Monday, October 30, 2006

House Fires and Halloween Parties

Last weekend was an adventure. I went to Kamakura with my friend Yuriko, who was down for a visit home. She volunteered to show me some of the smaller temples around, plus a cave of some sort or another that she insisted we go to. The cave wasn't really a cave, it was a place where a tunnel had been carved through a very thin ridge, so the actual ceiling of the tunnel was only a few meters wide. There was a danger sign for falling rocks, but that didn't seem to stop the hikers. I'm waiting for the earthquake that collapses it, although it must be pretty solid rock to have survived to now. It looked like part of a construction project, but when you walk through it, there are some carved-away places with small Buddhist statues placed inside. Altogether rather strange. What happened after was even more unique.

We went through the 'tunnel' and down the hiking trail and came upon a road. Just past the trailhead, there were some houses, all overlooking a small stream. There were some people standing on the side of the road, looking down into the stream. I thought one of the old folks had dropped something down and they were trying to figure out how to get it. But when we got closer, we smelled smoke and realized that they weren't looking down, they were watching the house across the way. There was smoke coming out from under the eaves on the top floor.

Some of the neighbors were around, and we asked if anyone was home. They said a woman in her 70s lived there, but she wasn't answering her phone. Yuriko, myself, and a Japanese couple ran around to the gate. The guy jumped the gate and ran up to the door, knocking and calling out, trying to see if anyone was home. He couldn't open the door, and came back out. Yuriko and I went in, and I promptly walked into a giant spiderweb that everyone else had been too short to run into.

I'm not arachnophobic, don't get me wrong. But I also don't seek out their company. And Japanese spiders are HUGE. I'm not talking those little orb weavers back in Indiana. I'm talking ginormous, brightly-colored spiders that sit in the middle waiting for a moth or small Japanese dog to get tangled up. So I wasn't pleased with the prospect of a big spider running around my head and down the back of my shirt or something, as spiders are wont to do. So I dropped to the ground, pulling silk from my hair, spitting it out of my mouth and in the process completely losing any of the manliness I'd hoped to exude by running into a burning building and saving some poor woman.

By now we could hear sirens, and I figured it's best not to be caught in someone's yard while foreign, fire or no, so we beat a hasty retreat to the road. When I glimpsed back, sure enough, the big-ass spider was still hanging there. Yuck.

The firemen showed up, as did a couple cops on mopeds and finally a couple paramedics. The fire-fighting equipment was interesting, since it's more compact and designed to fit in the narrow alleys they call roads here in Japan. Seriously, some of the roads here wouldn't fit a standard American SUV, let alone an American-sized fire engine. The engine rolls up, they open up the back and this guy drives out on what looks like an industrial-sized Segway and drives toward the house, while the hose unravels from the cart. Guess that's how they get into the REALLY narrow streets.

So while some guys roll up and prep the hoses, a paramedic and firefighter climb up on the roof and try to see if anyone's home. They broke the glass finally and got in to search the house. We hung around until they put out the fire and determined nobody was home. The neighbors had been calling around, they think they lady had gone up to Tokyo for the day and left the electricity on, which led to something or other overheating and set the place on fire.

Speaking of which, I was woken from my slumber one Sunday morning to siren blasts and people making noise. The Hiratsuka fire department had set some small fires in the park outside my balcony and were calling people together for a picnic and lessons on how to put out fires. It's all well and good, we need to be safe, but they could do it some other time when I haven't been out til 4am.


The day after the house fire, I went to a Halloween party. A month or so ago, I went to the culture festival at one of my schools, and met the mother of one of my students. She caught me off guard with her exceptional English, something I certainly wasn't expecting that day. Her family had evidently spent some years living in the US, California and Minnesota to be exact, which was entirely news to me, because her daughter had made no attempt to communicate with me in any way whatsoever. It wasn't until a couple weeks ago when I was doing conversation tests and spoke to her one-on-one that I heard her speak English at all.

