Saturday, April 26, 2008

Never Try to Out-Hobby a Japanese Person

Today, rowing practice lasted for 2 hours and 37 minutes. Mind you, that's not counting the time we spent on land fiddling around with the adjustments on that boat. That's honest to God, out on the water rowing time.

I lost interest after about 30 minutes. I started to think about the longest amount of time I could be interested in a sport. I thought maybe I could play basketball for a couple hours easily, soccer too. Swimming gets boring roughly as fast as rowing, because it's also repetitive and hard. I thought I could probably spend a good half-day or more shooting clay pigeons before I got bored, and could cycle pretty much infinitely if the terrain was interesting. I love weight-lifting, and I'm still interested in that long after I've become to wrecked to do it anymore. Even the world's second-lamest sport (after rowing), bowling, grabs me for about 3/4 of an hour usually.

At about 45 minutes in I reflected that I've never once, not one single time, gone out for a rowing practice and not immediately started thinking about how awesome it would be to dock and go home. I should probably make some lifestyle changes based on this revelation.

At 1 hour in I started to just count strokes. I stopped at around 230 because I saw a fish jumping in the water. I wondered what kind of fish it was, and thought the guy in front of me probably knew because he was in the fish business.

At 1.5 hours in, we docked briefly so the high schooler could leave and go to some appointment. I glared at him jealously as he sumimasened his way out of there. I cursed myself for not signing up for 7:30 flute lessons or something.

After 2 hours I entered what I call "limboat." This is a sensation that transcends boredom into something more metaphysical. You don't feel like you particularly exist or don't exist. Maybe you're rowing, you don't notice any more. You vaguely hear the coxswain's commands and react to them more out of muscle memory than conscious decision. Your jaw is slack. Your eyes are glazed over. I remember quite well the last time I entered this stage of half-existence.

We were in college, doing like 5 minute races by sixes in the eight at low stroke rates. If you don't row, that just means that the boat was guaranteed to feel heavy and horrible and your back would be really sore after practice. One of my best friends had just quit, and I was depressed and angry at the situation around that team. For whatever reason, this one guy's boat ALWAYS won at this particular workout, to the point of absurdity. I happened to be in it that day. I remember just kind of zoning out and deciding for the first and only time in my entire rowing career to not try hard. As I sand-bagged myself into a near-hypnotized state, we were still winning every race by about the same margin, which really reinforced the sad futility of the situation and sent me further off into my own mind.

At 2 and a half hours in I drifted back into consciousness because I was hungry and getting angry as a result. But then we started to go back towards the dock and I was pacified. The rowing at that point was hilariously bad. People were just kind of half-heartedly flopping their oars around the water because, after all, they are 50-year-olds who just went out and rowed as hard as they could for 2 and a half hours.

This is the Japanese method of doing a hobby. Because hobbies aren't fun until you do them until they're not fun.

Write that down, that's good advice.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Gun Kendo

One of my Japanese friends used to fix helicopters near Sapporo. He had joined the JDF out of high school and they promptly shipped him off to the snowy boredom that is Hokkaido. He apparently got pretty soured on the whole army experience, and has been steadily getting rid of anything army-related that's still around his house.

The other day he said, "hey, do you like kendo?" I said sure, why not. Who doesn't like sword-fighting? So he gave me one of his leftover pieces of army equipment.

This is basically a huge wooden rifle. The Japanese army uses it to train their soldiers in bayonet fighting, or "Jukendo." In other words, it's gun kendo. The downward cuts of traditional kendo are absent. The sport mostly consists of stabbing attacks towards the throat and the chest.

My friend inscribed the name of one of Japan's old kendo masters on the handle, possibly sarcastically...the translation wasn't made clear to me. This might be the name of the guy who was famous for using extra long swords...or the guy who fought with two swords, I'm not sure.

So last night I brought this thing back home from work. Keep in mind it's about 170cm long, whereas I'm about 185cm tall. My boss sees me carrying this thing. He says "Hey, do you have a business card?" I say "Why, in case the cops see a scary gaijin on a bike with no lights riding around at 10PM with a huge Jukendo staff?" Nervous chuckle.

