Sunday, May 25, 2008

Thoughts on Japanese Longevity

It's common knowledge that Japanese people never die. Take a stroll down any street in Japan and you'll see old hunched women who look like they tottered right out of the Edo period. Or chain-smoking 200 year-old grandfathers out for a 4-hour hike in the mountains--look in front of you, because they're probably kicking your ass and are about a mile ahead on the trail.

How do these people cheat the reaper, you may ask. It's certainly not due to a lack of bad habits. Washing away your stressful 16-hour workday with a handle of sake and a few packs of cigarettes seems like a recipe for a chest-clutching death by major organ failure at age 55, but most of these guys do exactly that. Fried foods? Hell yes they eat fried foods here. Deep-fried pork is like its own food group in Japan.

And yet they keep on chugging. Here's my theory why:

1. The diet. Yeah, they eat a lot of different fried foods, but always in relatively small, maybe 100 grams of meat. The non-fried stuff includes a lot of different vegetables in pretty big quantities, and of course a stronger emphasis on fish instead of red meat. This low-meat, low quantity, high variety, high vegetable, high fish diet leads directly to number 2.

2. No fatties.

Of course there are plenty of fat Japanese people--maybe more and more as their diet continues to get westernized. But according to whichever group ranks world obesity, only like 3% of Japanese people are considered obese, compared with 33% of Americans!
Most people are pretty damn lean around here, and they walk a lot, cycle a lot, and generally do things to help out their heart. Even the old grandmas are out shopping on their bicycle.

3. Onsen

Japanese people love to take group baths. Strange? Perhaps, but a weekly dose of super-hot mineral water surely dilates your veins and helps with blood circulation, right?

4. Tea

They drink a lot. All the time, all day. Green, black, oolong, you name it.

5. Social pressure

To live in Japanese society is to navigate an ever-changing web of interlocking social pressures and obligations. You have to buy gifts for people for a thousand different occasions, you have to use different verb conjugations and vocabulary based on the status of the person you're talking to..Take the word "I." In Japanese, you can say "watashi," which is usually for formal situations or for women. Or you can say "boku," which is more boyish and casual, but not super casual. Only to be used by men. Then there's "ore" which is much more casual and usually just said to friends, but only by men. There's also "oi," which is casual but also specific to the Tohoku region, so you can say that if you're trying to curry favor with someone you know is from there.

I think you get the picture. The Japanese mind is constantly calculating, assessing, trying not to offend, moving moving moving. I would love to see the dementia rates in older Japanese people compared to the western world...I bet it's lower for a given age group. The best way to keep your brain from aging is to keep using it a lot, and they do. In fact, there's just no avoiding it.

Anybody else have any thoughts on the matter?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Did I Just Get Racismed?

Today I was at Mr. Donuts with my friend. We were discussing something mundane over a cup of coffee and a cruller (well, 4 crullers, but they're Japan-sized).

This being Saturday morning, the shop was a madhouse. The line of customers nearly snaked out the door, there was an angry baby screaming bloody murder somewhere near the breakfast pastries, and you could hear the constant clink of money, clatter of dishware, and general conversation. The company seems to switch out the bored college students we see at 10PM for the varsity staff members in the morning. The 3 women working were spitting out machine-gun Japanese, packing donuts, brewing coffee, taking money, and generally working like an 8-armed meth addict and making it look natural.

I think you get the picture. It's busy and loud. So one of the staff members comes to our table to refill our coffe. She fills our cups, then pauses, and says that the table next to us complained that we were talking too loud, and could we please be more quiet.

Keep in mind, the place is so frenetic and loud that I can't even hear myself think, and yet WE'RE the loud ones? It's not the screaming little kid, not the general pandemonium, but us talking in our normal conversational voices?

We of course continued talking at the same volume and no one said anything else. I got to thinking though...why us?

The one white guy in the store and we're the ones being loud? Makes you think, doesn't it?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Meat Sweater

If you told me 10 years ago that when I was 24, I'd be standing in the middle of a lake in rural Japan at 4 in the morning with a metalhead from New York, I might not have believed you.

This weekend there was a party out in the boonies. There was a beautiful lake in front of the house we were staying at. Many of you know that I'm always on the lookout for new cold-water swimming opportunities. Out of the maybe 15 people still awake, I managed to convince 1 of my friends to hit the lake with me. It was almost pitch black outside, and the lake was ice cold. We were in the mountains, and there was still snow along the side of the road.

