Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Originally Called: Plain Trains - Not Automobiles.

Like a lot of people in Japan, I seem to spend a lot of time on the train. Of course, for me, it's weekends only, as I'm either off to visit a fellow gaijin AET friend, shopping down in Tochigi-ken's capital of Utsunomiya, partying down in Tokyo or simply sight-seeing (all of which usually involves me getting horribly, horribly lost).

It's difficult to explain why (sheer incompetence), but along with the not knowing where the heck I am, a lot of weird stuff seems to happen around me when I travel by JR (Japan Railway) rail. But, the topic is not 'why weird things happen to me' but rather it's about water sports.

"Wha-? On the train?" I hear you ask incredulously. Yup, but first I have to tell you about the time a traveled down to Mamada (it's a small little podunk of a place in Tochigi-ken, that was home to one of my good friends, one James 'Jimmy Jive' Dalton, formerly of Stoney Creek, Ontario in Canada.

I, as per my norm, was sitting in the non-smoking train car watching people speak without actually opening their mouth or moving their lips (more on this later). I was sitting at the far end of the car taking in the freshness of the air (or rather the freshness of the air, such as it is, when you inadvertently sit beside the washroom), when a tiny old man who must have been 90-years-old if he was four-feet tall (usually a given, but in this case, it was pretty close), ambled into the car and sat directly opposite me.

He squinted at me and then spat on the ground (not the water sports), apparently to reclaim his territory. He then reached into his coat pocket and fumbled around for a few seconds. His gnarled right hand emerged with a pack of Lucky Seven extra-strength smokes. His gnarled left hand pulled out a lighter and flicked his BIC lighting one of the cigarettes.. He inhaled. He exhaled and bathed himself in a haze of blue-grey smoke. He continued to puff away like the little Nihonjin that could until he finished. Then he lit up another.

That was when a young salaryman (that's any person not defined by a major career - journalist, policeman, etc., who earns a salary, and is considered the ideal job for any upstanding young Japanese male) who was sitting to my left leaned forward and in no uncertain terms told the old man to stop smoking in the non-smoking car!

The old man said: "Eh? (Huh?)", looked away and continued to smoke. Mr. Salaryman leaned over a little closer to the old man and spoke with extreme loudness, that if the old boy didn't immediately extinguish the cigarette, he would do it for him.

(Believe it or not, while I couldn't speak enough Japanese to seem intelligent, I was very adept at understanding spoken Japanese! Actually, it works that way for everybody learning a new language).

The old man wiped away some of the salary man's spittle from his eyes (not the water sports. Later. I promise.), he replied: "Eh? Iie (Huh? No... ii-e is pronounced eeee-ya or eee-eh, depedning on where in Japan you are from)." and looked away again.

Now that's when the cannon to the left of me (salary man) grabbed the cannon to the right of me (a fire extinguisher), pulled the green tab and squeezed the trigger.

A white powdery substance exploded all over the old man's cigarette, face, hair, clothes and of course, seat, window and gaijin (me). The entire train car was silent except for that clickety-clack sound, but you know what I mean.

Everyone in that car quickly looked back down into their comic books (later blog), unsure if they had seen what thought they had seen happen here in boringly polite Japan. I took that as my cue to laugh my head off. Mr. Salary Man pipped in, followed by the rest of the car. Even the old man cracked a white-faced toothless grin as he dropped his fire extinguished cigarette. I decided to look at the bigger picture, and thought this young man probably saved the old man from having his lower jaw removed after it becomes riddled with cancer. he may even have saved his life.

Okay. An interesting story, but no water sports yet. Wait. I almost forgot to tell you how the Japanese are probably the world's best ventriloquists. On those occasions when I forget to bring a book on the train and get tired of counting the number of women with knock-knees, I look at faces. I've noticed that people on the train seem to talk without moving any part of their mouth, save their tongue, and I'm unsure about that because they speak with their teeth clamped shut. Their lips are usually spread a few centimetres (an inch) apart. Come to think of it, the only time I've seen the Japanese open their mouth really wide is when they are yawning in my classes or cramming their entire lunch in so they can swallow it whole in one gulp.

Right. On to the water sports. The Japanese, true to form, love to sleep as much as they can - perhaps because of the long hours spent at work, at school or working around the house or farm. They try and grab a few winks whenever they can.