Anyway, the mother, Rumi, runs a language school for neighborhood children, and invited me to a Halloween party. She asked that I bring some things related to Halloween from the US. Unfortunately, I had nothing besides a couple greeting cards and stickers from my family, so my roommate Tracey and I came up with "bobbing for apples" and "pin the stem on the pumpkin" to play. The kids went all out with costumes, while I was rather understated in my multi-purpose pirate hat. They went out trick-or-treating, then they came back and we played some games. It was fun to do something Halloween related, seeing as not many people are big on that here. I've only seen adverts for parties at clubs up in Roppongi, the foreigner section of Tokyo, something that doesn't particularly interest me.

Afterwards, the family treated Tracey and I to a nice dinner out, which was a lot more than I'd expected. It was pretty fantastic. I also got to see a more or less normal Japanese household. That's not something foreigners normally get to experience. I think it was the first time I'd ever been in a real house here in Japan. It was like your average American house, but about a quarter of the size. Everything was smaller and narrower (though the doorjambs were high enough I didn't crack my skull, like I do here in my apartment), but the quality of workmanship was higher, I think. I don't know if this is average or what, but it was nice to see how people live, and that they're not so different.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Another one bites the dust

After two of my closest friends in Japan, Ana and Damien, left last December, my closest friend was Julian. When I first met him, I almost couldn't understand a word because of his accent. We did training together at our first job here, lived together for a few months, then quit and started working at the junior high schools at the same time, too. We ended up being really good friends. He was a bit loud for me, and sometimes a bit flakey about hanging out, while I was rather quiet and not nearly as outgoing -- that's why we didn't hang out much during our first year here. But working together, we were the only two people we knew who finished at the same time, so it was easy for us to hang out after work, and having the weekends off, which almost no foreigners we knew had, meant that we could hang out with one another. And so we got to be friends.

We took several fun trips together, the most memorable one being a 3-day trip to O-shima, a trip that would've been an absolute nightmare if I didn't have him to entertain me.

One thing that was nice was having someone to listen to you. Whatever the problem, he was always willing to give me his support. My job isn't the most stressful by far, but some of the nuttier aspects of it can be a pain to deal with. He left yesterday to return to fair England. I wish him the best, and I know for certain I'll see him again. I think we've become good friends and now I've got one more reason to head back to England.

Anyways, best of luck, buddy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

GAH!!! Foiled!

Well, looks like I won't be able to vote this year. I downloaded the registration forms and all that, but the deadline for Indiana was Oct. 10th for absentee registration. It's a bummer because I spent the 9th and 10th trying to find a place that would fax the forms to the US. None of the convenience stores would allow faxes overseas, the post office wouldn't, and the city offices just laughed at me.

So now I won't get to vote. Not that it matters too much in the senatorial campaign, Hoosiers have such a hard-on for Lugar that it won't matter that he voted to give Bush the right to kidnap and torture anyone he chooses. Hell, they'll probably cheer him on, get rid of those god-durned towlheds once and for all, and any liburals that disagree. Sometimes I'm very ashamed of where I come from.

I might have made a difference in voting against Buyer, the wondeful human who thinks we should "turn Afghanistan into a sea of glass." What an ass.

I don't know enough about state and local officials, plus I'm not really living back in Indiana, so I don't want to have a say in that. But still, this sucks.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


This weekend is a long weekend for most people. There's a holiday on Monday, and since it's the beginning of the new term, I'll have Tuesday off as well. It also happens to be Oktoberfest in Yokohama, so I headed up there last night to check it out. Originally, there were going to be quite a few people out. But some people couldn't make it that day, another cancelled because she thought we were going in the daytime, not at night, another couple cancelled to make up a dinner date they'd cancelled before (dunno how that one works), and Julian wanted to spend time with his girlfriend, who's decidedly a non-drinker.

So it turned out being my friend Yuriko, who works in Narita, and me. I'd shown up early to meet people, then they all ditched, and I had to wait for Yuriko to come all the way from Narita. So I ended up wandering around by myself. Oktoberfest was being held at one of the redone wharfs at the harbor, right next to the famous ferris wheel and Landmark Tower, tallest building in Japan. The promenade there is a pleasant stroll, and it's cool enough now to make it possible to walk outside and not sweat buckets. I wandered along, but eventually got bored and booked it over to the festival to grab myself some of that special brew. And man, was it ever expensive. $10 for the mug (refundable if you returned it when finished) plus another $7-15 for the stuff to go in it. Granted, it was quite good, and much better than the local, mass-produced stuff, but still. Well, if I wasn't reeling already from the beer, the prices would've knocked me flat.

