakitori means "fried chicken" (on skewers) but it really encompasses a whole variety of delicious little foods on sticks. My favorite was miniature green peppers, stuffed with swiss cheese, and then wrapped in salted pork. Try that on the barbecue! Delicious. And here's an incredibly simple (and presumably more healthy) snack that I really enjoyed:

Mix one part hot chili sauce (Korean or Chinese style) with 4 or 5 parts red miso paste (available at any oriental grocery store). Quarter a cabbage and then just rip off bits of cabbage with your fingers, and dip them in the sauce. It doesn't sound like much but it's really good and really addictive.

These are some fugu swimming around a tank in the window of a posh restaurant in Tokyo. Fugu are the (potentially deadly) puffer-fish whose liver contains a powerful neurotoxin ... which means that the Japanese find them a delicacy. If it's deadly, it must be delicious! Actually, I tried it once and it didn't taste like much to me. Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Good with the Bad

Any place has its good and bad points. I really believe that Japan's good points outweight its bad points. I feel its important to make that clear because I spend so much time complaining about the bad points. It's just that it seems to be human nature to look at the things that go right, and say, "Well, that's just how everything SHOULD be" and then get outraged at the things that go wrong.

Some examples: Tokyo is ridiculously crowded and busy. But for its size, it's pretty clean, relatively friendly, and very safe. The trains are also very crowded and are fairly expensive for the distance they travel, but they operate like clockwork, are immaculately clean, and the network is extremely extensive.

Now the bad point I want to mention is the common habit of smoking in restaurants. I was just in a restaurant and the people on both sides of me were smoking, and huge clouds of smoke were wafting over my food and into my face. It was so disgusting that I had to leave. The same thing happened to me just last week when I went out with some teachers (two of whom turned out to be chain-smokers!) My eyes started burning and I thought, "To hell with this" and decided to excuse myself and leave early. So one major bad point of Japan is that, despite being generally pretty health-conscious, Japanese people love smoking. And despite being generally quite courteous and considerate, they seem to prefer to ignore the health and comfort of the people around them when it comes to smoking.

It's really strange to me that it is seen as very rude to use your cell phone on a train because you would be disturbing the peace and quiet of the other passengers, and yet it is almost unheard of to have a no-smoking restaurant. This country has a long way to go in some areas.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Students, Teaching, and Random Observations

Students: My kids are mostly a lot smarter than me. Well, if not smarter, a lot more disciplined. They can't speak English very well, but they sure can do science. I asked two of them to explain their research to me. The first one was an evolutionary biologist using computational methods to study DNA in humans and chimpanzees in an attempt to date the point when we diverged from a common ancestor (8 million years ago, he says). The second was a biochemist who was using metallic catalysts to synthesize pharmaceutical precursors with new amino acid combinations. Wow. My reply: "Well, I teach English."

Teaching: I just got observed by the staff of the teaching company I work for. I guess they want to observe us once in a while to make sure that (despite the screening and training) they haven't got any dud teachers on their staff. I got a lot of compliments from the observers. Apparently, my lesson was perfect! Gosh, I'm good.

Random Observations:

The phantom cell phone. You're sitting on a train with your cell phone set to "vibrate" mode. Suddenly, you have the distinct sensation of something vibrating in your pocket. Someone is calling! You reach into your pocket, only to discover that your phone isn't there at all!! Eeeeeeerie.

Japanese television is really, really awful. The more I speak Japanese the less interesting the television shows get. The same goes for advertising on the train now that I can read a little bit. For example, this morning I saw a billboard for a chocolate almond candy with the face of a famous Japanese TV star. They're paying millions for his face, so you'd think the caption would be pretty memorable and witty, right? How about, "I want to eat Lotte chocolate almonds with you." And somebody got paid to write that....?

We're in that awkward period where any rational person would say it's hot, but Japanese people think it's still cool, so they don't turn on the air conditioning on the train. It's somewhere around 30 degrees so I've got beads of sweat pouring off of me, but I'm surrounded by cool-looking Japanese in suits. I'll have to wait until July before they think it's hot enough to turn on the AC, but by then it will be over 35.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Sumo and Stuff

Marcus and I dragged our butts down to see the Sumo on Saturday. Marcus was green around the gills from the previous night, and I was really tired too, but we decided to make the most of the day. After a few transfers on the train, we arrived at the Kokugikan, the national sumo hall where wrestling is held 3 times a year (the other 3 times being a travelling sumo road show that goes to Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka).