So it's no surprise that when they board a train, they sit back in their seat, drop their head forward and are asleep. I have only known one person who isn't Japanese who can do that, and she'll remain nameless - okay, it's my ex-girlfriend Ashley who still sleeps with me (this is really confusing to me). Anyhow, some of these sleepers bear closer scrutiny - why? - because they drool.

This is the water sports portion of the story, although it's not about my ex-girlfriend because she doesn't drool - she made me say that. Incidentally, five lines later, she is no longer sleeping with me.

Just yesterday (it won't be yesterday by the time you read this. It might be a week, a month or possibly even 19 years ago), but there was a guy beside me who had dropped his head in sleep. (Aha - I see a pattern forming!)

He parted his lips a few centimetres (a real pattern!) and dropped a big goober down onto his paisley tie. It was hilarious! Every time the train hit a bump, which was often due to the clickety-clack (few people seem to care that the bump actually occurs on the 'clickety' section and not the 'clack' section - we just don't feel the bump until the 'clack' sound hits our ears)  - now where the heck was I? These annoying segues confuse the heck out of me.

Oh yeah, every time the train hit a bump, he spilled more saliva all over himself. Every bump, a whole new pattern. And, after watching him intently for a while, I noticed that his tie wasn't originally paisley.

Somewhere with a squeegee,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by The Platters: Give a LISTEN and here's a different version from Fred and Ginger CLASSY.
PS: Picture is me wearing a JR (Japan Railway) hat given away for some purpose - make fun of gaijin day or something like that. I'm standing in a junior high school teacher's lounge. It must either be October/November or March/April judging by my sweater and brightness of the day. I'm kidding. How the hell would I know that.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Drinking And Driving

Originally entitled: Not About Cherry Vanettes.

For those of you who have not been lucky enough to travel to Japan (Go! You'll love it!), you may be unaware that the month of April is generally considered the time of 'hanami' - which literally translates into 'flower-eye'... but it's not meant to be taken literally.

Hanami means 'flower viewing' (that's the problem with direct translations!), but to the Japanese it means 'cherry blossom viewing'.

Like anything the Japanese put their collective mind to, hanami is quite the festive event - anything for an enkai (party), I suppose... and who can blame them -  working ridiculously long hours for little pay (as an AET on the JET Programme, my salary was paid by the Ohtawara Board of Eductaion, and I made much more than the local Japanese teachers did with 20 years experience. I'm not apologizing for MY salary, I'm just pointing out how woefully underpaid the teachers were/are).

Since it is an enkai, offices take an evening off to gather the troops and spend some time in a park to look at the pink cheery blossoms.

Since parkland is at a premium in Japan (I think the plan is to one day pave it over), there is much jockeying going on to see whose party gets to sit under the most beautiful cherry tree. Some companies in Tokyo (or so I was told) make an employee go out early in the morning to stake out the best viewable tree before anyone else can lay claim to it. It is of so much importance that each company gets its own tree, that I have even had offers from people who want to sit under my cherry bonsai tree. But, because it's only about 11-inches tall, it will only take three or four Japanese.

Generally, the festivities begin at night. The cherry trees are covered in waves of gorgeous pink blossoms, that (over the next few months) I have never seen bear fruit. Companies decorate the trees with classical rice paper lanterns adding to the feeling of comraderie, that pours out as easily as beer from a bottle of Asahi Super Dry. Party members sit cross-legged on a blanket spread at the tree's base, and then everyone proceeds to get absolutely blotto with booze and wonder why the flowers look so blurry at this time of year (see image of my Hiroshige woodblock rint - Hanami is occurring).

April (not March) is also notorious in Japan for its blustery winds. These gale force zephyrs love to tear the tiny pink flowers away from their branches and puke them up all over the place were grass would be if there was any grass. Perhaps this is why people get so tanked (Yoparai desu - I'm drunk) at the hanami--it's so they can feel-up the office girls and pretend the blossoms are still on the trees!

"Oh wow! I see a lot of pink!"
"No, that's just Matsuda-san smurfing his beer all over the Suzuki party."
"But we work for Honda."
"Yes."
"Oh. Sugoi (nice)."


