Sunday, May 29, 2005

Amanda's on the way!

Well, I'm rather excited now. My cousin has taken a job at Nova in Japan, and she'll be living in Fujisawa, the city that I work in. She'll show up this Wednesday, and the fun all begins next week. I'm not really sure if she qualifies as my cousin, she's my cousins' half-sister. What the heck is that? For that matter, what am I to her? Is there even a name for it?

Anyway, I haven't seen her in a while. The last time was at my oldest cousin's high school graduation party, and I can't even remember when before that. Maybe when we were 14 or something. But all her travelling puts me to shame: she's worked in pubs in Ireland, done Peace Corps-type stuff in Africe (I think), and now she's coming to Japan. I only hear through the grape vine, and only recently have been in touch with her. So here's to having friends in the country. One of the reasons Ana and I decided to come to this area was because my friend Sean was in Yokosuka, and now Amanda's coming here (I'd like to think) because I recommended it. Cool! So what're the rest of you waiting for?

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Shinto vs. the vinyl

There are two sides to Japan. There's the 'Shinto side,' and then there's the 'vinyl side.' The 'Shinto side' deals with old, traditional Japan. It's the shamisen wailing at the station at dusk, a tiny shrine in a forgotten corner which somebody once thought was beatiful or serene before it became clogged with traffic. It's nature and being close to it, the old Japan when everyone was a farmer and had a close connection to the land.

Then there's the 'vinyl side,' a frenetic pace of life where half-crazed business men launch themselves into a train carriage and hope there's room, skinny girls with fake-bake bronze skin and silver eyeshadow wear plastic schoolgirl uniforms while posing to chatter on their cell-phones.

From what I can tell, the Japanese as a whole seem to shun the natural side, like the crazy uncle who pees his pants at Thanksgiving dinner and lives with 20 cats. They seem embarrassed about it, ashamed that they'll be seen as backwards and hickish. Maybe it has something to do with the post-WWII trauma, who knows. But when I mention how I want to find shamisen music, or that I enjoy visiting temples and shrines, people either giggle nervously or stare at me in disbelief.

There are two parts to the vinyl side. One is happy, fun, and childlike. The other contains all the downsides of our modern society. This dark side is the side moviemakers and cyberpunk authors draw on to create "Neuromancer" or "Blade Runner." I finished a book yesterday called Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami. It's not really an uplifting story, but the translation was amazing, they convey Murakami's vivid detail and descriptions I could only dream of creating. I definitely recommend it.

If you want to see the happy vinyl side, check out OctopusDropKick, a quirky montage of graphic design, technology, and the funny side of Japanese vinyl culture. Definitely worth checking out.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Summer's back

The heat and humidity have returned. Gone are the days when I would break a sweat only when I'm running really late some where or sitting in an onsen someplace. At 7:30 am yesterday, when I walked out to my bike to head to work, I felt like I was in a poolhouse, minus that funny chlorine smell. By lunchtime, the sun was on full blast and I'd been persuaded by some students to play a half-field game of soccer. I'm not exactly in the best of shape either, so when the bell rang to go back, I huffed and puffed my way inside where I had all of 5 minutes to prepare for class. In class I felt like a melted candle and, from the kids' faces, probably looked as pretty as one. They all were supposed to get up and give a short self-introduction to me. I pity them.

Today was my last day at Muraoka JHS until October. I said my goodbyes to the kids, and headed out. There was an English teachers' party, I never found out in whose honor, and so I got to sit and have a nice chat with my favorite teachers. So it was myself and 4 middle-aged ladies until the one male English teacher, who's younger than me, showed up. Mori-sensei's a cool guy, a very dedicated man who was inspired by his trip to Canada to help others learn a foreign language and expand their horizons. We exchanged emails, so hopefully we'll have the chance to hang out this summer. The food was pure Japanese style, and the teachers were all concerned I couldn't handle it. It was all delicious, except for the opener, which was a nice little reddish mousse made of red bell peppers. I don't know if it's because I expected something sweet or because I'd never had peppers in this texture, but something was definitely off with it. Mori-sensei couldn't handle it, so I officially ate more Japanese food than a Japanese. Good thing they didn't offer natto.

Tomorrow I'm going to see Star Wars on the base at Yokosuka with Sean. Let's hear it for the Armed Forces: bringing us movies they won't release forever in Japan.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Jeremy's Book Corner & Maintainance

The post below was one of my diary entries I wrote yesterday. Hopefully I can write something that day and post it at night, although I recognize that may not be possible. But it's a goal. So, in my ample free time and while riding the train to work, I've been reading like a fiend.

