Wednesday, October 31, 2007

5 Things I Miss About America

There are some things America just does better. This is what I miss the most:

1. Burritos-

I can't even get a burrito here, let alone some tortillian monstrosity the size of my head. For a culture that eats a lot of beans, rice, and meat, I would have thought Mexican food would be a no-brainer. Rumor has it I have to go to Sendai to get the sweet Mexican food I crave, and I bet it's not even that great.

2. Football Season-

There's something very comforting about sitting on a sofa with some nachos and watching big huge guys run into each other and try to grab a funny-shaped ball. I could subscribe to some cable package and get NFL games here, but even then they come on at like 4AM or something. It just isn't the same.

3. Bikes without big baskets on the front-

This one should be self-explanatory.

4. Starbucks-

What can I say? The suburbs changes you. Paying 4 bucks for a coffee drink starts to make a lot of sense. Plus, the L size at coffee shops here is a pathetic 12 oz., whereas the mighty "venti" Starbucks drip coffee clocks in at 20oz. and packs enough caffeine to make my heart sound like a Neil Peart solo.

5. Cheap movies-

Movies are highway robbery in America, but they're dropping the soap in federal penitentiary here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


It is Halloween Week. Everyone comes to class in costume, we play games, we trick or treat, things like that. The costumes run the gamut from lame (cat) to inspired (skeleton suit with ghost suit over the top) to uniquely Japanese (samurai with wooden kendo sword).

One student dressed as some sort of ninja gangster. Part of his ensemble included the evil-looking Glock replica he took out of his backpack. I asked one of my bosses if it was okay for this kid to be walking around with it. She said "Oh don't worry, he said he'll keep it in his pocket."

Let that sink in.

A kid walks into school with an accurately detailed replica pistol, and is merely required to keep it in his pants pocket until school is finished.

Isn't that weird? No SWAT teams, no suspensions, no newspaper articles, just a reasonable reaction to a kid with a toy gun. I guess things are different when you can be reasonably sure that your average citizen isn't packing heat. This situation would end differently in America.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Future Purchases from the Second-Hand Shop

A JET friend showed me the second-hand store in this town. It's pretty big and lit with the kind of intense fluorescents that make absolutely everyone look like crap.

The store is a goldmine of second-hand prices and first-rate awesomeness. This is what my purchasing plan is going to look like:

1. Metal sign:

It says "Too fast to live, too young to die," with a hellish skull and crossbones underneath. And then underneath that, it says... "Cream Soda!"
Maybe the town hooligans don't like beer? Who knows.

2. Full-size M16 replica airsoft gun:

Just like the ones that are great for attracting police bullets to your face in America. It's going to be a tough decision since they also have a replica uzi and desert eagle, so I'm going to have to consider this for a while to be sure.

3. Special edition Pokemon-themed Nintendo 64 with Mario Kart.

This is more fun than the equivalent of 20 dollars should be able to legally buy you.

4. Right-handed Japanese Les Paul knockoff:

I think you have to flip and file the bridge and install a new nut to make your Jimi Hendrix conversion work, but how hard could that be? I got excited when I saw that this place sold used guitars, but then I realized that Japanese kids aren't allowed to be lefties since it ruins the all-important stroke order for Kanji. So that changes the possibility of finding a left-handed instrument from 5% like in America to -598%.

Runners up:

1. The bright green mini CD player and stereo that features a built-in air-conditioner and space heater. I'm going to be up all night laughing about what I imagine that meeting went like in the design proposal phase.

2. The drum set- The price is right, but the time is not. I think my neighbors would stage ninja-style midnight Kancho raids on my apartment if I started up with these things.

3. The Paul Reed Smith electric guitar- I don't know why a shabby second-hand shop has a used $6,000 guitar for sale, but it's a nice-looking instrument. Although I didn't look closely, maybe it's a Chinese Blaul Reed Spliff knockoff or something.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Weekend Trip to Fukishima; Pic Dump

Let me tell you the story of my weekend in pictures, because I'm too lazy to write much.

Mochi! Who can say no to a blob of dough on a stick?

This guy is the adult, Japanese embodiment of my 14-year-old self, so I needed to snap a picture to remind myself why I started a sport and gave up Star Wars novels.

Not sure what this vending machine was selling, but I wasn't buying anything from these damn hippies.

Forest near Fukushima...saw some people in a rowboat and the light turned out interesting...

The mighty castle.

From a samurai's manor near the castle.

Tea ceremony.

Tea ceremony again...really lends itself to photography, I think.