The winds are so strong that it has often bowled over some of the mini-cars (more often than not, these tiny cars have been marketed solely to women, and come in wonderful non-white colours - See HERE) if they have not been properly weighted down. Nowadays, at all Kanseki stores, they sell "The Konishiki", a life-sized replica of one of Japan's most famous non-Japanese sumo wrestlers (FAT BUGGER).     
Mini-car drivers that fail to use "The Konishiki" or a similar 640-lb weight can lead to their vehicle being blown off into a rice field.

For me, I find it all quite amusing - as I once rode past an upturned vehicle. You should have hear the pathetic cries from within, "Bakayaro! (stupid idiot!), as the driver fruitlessly gunned the rotary hamster engine causing the wheels to spin comically in the air. Then, after I picked up the car and righted it, there was a chorus of "Hora! Gaijin-da!" (Look! A foreigner!). of course, they end up back on their back with the next gust of wind.



I've heard that every year several mini-car owners driving their wife's car have committed ritualistic suicide (hara-kiri) because they feared they would now be late for the kanpai (cheers!) under the cherry (sakura) tree and would have to explain to their boss that they were late because their car blew over and had to wait until a gaijin rode by on a bicycle to offer help because no other Japanese person wanted to get involved.

Somewhere tipping cars and drinks,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by the punk group Black Flag: OWTCH

Monday, June 28, 2010

Smile Like You Mean It

Y'know, sometimes the Japanese totally get it right.

I've been critical of the poor English used in Japanese advertising, on signage and on clothing, to name but a few examples. So, I think it only fair play to present to you all and to the folks at ENGRISH.COM an example of some clever and witty use of English on a freebie toothbrush and toothpaste gathered from a Novotel.

In the PET (plastic) packaging, if you look at the photo above, you'll notice the red dot... the rising sun of Japan... against the field of white. It's the Japanese flag! Awesome!

As for the English... just in case it's not clear, it reads: "Ah, you look so good to me. With my eyes open wide I can see. Ah, it feels so good to me. And it's so good when you're here'. Cause I'm free."





It ain't The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge - but wow. Kami (God) help me, but I once had Coleridge's entire poem memorized - not for school, but because I read about it in a Donald Duck comic book and wanted to be cool. Click HERE and see the third entry in - it's the 25th verse, and no I didn't need to count it before writing it here.

Anyhow, with regards to the toothbrush packaging, there's a bit of futzing with that last sentence - the apostrophe should be on the other side of the period beside the capital "C" - and I would have used a comma instead of period before that last sentence, but not bad, eh? It's probably why I still have the package after nearly 20 years.

Somewhere why looks thou so? I'm brushing up on my English,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Today's title is by The Killers: have a LISTEN
PPS: A few year's ago, my wife bought me a collection of Coleridge's poems. Now that is awesome.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Chain Of Fools

It all seemed to start quite innocently enough. It was March of 1991 on the day I was to leave for a conference for people staying another year on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, the so-called Renewers Conference, held this spring of 191 in Kobe, a major port city near Osaka on the west side of the main Japanese island of Honshu.

Gasoline (the Japanese can't pronounce the name Catherine very well) - the head of the Tochigi-ken AETs (Assistant English Teachers) - had sent me something in the mail - and with breathless anticipation brought about by the fact that I had the major hots for this beautiful woman, I raced back up the stairs to my apartment so that I could open it in private.

I'm not sure what I really expected it to be, but I could swear I smelled her perfume on the envelope, as I carefully tore it open and pulled out two sheets of paper - one in the blond bombshell's own handwriting - a treasure!

To reiterate, I may have been in lust with nearly all of the female AETs in JET, but a few, like Gasoline and Kristine out in Shiga-ken, and Ashley whom I was still with caused the blood flow to get all mixed up.

Not that it mattered, neither Gasoline or Kristine would ever sleep with me. Although, Kristine did recently tell me that if I hadn't been so screwed up over Ashley she would have slept with me. Why am I only hearing about stuff like this now?

Anyhow, I read Gasoline's 'letter'... although hand-written, it was obvious she had sent me a chain letter.

I am a fairly superstitious person, and I had been getting my fair share of good luck while here in Japan (except for finding out about Kristine 20 years too late!), but for some reason, I decided that rather than fulfill the terms of the chain letter (send copies to five of your friends - Gasoline considers me a friend??!! Kewl),  I figured I would instead share the wealth and allow someone else to have a bit of my good luck. Y'see, I've always believed that there is only a certain amount of good luck in the world, and if one person has too much good luck, someone else could have bad luck. Okay... I sort of believe it. Sorta.