Needless to say, when you're in a crowded area by yourself, with a container of alcohol, it tends to go fast. If you don't have anyone to talk to, or anything to do, and lots of people are around but studiously ignoring you, then you tend to focus on what you've got. And what I had was a very large mug of beer in front of me. It went down pretty quickly. By the time Yuriko arrived, I was well into my 2nd mug of special Oktoberfestbier. It was pretty good. She finished it and I went off for some "authentic German food," ie, fried tuna and french fries. Yeah.

The band kicked up around then, with the tubas going and a couple maybe-Germans in lederhosen singing. It was entertaining, but the main tent was packed and we were shunted off to the outside tables and left to watch on the big-screen.

One thing that drives me crazy is that when I head to the big city, everyone wants to speak to me in English. I'll go up to the information booth to ask a question (in Japanese) and the answer I get always comes back in mangled English. I know they're trying to be helpful, but sometimes I can't figure out what they're saying in English, but I can get the gist in Japanese. Maybe I sound the same way to them in Japanese. Who knows. But it happens a lot in (foreign) touristy places, such as this one.

Anyways, as with all things Japanese, the festival ended rather early, by 9pm everyone was dutifully returning mugs and heading home (I guess they have to catch trains or make the torturously time-consuming drive back). Yuriko and I wandered around some of the sights, watched an American street performer/magician, and then took the long route and walked back to Yokohama station, which from the Minato Mirai area we were at, is a long walk indeed. But it was pleasant, since there's a long public walkway almost the whole way. We walked for only a block or two along the street the whole way back. I'd like to see that more often back home.

On the way home, I got a message from Julian, wanting to meet in Fujisawa with a couple others and go for a nightcap. What we realized was that what our friends had in mind was grabbing a tin and standing around the Bridge Bar, not the best bar in the world, but certainly the cheapest, so I swallowed my pride and went. It was full of new teachers I didn't know, and didn't particularly care for. Maybe I've been here too long. Anyway, I decided to use my costly Spaten mug to drink my beer out of. I finished and set it on the ground, when some random friend of theirs came up, greeted them, and promptly kicked my mug over, shattering it. She looked down at it and said, "I didn't do it." and wandered away. So much for that.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Photo contest

The various free English mags here in Japan are having photo contests, where you can submit your photos and there's a chance they'll be printed on the table of contents page. So I'd like to ask you all for your help. Anyone have recommendations for any photos I should send in? They should probably be fairly recent ones, but I know that my eye for composition isn't always the best. What I like isn't necessarily what other people like. So I thought I'd ask you guys. If there's one on my flickr site that you like, post the link in comments and I'll submit it.

Cows on Parade

Saturday I headed up to Tokyo again, which means in the past week I've been to Yokohama twice and Tokyo once. This isn't normal. But I got my camera money refunded to me, which is nice. They tried to get me to pay more for a more expensive model since Casio discontinued the one I'd bought, but I refused and took the cash. The one I would've bought otherwise cost 18,000 yen more there, but I'd seen it for quite a bit less elsewhere. I'll go somewhere closer to home, and save myself the time and money going to Tokyo.

Anyway, on to the fun bit. Since it was early afternoon, I headed up to Tokyo station and checked out the Cow Parade. I was able to photograph quite a few of them, but I ran out of light and my feet were killing me after a few hours, so I gave up. If you look at the cow map, I visited all the ones on the left half of the map, barring the one in the white box and the arrow, saying it's really bloody far away. I did see a few of the ones on the right-hand side, but it was getting dark and the photography wasn't so hot. Also by that point, I was pretty much just running up, taking a shot, then going to the next one. So I didn't notice that a few of them were blurry. Bummer. If you go here, you can see my cow photos. And if you google cow parade tokyo, you can find some other people on flickr who've taken shots, probably of a better quality and better catalogued than mine. I'm having trouble with arranging the individual photos in the set so they are in numerical order, because I'm anal like that.