The first has nothing to do with Japan, but is great nonetheless. It's The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric. Ana's on a Nobel Prize author hunt, and she loaned this one to me. It has one of the most graphic depictions of a torture and execution. I nearly threw up reading it and eventually had to skip that part. But it's a very vivid historical novel based around a bridge in Bosnia. Very good if all you know about the area is what you think you learned from watching the news.

The second is a great book called Beyond Sushi: A Year in Japan, by Kenneth Januszewski. It's about a guy who goes on the JET program back in the mid-90s to a very small backwater town in southern Japan. It's basically the same kind of job I do, and I relate to a lot of his interactions with the teachers and students. But he and I live in different areas, so I can only dream of attaining some of his experiences. A great book for anyone who wants to know about today's Japan.

The third is by Robert Twygger called Angry White Pyjamas. This book is about a guy living in Tokyo who decides to do a one-year ultra-intensive aikido course, the same course that Japan's Riot Police train in. It's fascinating because it tells about a part of Japan that was rather dominant up until WWII, and one that has been subdued and redirected into other ways, from kimono and katana to business suit and briefcase. It also touches lightly on the latent authoritarianism that still exists even today. But mostly it's about pushing your body to the limits and beyond. I've had the same feeling now and again, am I actually tough, what would i do in a dangerous situation. This guy pushed himself to find out. Makes me want to take up aikido.

A final observation: while walking to work this morning I ended up walking next to a Buddhist monk with a shaved head, traditional robe and briefcase. Just when you get lulled into thinking here is just like home, this happens.

I Have Returned

So, now I have internet. Yay! I'm happy. I have plenty of free time at my new job. I work at 5 different schools, so sometimes I have more free time than others. But most of the time I teach a few hours during the day, and the rest of it is spent during class hours writing a diary or studying kanji. I'm up to 65 characters, although I don't know them perfectly. Each character can have different ways of pronouncing it, ranging from one way (I've only seen 2 or 3 like that so far) to 4 or 5. Two is usually more common, but it still can be embarrassing when you read somebody's last name the wrong way. Hopefully I'll get better with time.

So I'm back at Muraoka JHS, the school I went to on my first week. It's also my favorite school for commuting, as it's near Fujisawa station, which means a short walk instead of transferring and going through hassles. I'm a little under the weather from too much partying this weekend.

On Saturday I went to Harajuku in Tokyo for a Thai festival. I got there a bit early, so I decided to wander a bit. The Harajuku area is famous in Japan as a place where the young people hang out, all dressed up in the freakiest clothing possible. My friend has a photo of one girl in a Nazi SS uniform. I didn't see anything too weird, but the press of shops spilling out into streets and crowds mingling gave me that too-close-for-comfort feeling that is Tokyo. About 300 meters away is Meiji Shrine, a calm, ancient shrine that has stook in Tokyo for ages. It's torii gate is new, but it's made of 1000 year-old trees. So in the space of 30 minutes I saw the living paradox that is Japan: old and new, funky plastic dresses and spike heels living in harmony with red and white miko (shrine maidens) and nature worship.

The funniest part in Meiji was watching the weddings. Japan is a crowded country, so they have to economize space and time in popular places like Meiji. One couple would finish exchanging vows and the procession of priests and miko, followed by bride and groom, would head out around the courtyard, followed by no less than 4 guys with video cameras getting in each other's way. Even the New Japan has forced its way into the old.

In early afternoon I met up with my friend Elaine and part of the crew that was going to the festival. They all turned out to be Interac teachers, and all but one were American, which was the most Americans I've been around at one time since leaving home. The food was fantastic, I gorged myself on green curry and rice, and the people, despite my usual dislike of Americans abroad (I think many of them are rather brash and arrogant), turned out to be a very friendly and intelligent group. All but Elaine were recent arrivals, and a few I talked to had been placed out in the countryside, in very small towns. I feel like my experience here, while different from back home, is not the extreme, at least not like some I've heard or read about. These people I met were living in towns of 11,000 people, where they were the only foreigners and everyone knew their name. Nowhere close to my (comparatively) foreigner-infested Hiratsuka. I'll bet they learn Japanese quickly.

This weekend has hardened my resolve to spend my summer vacation either in Thailand or Vietnam. It just involves buckling down and not really going out all the time, a hard prospect, but I think I can pull it off. I've decided I lack discipline, I'm all too easily enticed out by friends and myself. Discipline is something I need to try and instill in myself. I've missed the last two weeks of kendo practice, which is bad. I want to learn, but after work I'm usually so wiped out mentally that doing anything physical seems to be too much. Or maybe it's just my lethargy playing games with me.