Now, if I had paid attention and done as Gasoline had asked, within four days I would have received good luck (or in my case, more good luck). The people on the "having forwarded the chain letter" list included politicians like US President Ronald Reagan and his US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

But I didn't forward the chain letter. More the fool am I.

Four days after, I was on my way to my girlfriend's house (yes, at this point in time I am still going out with Ashley) to travel to the Renewer's Conference. On the way, I was almost hit by a car (it would have been my third), dropped my luggage containing the video camera I had borrowed from a teacher, and forgot most of the ingredients for a sandwich I was going to make for the six-hour trip.

However, since I was not hit, did not damage the camera, and had a decent enough sandwich anyway, I didn't think much about the curse of the chain letter.

Then it happened. Almost as soon as I got on the shinkansen (bullet train), I became moody and depressed. During the conference, after a seminar that gave us a psychological exam, I was classified as being a tad suicidal. Hmmmm.

After the conference finished, my girlfriend dumped me (again)... no wait, I dumped her! Yeah, that's right. I dumped her. Loser. Of course it still doesn't explain why I began having difficulty in sleeping, staying awake and getting maybe 14 hours sleep over a two-week period.

I think I knew during the conference that the break-up was coming... oh well, at least the shackles were off... but hell, if Ashley had only told me BEFORE the conference, Kristine and I could have... oh yeah... that was part of the plan, I'm sure.

Back home, lucky old me got to visit my school from hell: Kaneda Kita Junior High School. I hate this place. The students here all must be part of the Hitler Youth. I watched with heavily veined eyes as they goose-stepped past me into the concentration camp (classroom). I'm writing metaphorically.

Since there was a blood-letting festival (kendo - Japanese bamboo sword dueling) going on at the school this week, and the English teacher just so happened to be the kendo coach, I was asked if I wouldn't mind teaching a few classes by myself. Delirious from self abuse and insomnia, I said: "Unh."

The next thing I knew, I was thrust into a classroom where a student walked up to me, dropped his trousers and wanted to compare penis sizes with me.*

I can't help but wonder if any of this could have been avoided if I'd only sent out five copies of that darn chain letter. But where in the heck was I to find five friends I hated, anyways?

Somewhere looking through the garbage,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is brought to us by the awesome Aretha Franklin - LISTEN
*PS: Mine was bigger. I suppose luck had nothing to do with it.
PPS - the image above is of a block of special stamps issued on the Year of the Dragon in 1964... my birth year. If I'm writing about being born under a bad sign (bad luck), what better image than stamps from my birth year - as one needs stamps to mail a chain letter. At least you did back in 1991. Notice that it was only 5 yen to post a letter back then - that's like $0.00058 Canadian.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Trees

In an effort to appear worldly, I have tried to learn as much about Japan as is humanly possible without actually learning the language. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I like to know stuff. I mean, heck - anyone (except me) can learn a language, but how many people know its history (except for the plethora of historians)?

Regardless of my reasons, while here I have picked up interesting facts on: history; sports; mythology; religion; what passes for food; why there is no central heating; bad driving; hospitals; money; art; and katana (Japanese sword). In fact, I like to state that hobbies are my hobby.

So, it was only a matter of time before the next hobby to entertain my fancy would be the prototypical Japanese one--the zen-like art of bonsai trees.

Calming, relaxing, beautiful and hysterical - sorry, historical. Viewing a bonsai tree is like contemplating one's own navel lint - you wonder how it all began. At least that's how I think.

Despite the serenity involved in bonsai-making, it is still an arduous task to create one's own masterpiece. Previous to by sojourn here in Ohtawara, I purchased a bonsai tree for my mother. Her perpetual green thumb soon turned black as the tree withered and died within the week.

Despite my initial experience with the hobby (I watched that tree die), I decided to try again for the first time. At least this time, my dogs wouldn't be around to over-water it.

The OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education), after hearing me casually mention my mom's dead bonsai tree, was thrilled that I was interested in learning about a major Japanese hobby. I am? Okay. They spared no expense to give me the full experience.

They made one of the guys in the office (I don't know his name, but he has a big pile of papers on his desk) drive me to a private farm. I got out of our white car and was face-to-face with literally 100s of bonsai trees strategically placed all over the yard.