Friday, October 12, 2007

My Worst Student, and his Lieutenant

My worst student is twice as big as the other children. He only wears bright, color-matched athletic clothing and has a square head.

His voice is shrill but also has the bottom-end to project.

Sometimes he laughs, sometimes he cries, usually he yells. If he's happy, he kicks the wall. If he's unhappy, he punches it.

I once posited that he must sleep a lot. I can't imagine how much energy it takes to be yelling, walking around, and getting into violent altercations with your peers every moment you're awake.

My co-worker asked the bad student's sister. She confirmed that he did in fact go to bed completely spent after each day. Being a little bastard ain't easy.

This student is the only speed bump between me and the weekend. He's in my last class of the day. Imagine my delight when I discovered he would be absent today. Apparently he had a school trip, and was so exhausted from misbehaving for 8 hours straight that he couldn't make it to English class.

I was ecstatic, and when class started, it was silent as a tomb. Unfortunately, this student's second in command--the reigning children's judo champion in Miyagi--arrived five minutes late, assessed the situation, and really stepped up his game.

He had to be as loud as two people tonight--a task he handled with aplomb. In fact, he went above and beyond the call of duty when he kicked the cardboard box I was holding into my face.

I lost it. I felt, for the first time in my life, pure and unspoiled rage. The kid saw it in my eyes too, and looked absolutely terrified as he imagined things getting really bad really fast for him. It only lasted for a second, and I smiled at him, and we went back to our regularly scheduled program of him talking and me yelling at him.

Still, this was a new experience for me. Parents reading out there: did you experience your first bout of epic rage as a result of your children? These little people can be a wee bit frustrating at times. I wonder what the correlation between teachers and the number of children they have is?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Japan Drum Incident

I almost forgot about this, but it's as blog-worthy as the rest of the garbage I write about.

It was about 4:30AM, and we had just left this random bar. Apparently in Japan, bars don't close until you're damn well ready to have them close. I asked my boss if there was a law about closing time for bars, and he said: "Well maybe, but...I mean, they want you to have a good time, so they can't really close until you're ready to leave..."

Wow, ever been in an east coast bar 2 seconds past closing time? It's a little different.

Anyhow, we left. The awesome and loud Australian guy wanted to go to another bar, so we obliged, knowing it would give him more opportunities to be awesome and loud. We get to this bar, and the hostess clearly wants to close up shop, but is politeness bound to let us come in. I felt kind of bad, and wanted to get out and not be a huge pain in the ass, but then I saw them.

A tiny little drum set parked in the corner of the bar, no doubt for live music. For whatever reason, seeing drums overrides all sense of control. I must play them, no matter what, whether it's socially acceptable or not.

I proved this to the guy in Nebraska who yelled at me for playing drums shirtless in bike spandex in his church (whoops! thought he went home), to the people trying to sleep early in the morning in a different church, to the people at Jake's uncle's birthday party who wanted the actual band to play-- you get the picture.

So I asked the hostess if I could play them. With a pained expression, she told me that I must be very good at drums and should go ahead. At five in the morning. When there were other people singing Karaoke.

By God, I sat there behind that tiny kit and gave Japan the rockingest 30 seconds it had every seen, social niceties be damned. It's a little like Garth's drum scene in Wayne's World. There's something so incredibly primal and seductive about wailing on drums--anyone who hasn't done it is seriously missing out.

Thanks Japan, that was fun!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Milk Yak

There's this kid at the kindergarten. He's impossible to deal with. He roams. He climbs on stuff. He doesn't know he's being bad--he's too young. I have never seen a child so completely reject the pressure to conform, and to obey adults.

Reasoning won't work with him, neither will yelling. The teacher can physically restrain him, as she does when the children pray to Buddha after class, but as soon as she lets go, he's off roaming again. She has about 30 other kids to look after while this is going on.

How do you deal with a kid like this? Obviously you can't be physically violent, yelling doesn't work, and you have a ton of other little munchkins to look after. It is impossible. He does what he wants.

Today, the teacher in charge of these rugrats was looking broken in her pink Miffy apron. Her eyes were blank flecks of gray slate. I theorize it's solely because of this child.

And today, when she looked about the lowest I've seen her, he struck. We were playing a game, and I turned just in time to see this little man stop his roaming and stand there impassively spewing milk-vomit from his expressionless mouth. And then he started running around again, as if nothing happened, while his teacher mopped it up.

Teaching can be a cruel job sometimes.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Weekends are for getting Radical

Japan is a beginner cyclist's dream.

The road cyclist gets miles of unpocked smooth asphalt, physical separation from cars, wide lanes, and steep but mercifully short mountain climbs. Plus, the speed limit is usually under 50KPH (which is about 30MPH), and everyone drives sub 2,000 pound cars.