So I had to assure him that I had a business card on me and he double-checked that I knew how to say "This is my boss, please call him." in Japanese.

Luckily, me and the staff made it home without incident.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

April 20 in Japan: REEFER MADNESS BABY

My friend said "Hey, let's go to the manga museum," which is this big comic book museum shaped like a spaceship on a small peninsula in our river. I said "Sure, why?" He told me there was gonna be some big reggae party. Whatever, I got nothing else to do, I thinks to myself, and so I went.

It occurred to me on the ride over that today was 4/20, the weed smokingest day in the calendar, at least in America. Go to any hippie liberal university, 7-11 back door, or high school parking lot on this day, and you will be greeted with red eyes and deep thinking aplenty.

It all clicked! This was why they were having the reggae party in the park. The Ishinomaki city council had set aside this day to let people live life like they were from one of the thousands of other, unproductive islands in the world. Places where people wear multi-colored sarongs and play bongos and drink coconut milk. Islands that move to the rhythm of of the steel drum instead of the CNC machine. Salarymen would be wearing tie-died suits and taking bong rips in the back of their silver mini-cars! It would be, for one short day, pure anarchy in Japan.

So that's what I thought. Here are some pictures of what actually went down.

There was a dude walking a rabbit. I guess he might have been high, but sometimes it's hard to tell with Japanese people.

This was the actual reggae party. Like 10 people, none of whom seemed to be particularly stoned. My friend pointed out that it wasn't much of a reggae party since "there's not even any black people! And no rasta colors!" (sorry if that seems like unfair stereotyping, but remember, this is a country that's crazy about Little Black Sambo in 2008)

This one guy was dancing like a turd, but almost certainly as sober as a Lutheran on Sunday.

Marijuana occupies a strange place in Japan. They're obsessed with pot culture, and yet, as far as I can tell almost no one here has ever even seen marijuana before, and certainly not smoked it. It's treated the same as much more serious drugs in the eyes of the law, and there's quite a social stigma against smoking it. A local politician detonated his entire career after getting caught smoking a joint. And yet, in every decent-sized city, there will be at least one store which sells only stoner t-shirts and rasta gear. Makes about as much sense as the freshly laundered punk rockers I suppose.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Mayhem Recap

If my school was a human body, and the outside world was fun and freedom, then Fridays would be the hockey puck of impacted fecal matter painfully preventing my escape. Sure, I finally get to leave school and go have fun, but not without a significant amount of pain, screaming, and blood.

My first class is six students, half girls and half boys, all about 6 years old. In a shocking about-face relative to all my other classes, the boys are stellar students, and the girls act like criminals who huff a lot of gas on the side. They generally just wander around staring at the ceiling, like zombies in Hello Kitty sweatshirts. Sometimes I yell at them, but I don't think my presence in the room ever completely penetrates the foggy haze of their perception, so most of the time I just let them do their thing.

My second class is all girls. Their problem is that they're too goddamn smart. They all prepare very thoroughly before class, and essentially know the material before they set foot in the classroom. So it's like if someone would make you go to a classroom and really slowly learn how to count to 10. Would you pay attention, or would you be a band of shrieking harpies for 50 minutes? I think you know the answer. I honestly can't really blame them for being bad. It takes a lot of the pressure off me--they just teach themselves, and if I fail in some aspect of the presentation, it really doesn't matter. Any way you slice it, I have to teach the material and they have to sit in the classroom for an hour, but it's pretty much a symbolic ritual with these maniacal super-geniuses.

My third class is pretty unholy in a bunch of different ways. The class is huge, the kids are insane, and we always have a huge amount of material to cover. Today, I tried to start teaching when I noticed one kid was wandering around covered in blood. He took an accidental elbow to the nose and was gushing all over the place. So we take him out and shove gauze into his nostrils. Meanwhile, another little girl has decided that her head hurts, as it does EVERY week, so she has to go get a drink of water. While I'm distracted by her, another kid lurks behind me and jams his fingers in my ass. I've literally started to unconsciously position myself with my ass against the wall in regular social situations because of this kid. My body just goes into auto-ass-protection mode now.