In broken English (hey, after nine months here, I've begun to pick-up the nuances of the Broken English language used by most Japanese, which has helped me well, not die), I was introduced to the Ohtawara Bonsai master, who bowed deeply to me and then spat at a cricket near my shoe. I didn't flinch, and bowed deeply in return.

That's all it took. I was now a student.

My new Bonsai Master explained that any plant could conceivably be turned into a bonsai tree. I was stunned. Not only did I just find out that a bonsai tree was not a breed of tree but a type -- but that the Master could speak perfect English!

In anticipation of this meeting, I had brought along with me a supposed 25-year-old Japanese Black Pine (more on this tree in a blog to come!) that I had purchased from a local flower shop for ¥ 8,000 (CDN $92.81). The Master took the beautiful potted tree from hands, shook his head, clucked his tongue and spat on the ground--again missing my foot, but landing on a large rhino beetle. He went to work.

Twenty minutes later, he had finished digging the old dirt away from around the tree's roots, and held it gingerly in his hands. He pulled out a coil of copper wire, and began shaping the tree into an a esthethically
pleasing shape. I can only assume it was a esthethically pleasing to the pine.

Still, this was better than I thought - tree bondage!

The Master showed me how to create an ideal bonsai form; prune the tree and even how to water it. When he finished beautifying it, he held it out to me and said it would cost ¥24 ,000 (CDN $34.84).

I stared at him and stammered: "But I'm with the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme!" He added that it would cost about ¥100,000 (CDN $1,161.67) in Canada.

Turning my back to him, I plucked a hair from my nose. Turning back to face the Master, a tear fell from my right eye. After he picked himself off the ground following his laughing fit, he grinned and promised that if I visited him again, it was free. Although not agreeing with the principal of blackmail, I wholeheartedly accepted.

As I left the Master' school/farm he popped into my arms a new porcelain base for my bonsai tree - AND - in the true spirit of internationalization, a Japanese Red Maple Leaf bonsai tree!

Y'know, the people here in Japan are disgustingly kind and generous. Truly, this is a wonderful rife. Uh, I mean 'rife'. No, I was right before, I think.

Somewhere going to pot,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Today's title is by Toronto's own RUSH - whom I love. I brought along all my RUSH CDs to Japan - one of the Japanese teacher's I lent them to said he loved the music, but (to put it kindly), he wasn't sold on the vocals - sorry Geddy! Don't worry, according to Hit Parader, Geddy is ranked 13th on their list of top 100 greatest heavy metal vocalists of all time. Click HERE to sit in the shade of The Trees.
PPS: I'm ticked off - I seem to have lost all of my photos of me with the Bonsai Master in the house fire a few years ago. The flowering bonsai tree in the photo above is from a flower festival I visited back in 1991.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Our House

After living through a winter every bit as cold as Toronto's, it's finally warm in Ohtawara again.

I suppose the weather improvement it must have been good news to all the health nuts out there who want to kill skin cells with poisonous solar rays. yet, for the people like myself who don't care about tans because they are smart enough or already have a perma-one, the warmth is still a kind of hellish nightmare. Why? Because when it gets warm in Japan, it brings out the pests--and I ain't talkin' about insects (although come to think of it, they are becoming a bit of a problem, too. Ugh!).

In my eight-storey apartment complex live two students. One lives in the unit across from my door, while the other lives directly above me. It could have been worse, but I live in a wing, so I don't have neighbours beside me at all.

Still, these two little @#$%!s have bragged to their friends and enemies in all seven of the junior high schools I teach at here in the city that they know where I live. Former students, now in high school, have told their friends who told their big sisters (that, I don't mind).

Why everyone wants to know me and my home is beyond fathoming. I'm hardly the only foreigner in the city (in fact, just next door the Japanese fellow who runs the local Catholic church gets all my mail written in English, because the post office assumes that all Catholics must be foreigners!), and I'm hardly the only foreigner here of any colour (there's an Asian farm school that invites farmers from all around the world--India, being one of the countries--to learn Japanese rice farming techniques. It involves a lot of urination). The only explanation that comes to my mind - so as it is - is that the Japanese want to learn more about me and Canada.