We bought our tickets and had a bit of time to kill before the good matches started. We were both starving so I suggested that we try some "chanko", the famous hot-pot that sumo wrestlers eat in mass quantities in order to put on weight. I've had it before and it's really delicious and filling, and lots of former sumo wrestlers operate chanko restaurants around the Kokugikan, so it seemed like the thing to do.

We went to the first chanko restaurant we found. The woman who greeted us seemed a bit surprised. "You want to eat chanko?" she said with a hint of incredulity. "Uh, yes please..." I said, wondering what I was missing. We were shown to our table, and the waiter brought out menus. He pointed to the chanko section. The cheapest selection was over 4000 yen per person, or about $50 CDN a person. Ahhhhh... suddenly I understood their reluctance to seat a couple of scruffy foreigners like ourselves. We hemmed and hawed and ordered some snack food which was more reasonably priced. Fortunately, it was also sumo-sized, so what I thought would be an appetizer was actually very satisfying. Embarrassed but full, we were off to the sumo.

I enjoy sumo a great deal, but tired as I was, I had a hard time focusing as we were there for about 3 hours. Marcus dozed off a few times, but I woke him up whenever something interesting happened. The wrestler that I support lost his match to one of the crowd favorites, a Mongolian who is very small for a wrestler. (The crowd loves an underdog.) I took a lot of pictures (with my film camera) so hopefully they'll turn out.

The next day (Sunday) I had an offer to go to a picnic in the park, but it looked like it was going to rain, so I chickened out. I was right, however, and it soon turned to a thunderstorm. Glad I decided to stay home and do laundry...

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Way to go, USA.  Posted by Hello

The view from Roppongi Hills. Tokyo tower is the reddish blotch in the upper right. (Imagine the Eiffel tower, only red.) Posted by Hello

One of the better bears, this one from Georgia. (The country.) Posted by Hello

Japan is famous for its beautiful mountains, lush forests, meticulously crafted gardens, and... uhh...  Posted by Hello

Flowers in bloom outside of my otherwise pretty drab apartment block. Posted by Hello

First Week Back

So I survived my first week back, but I must admit that sitting around watching TV all day has left me woefully unprepared for the working world. Oh well. Despite generally being exhausted, I had a good week. My students are low-level (again) but nice. I still have a few who are very frustrating to work with:

Me: Hi, Yoshi. Do you like dogs?
Yoshi: No.
Me: Okay, why don't you like dogs? (I have already explained that they should provide reasons for their answers.)
Yoshi: Because, uh... just moment. (Finger at temple, eyes directed upwards, processing, processing...)
Me: Because...?
Yoshi: Just moment...
(2 or 3 minutes elapse before, suddenly...)
Yoshi: My young time was bitted by a dog.
Me: Oh, okay. "When I was young, I was bitten by a dog."
Yoshi: Yes.
Me: Try it. "When I was young..."
Yoshi: Yes.
Me: Try it. Repeat after me. "When I was young..."
Yoshi: (silence)

And so it goes. Have I written this exact thing before? It feels like it. Anyway, they're not all like that, and most of them are fun to work with. It's just that some Japanese students really want to produce these perfect, complete sentences so they just sit there thinking and thinking, arranging words in different orders until it sounds right, and then they come out with something totally wrong anyway. I would be happier if they would just say, "Me. Young. Dog. Bite me." and then we could take it from there without wasting the intervening 2 or 3 minutes. Sigh.

But I'm not complaining! It's fun, really.

Roppongi Hills

I had a great time last weekend. Rori, my old friend from Lindsay (and the person who really convinced me that I would enjoy living in Japan and should apply to the JET Program) just got married last month, and is heading back to Canada next week. So, he and his wife Yumiko were visiting Tokyo for the last time before they leave Japan. We met up in Roppongi, this area of Tokyo that is notorious for being full of foreigners on the prowl for Japanese girls (and vice versa). Well, actually that's just Roppongi at night. During the day, it's actually an enjoyable place to visit.