Against all odds, we always make it through the material in all the classes, the kids learn, and even have fun. The problem is not successfully executing, the problem is the amount of energy this level of intensity steals from my very soul. I come home from work on Fridays a shattered man.

Teaching children makes you old before your time. They are legion, and they are relentless, and they want to run around like little maniacs. So you dispatch of one group, they leave, and along comes the next group, fresh from their nap and ready to be bastards for an hour of time in which you are expected to cram information into their unwilling little heads.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jesuits: Not Stupid

The Jesuit's famous motto for education is this: "Give me a child for his first seven years, and I'll give you the man."

Whenever I have a boring school-related function, I sit in my chair and ruminate on the profound truth in this statement.

Today, for instance, I attended an entrance ceremony at my Buddhist pre-school. There was a whole lot of speeches, chanting, gong-ringing, bowing, praying, more bowing, and incense. The priests' heads were shiny and freshly shaved (and waxed?). They wore brilliant persimmon robes.

Halfway through the ceremony, I glanced around the room. Nary a smile in sight. Not on the children, not on the well-dressed young mothers, not on the tight phalanx of be-suited video-camera wielding fathers, and not even on the priests! Nobody really looked like they wanted to be there, and yet all felt compelled to go through the motions.

Why do we torment ourselves like this? Why not take five minutes to say a prayer to Buddha, then bring out a clown to do a 20-minute act, pass out refreshments, and call it a day? EVERYONE would enjoy that about 1000 times more than a staid traditional ceremony, I bet.

My theory is that all our our weird traditions and social compulsions have been taught so early that they're completely hard-wired in our brain. Education and tradition trump practicality.

I'm not some sort of church-burning anarcho-nihilist, mind you, I just feel like we can acknowledge that our traditions are largely symbolic, and it would be much more satisfying for all involved if we minimized them a bit and emphasized ceremonies people actually want to attend. Who's with me on this?

I know this post is barely scratching the surface of a topic too vast for 100 books, but it's always on my mind after school ceremonies. What you've been taught in your childhood is who you are. But to what extent, and can we recognize and overcome that programming?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Coolest Thing I Did This Week

Today I was riding my aging mountain bike to the grocery store after my workout. I whipped around a corner too fast for the tires (anything above 5MPH, really), and felt the back end start to slide out.

I started to topple, so I made the executive decision to bail. With my bike kind of sliding sideways, and the handlebars and front wheel pointing opposite of the way I was sliding, I somehow managed to jump off and kind of jog out of the impending mayhem. So I jumped off and my bike angrily bounced and skittered away behind me until it slammed into a curb. It was a truly improbable escape from a bad situation.

An old Japanese man was stopped at a traffic light right next to the sidewalk where this all happened. He was just staring at me, so I gave him a thumbs up. I could almost see the thought bubble above his head saying "You are a complete moron, but still, that was kind of cool."

Friday, April 4, 2008

Neck beards and Whale Meat

A lot of funny stuff happened this past couple weeks. My parents and 2 friends came to visit, and witness the inexplicable weirdness that is my life in Japan.

Matt arrived sporting a luxurious neck beard, the likes of which this fastidious island nation had never seen. Like a cheese-steak eating Samson, this neard gave a small town boy from New Jersey the intestinal fortitude required for his new Japanese diet of shrimp brains and raw whale meat.

Actually, both friends were total champs with the food. Only after 3 days did Matt cry "no mas" and demand that we go to the McDonald's in Sendai, and I don't think Meghan ever broke in the face of exotic Japanese cuisine, even when we were eating these giant green shells where you have to jam a metal spike inside to pry out the rubbery brown thing inside.

After my friends left, I bullet trained down to Kyoto for cherry blossoms and then to Hiroshima to feel guilty about something my great-grandparents' generation did.

It was a grueling 2 weeks, but I got to spend time with friends and family, and knocked out a bunch of "to do before I leave Japan" stuff. All in all, a success, and I'll be back on my semi-regular schedule of posting on this whimsical little chronicle of my adventures.