Yes, I'm Canadian, and to tell the truth, I've never met a Canadian who was as interested in Canadia (???) as the Japanese appear to be. (I know the real word - it's Canadidia) (???).

Do any of you recall me telling you about the old lady who used to call me up on the phone and terrorize me by speaking Japanese? I swore to what ever kami (gods) I believed in that day that I'd get back to you on that one. Turns out that the old lady is actually a 14-year-old boy with a retainer and a high voice. In short, a student. At least he's kept my phone number a secret. I've not been so lucky with my address.

I have been inundated with 'guests' who have as much knowledge in English as I do with Japanese. Brrrrr. When did it get so cold? In every visit, I can sense their shock and awe as they enter my apartment and notice I have more Japanese objets d'art than their family has.

"What do you like Canada?" they ask. Experience has taught me to realize this means: "Where is your stuff Canadian?" Hmm, I could have sworn I gad some stuff Canadian. When I arrived in Japan I had six boxes of stuff--apparently all clothing made in Korea or Taiwan, or some other polyester country.

Since I don't have any stuff Canadian to show them, I usually end up telling my pest, I means guests, all about stuff Canadia.

I tell my visitors about how a Scottish-born dude who moved to Canada when he was 23, and therefore must be Canadian, invented the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell) and then ask the guests why the Japanese word for telephone (denwa) is not a Katakana word.  Wha-?

Y'see, after 1867, when after 300 plus years of keeping all foreigners out, Japan opened up its ports to foreign tourists and traders, it brought the telephone over... sometime after 1876 when Bell invented it. Since it's a foreign invention, the telephone should be a katakana type of word. The idea is that Japan wanted its populace to always know which words were foreign-grown (written in Katakana), and which were home-grown, like all Japanese words in Kanji (which is based on the Chinese pictographic alphabet). It's all screwed up. Just like English.

Anyhow, the word for telephone should not be 'denwa' but rather 'te-re-fo-no'... or some other bastardization Katakana. No one in Japan could offer me a decent explanation for this word usage, least of all my junior high school guests. If you think THIS explanation is tough, you should put yourself in their shoes (actually, they didn't take off their shoes when they entered my apartment - buggers!) when I explained it to them in broken English and Japanese.

Next I talked to them about hockey while skating around my apartment in my socks. White it's not a Canadian invention, hockey is widely associated with Canada because most Canadians think we invented it. Anywho, the respect these kids showed me by their silence showed was deafening.

Removing my Sega video game system and Nintendo Game Boy from their hands, I then proceeded to blow their minds regarding baseball and basketball. Rumour has it that Canadians were playing baseball 12 years before American Abner Doubleday 'invented' it. As well, James Naismith - a Canadian - invented basketball.

The shock is always too much. they get up from my couch and chair, say 'herro' and leave.
 
It does my heart proud to know there are people here in japan with a new respect for Canada. I was also recently told that the double bed I was given (instead of the crappy futon that made my back hurt more than usual) was a gift from a local family to help the friendship between Canada and Japan. While I almost said that if they really anted to help relations between Canada and Japan, they should find me a woman, I instead I smiled and said: "Oh, I didn't know there was a problem.

Somewhere on a pedestal for public viewing,
Andrew Joseph 
Today's title is by ska-rock band Madness - FUN.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

My White Bicycle

Originally entitled: Bicycles Built For Your Tastefully Living, I re-phrased a national Japanese ad for an automobile manufacturer to instead mention bikes. Ah, English. It's a beautiful language.

I suppose I've always (always, in this instance refers to the past nine months) had a mute fascination with the Japanese obsession with the bicycle.

While I had learnt from watching those Japanese television programs depicting 'the wonderful dreamy world' of China (and why is ANY television show in Japan using an English lead-in?!), that the Japanese are a young nation when it comes to the number of bicycles owned, and that it causes me many restless nights sweating between my bedsheets.

It was recently pointed out by my shrink (Matthew Hall, friend and fellow local Ohtawara AET - though he's the tallest shrink I've ever seen - also the only one, believe it or don't) that bicycles are not the cause of my bed sweating. Still, I suppose it's the implied meaning of the metaphor that counts.

(Y'know... it made more sense in my head when I first wrote this. In hindsight, you should forget all of that crap up above).

Over the past few months, I've noticed that in Japan there are many stages of bicycle development and usage.