We started out by checking out a whole bunch of painted bears. The Japanese government evidently sent huge fiberglass bears to every member country of the UN, and asked them to decorate it and send it back. The entries were extremely diverse and generally pretty cool, with the notable exception of the US (who painted their bear like the Statue of Liberty) and Great Britain, (who just draped their bear in a shoddily-painted Union Jack). I guess they missed the point completely.

Then it was up into the immense Roppongi Hills Building. At 55 storeys, it offers a fantastic view of the city. It's dizzying to be up so high, but at the same time, it seems somehow unreal... it makes you feel like Godzilla, as Rori put it. The whole "surreal" sensation was heightened by the fact that, in another exhibit inside the building, there is a perfect 1/1000 scale model of Tokyo with every tiny building painstakingly crafted. I got a weird sense that the model was real and the real city view was a model...

There was also a great modern art exhibit from artists all over the world. In Canada, I think this sort of exhibit would be attended only by "artsy" types but it seems that in Japan, art is much more readily accepted. Anyway, it was really amazing ... the crowd favorite was an exhibit that you had to line up to enter. Only 3 people were allowed in at a time, so the people outside the exhibit had to look in through a window and watch the people inside as they made their way around using magnifying glasses. It was built like a public washroom; glaring white walls and a urinal in the corner. But the artist had constructed tiny ant-sized sculptures here and there, that could only be appreciated through the magnifying glass. Very funny, and the whole experience felt like being some sort of forensic investigator poking around a crime scene.

The final thing was an exhibit of 30 years of Armani fashions. I wasn't interested at first, but it was actually really fascinating. That guy's output over the last 30 years has been enormous, and he truly is the designer to Hollywood. They had about 50 dresses and suits worn by different stars to the Academy Awards... very cool being able to inspect the real clothes up close.

It was nice to spend some quality time with old friends and see neat exhibits before having to start work the next day. Ugh.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Back in Ja-Ja-Japan

Hi everybody. I made it back without much difficulty. The flight was actually really good. I asked for a seat in the emergency exit row and I actually got it; that meant I could stretch my legs out as far as I wanted and in turn meant I could actually get a bit of sleep. So I have adjusted to the time change pretty well already.

My apartment is quite nice. It's new and a bit bigger than the last one. Also, it seems as if it has been very well designed to take advantage of every possible bit of storage space. So it's small and cramped in places, (like the micro-mini-kitchenette) but it has somehow managed to swallow up all of my belongings with ease. The last place was even smaller and had no shelves or storage, really, so I ended up filing everything under 'F'... on the floor.

It also has a neat BroadBand internet connection with a TV set-top box. This is some sort of thing that lets me get 8 digital TV channels over the internet as well as the ability to rent videos over the web. It also has a very badly-designed web browser thing built into it so I can surf the web on the television. This doesn't seem to work very well, however, so I guess I'll be here in the internet cafe once in a while.

The kind of disappointing thing about my apartment is its distance from the station and the supermarket. Both are about 15 minutes walk from the apartment. Right now, with the beautiful May weather we're having (sunny and 25 degrees) it's not a problem, but when it gets swelteringly hot, I can imagine that trudging to and from the grocery store will be quite unpleasant. I will also have to get used to being drenched in sweat by the time I get to school in the mornings. Oh well...

Another thing: I'm a bit disappointed to hear that I'm going to be the only teacher returning to the University. The other teachers I worked with last term have all moved on to different jobs, but they're all still in the Tokyo area so perhaps we can get together. My next-door neighbour and fellow teacher this time is from the UK and seems like a nice guy. It's his first time in Japan, so I'm doing what I can to help him out. There are 4 others teachers who live in a separate apartment complex, so I haven't really met them yet, but I will in 2 days when we have our orientation and training.

Anyway, that's about all I have to report. I'm pretty bored right now, because I have been doing basically nothing for the past couple days, but that will change soon when school starts. Being back in Japan is very strange -- it's kind of like I never left, but at the same time, almost everything is different. More when I have it...