We got in the water. As expected, it was ice cold. There were some trees growing out of the water, so we each took a victory lap around them. Afterwards, I said "well, that was awesome, let's go back inside."

My friend said "nah, I think I'm gonna finish my beer first." So we stood in the chest-high water and chatted while he finished his can of Keirin.

After, I said "sweet, let's go in now."

My friend replied "Nah, how bout we go swim over to those metal platforms instead?" I looked a hundred meters out, and sure enough there were a couple metal platforms raised out of the water. So we swam over and climbed onto them. My friend jumped off. He said the water was not deep enough to jump off, and that I probably shouldn't follow suit.

At this point I'm shivering uncontrollably. I'm usually the last person to get cold, but I've met my match with this guy. He keeps saying how he is starting to warm up and feel comfortable in the water. I manage to convince him that we should go in, since we've been swimming in near-freezing water for about a half hour. He agrees, rather nonchalantly, and we walk back to the house, where I change into something warm and shiver myself to sleep under some blankets I brought. My friend is standing outside smoking a cigarette and talking to somebody. He is still wearing his sopping wet clothes, but doesn't seem to mind.

Later, I asked him why he wasn't cold. He patted his respectable gut and said "Because dude, I'm rockin' the meat sweater."

The End is Nigh

I haven't posted for about 2 weeks. I've been quite busy ruminating on the future. After a lot of consideration, I decided not to renew my contract and will be heading back to the US somewhere between the end of July and the middle of August.

There will be another 2 months or so of blog-related hijinks, and then who knows? At this point, my options are wide open. When the end of July hits, I will have money, time, youth, and a complete absence of obligations. It's a strange concept, and this kind of opportunity probably has only existed for a tiny percentage of people in the course of human history. I can go anywhere and do anything. Within 2 months, I could be riding a motorcycle across the Sahara, eating a kangaroo steak in Melbourne, or playing Mah Jong in Shanghai. Insane, isn't it? I realize that at some point I'll have to make some longer-term decisions, but I think I'll roam for a little longer. Most likely I'll take a month or so to do some more traveling and then get cracking on the next phase.

What will the future bring?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Golden Week: Let the Games Begin

This week is Golden Week in Japan. What is Golden Week? Damned if I know, but whatever it is slides me a couple extra days off so it's all right in my book.

Me and my friend started our evening at my apartment. We drank some cocktails made from manly unsweetened lemon soda and watched the technicolor brain molestation that is Japanese television. My friend has the restless need to be productive encoded in every Japanese person's DNA, so he found some scissors and some paper and made paper Godzilla characters. Turns out he's pretty damn good--as many Japanese people seem to be--at any task that requires precision and manual dexterity.

Here's a couple of the paper monstrosities:

This one is Ghidora, Godzilla's 3-headed nemesis.

This is the big man himself. I asked my friend why Godzilla was looking backwards. He said "This is Godzilla's style."

This is a shark. Note the millions of little teeth. Constructed with a few drinks under his belt using dull kitchen scissors, mind you.

We moved from my apartment to a bar downtown. They had a big snake in a case, so my friend demanded that they allow us to play with it. The staff said yes, because Japanese employees always say yes to any request, no matter how ludicrous. My friend stuck his hand out towards the snake, which immediately coiled around his arm and tried to kill him. Luckily, the snake was too small to do much killing so we just laughed at it.

My friend pointed the snake at me and told me to take it. The snake instantly reared up and sort of leaned back, while staring at my eyeball, which probably looked like some fat, delicious bird egg or something to it.

I was assured that the snake was the "kind that doesn't bite" but remained suspicious. I took it anyway and it promptly tried to constrict me to death. All of the attempted killing made the snake tired so we put it back in the cage and played billiards with some Japanese girls.

One of the girls was a hostess at a neighboring bar, which, near as I can figure out just means that lonely salarymen pay to talk to her. She and her friend marveled at my shoes and insisted that I let the hostess try one on. I obliged. This is what a 100-pound Japanese girl looks like in a size 13 skate shoe. Is there an internet fetish site for this yet? Sorry the picture is sideways, I can't be bothered to deal with blogger's sucky uploading system at the moment.

After billiards we decided to call it a night. Hilariously, my friend and I had almost no money, so I walked to an ATM down the street. Guess what? ATMs are apparently closed for Golden Week! The situation has just gotten trickier. I walked back to the bar and we pooled every last bill and coin into a small pile and hoped for the best. We just barely paid off the bar, and when we got outside, both checked our pockets to see if we had anything left over.

My friend had 2 yen and I had 1 yen. Cutting it a little close huh?