The amateur BMX rider gets huge urban areas that are absolutely packed with little 2 foot drop-offs, ledges, and curbs of all kinds. There are so many well-maintained geometric oddities in these cities that I can't figure out why some doofus with a 20-inch bike hasn't started jumping off of them.

And for the mountain biker, well, Japan is 90% mountains, and nobody seems to care about mountain biking so you have the trails to yourself. You seriously can't swing a dead cat in this town without finding a dirt trail into the mountains.

Anyway, these thoughts occurred to me during my weekend jaunt. Here are some pictures:

Oh damn!

This was some random logging road I found. It was pretty gnarly, with lots of deep sand, thick mud, huge ruts, and big rocks and branches all over the place. Mark Weir famously said "I'd shit out my liver before I'd push my bike." Well guess what? I'm not him, because I hiked a lot of this quagmire.

More trail.

Tires-eye view maybe?

Yep, this is the middle of nowhere. And yet there sits a fully operational vending machine, poised in case one of the two farmers wants a soda.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A New, More Sinister Theory Arises

I recently got an interesting take on the guy returning a dropped yen coin to me at the store. A friend, who has spent a good amount time in Japan, thinks it was actually an insult...Like, that the guy was essentially saying "You are a lazy, rich, careless product of a disgusting and opulent society. I am a fastidious and efficient little worker bee. Cower before me, lazy American."

My first thought was, "Yeah, but how much can he bench?" Not really. Actually, I must admit that, since the guy was in his mid-20s, a group world-renowned for their general bastardry, I had a passing thought that I was being mocked somehow, some way. But here's why I discarded that notion, and why I disagree with my friend's assessment too:

1. Laziness. If he really did want to make a symbolic gesture to insult me, that would be pretty good. However, I kind of doubt some random person would see me and muster up all the effort it would take to pull it off, knowing full well that any sort of deeper meaning would likely be lost on my pathetic American brain. The simplest answer is that I just dropped a 1 yen coin, and that's more likely in my opinion.

2. Russians. There's a ton of dirty communist Russians in this town. They can come over without a visa under a fisherman's agreement. I assume they look essentially like me. This only adds to the complication of this guy's statement--all that effort, and he has no idea if I'm even American. I could be Russian, British, Australian, etc.

3. The Spectacle. My other thought was that maybe he just wanted to have an interaction with a big hilarious foreigner to talk about with his boys at the Izakaya.

4. The wallet test. As this experiment demonstrates, people just do return money because it's the right thing to do:

However, if a Japanese person were going to insult you, that is EXACTLY how they would do it, so I don't know. I think I'm going to have to drop a few more 1 yen coins and catalogue my results.

And just between you and me--I really don't want all my 1 yen coins. I am not a rich man, but I'm rich enough not to want millions of worthless circles of aluminum jingling around my pocket.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Whitesnake: The Poetry and the Pornography

While I was eating lunch today it occurred to me why Whitesnake was brilliant. I was listening to "Is This Love." It's a love song, unsurprisingly. In fact, most of their songs are overt love songs, with titles like "Love Ain't No Stranger," "Hungry for Love," "Love Don't Mean a Thing," "Looking for Love," and so on and so forth. So you'd thing such a sappy approach to song-writing would instantly alienate legions of metal-loving males, right?

Not really--just when you start to get pissed off at the sappy overtures oozing from your speakers, the band cranks out a gnarly guitar solo and you're into it again. Or they name a song "Slide it In." Or they make a music video for said love song featuring Tawny Kitaen dry-humping a '68 Camaro or something, and you think "Hey, maybe these guys are the retarded metal badasses I want them to be." I assume this feeling is opposite for many women-that the romantic aspect draws them in, and there's enough to tide them through the heavy riffs.

My theory is that they were able to be everything to everyone, masterfully toeing the line between two disparate audiences.

David Coverdale's perm is worth more than your life, worm.

Monday, October 1, 2007

At the Grocery Store Tonight

I was in the grocery store scoring some heavily discounted fish tonight. Original price was like 10 bucks for a big cut of sashimi-grade tuna, but I paid under 3 bucks. 30 minutes before closing time means the store can't be picky about the price they get on fresh fish.

I paid, packed my groceries, and walked out of the store. Seconds later, the dude who was bagging his groceries next to me came sprinting out of the store. Why? Because I had dropped a 1 yen coin. 1 yen. That's less than a damn penny. Now that's courtesy!

How Japanese, I chuckled to myself over seared tuna and green beans.