The primary school kids (Grades 1 - 6) generally ride around on small, knee-high two-wheelers of assorted colours that often have ridiculous English sentences printed on them. Want an example? Okay: "... she said to her mother, "Wh". It was an incomplete sentence taken completely out of whatever context it was in that means nothing to anyone except maybe the author - kind of like my second paragraph.

The primary school bicycles all have a banana seat and Harley-Davidson-like handlebars. They also possess nice quiet handbrakes.

The junior high school student (Grades 7-9, whom I teach) has a more advanced form of locomotion, as gears are present. The bicycles now have a front-placed basket of a colour to match the bike's paint job. Black for the boys and White for the girls. There is no in-between colour. Nobody knows why. The handlebars for both bicycles are low and flat. They too have handbrakes that are nice and quiet. Rear-view mirrors are present for reasons unknown to the rider(s). The same can be said for the bicycle light that works via pedal power. (There are no lights on a primary school kid's bike as they just aren't out that late.) There is usually a broken bell on the handlebar. The bicycle seats are not comfortable, and are now hard uncomfortable and thus considered practical leather triangles. The seats remain this way or the remainder of the rider's life.

There is very little English printed on the bikes, except for three or four incomprehensible paragraphs. This, too is a continued feature. Want your example? Okay: "ere is it then? How can you expect me to set the tableware for nine people when there is only enough for eight? "Relax," said her mother, "simply go next door to Mrs. Filmore's house and ask if you can borrow a set of flatware." "I thought you wanted tableware? What the Hell is fla".

Hmmm... the dialogue seems to have continued from the primary school kid's bicycle. I wonder what will happen next?

Helmets are now required for the chu gakkusai (middle/junior high student). Failure to wear one--along with your school uniform--every day, even when not at school, can cause ridicule and humiliation for the parents.

In senior high school (Grades 10-12), the boys graduate to a different, more cool-looking bicycle in an effort to get girls and to avoid being bullied to death by tough-looking boys from technical schools who weren't smart or lucky enough to be able to cheat on their high school entrance exams. The bicycles are identical to their junior high school versions, except that the handle bars are now vertical, with grips just large enough to contain the handbrakes, which are still very quiet. Helmets are no longer required as there are none that will fit over the average student's 1950's bouffant or 2000's goth hair-do.

The senior high school girls generally have the same style of bicycle they had in junior high school. If they want to look cool they never ride their own bike, instead they stand on the bolts that hold the rear tire of a friend's or better yet a boy's bike. They too wear no helmet for reasons of coolness and hair (often synonymous with each other amongst Japanese people and certain foreign teachers writing blogs).

Writing on the bicycles is non-existent, which now has me wondering what the heck is going on with that story!

Then it all just stops. After high school no one has a bike. Nobody rides a bike. Except for the old folks. There they are: 70-, 80-, 193-years-old, and their out riding a bicycle. Sort of. Can you imagine your grand-parents riding on a bicycle? Okay, even if mine weren't dead it would boggle my mind.

The old men ride a bicycle that is wholly reminiscent of the junior high school version complete with broken bell. They ride with their skinny legs pedaling a bike - just like Kermit The Frog (FROG LEGS).

As for the old women - it's the same bike as what they used in high school, except the women have now shrunk in stature. They hunch over with their hands thrust into mitts permanently welded to the handlebars. Their bicycles also lack a functioning bell, too. Nobody wears a helmet because the extra weight could cause their heads to snap down into their torso.

There is writing on the bicycles, however! The story continues: "tware? And Mrs. Filmore died yesterday after thieves broke in and ransacked the place. "They killed her?" asked her mother. "No, but she died of a heart attack when she saw the mess - you know how anal retentive she is about keeping her place spotless." "Oh, yeah," said the mother. "Better ask her husband about borrowing the knives and forks then."

I'm unsure who the writer is on these bicycles, but I like his or her style.

Although the old folks lack a functioning bell, fear not, they have something better. Whenever they slow down or stop their bicycle, they squeeze the handbrake which emits an ear-splitting whine that can shatter a rock. You know they are coming.

All bicycles for the elderly are built in this manner. The people who build bicycles are quite aware that if an old person takes a hand away from the handlebar to attempt to ring the non-functioning bell, they will probably swerve into a rice field where farmers could accidentally urinate on them during planting season. That's why all senior citizen bikes have the safety screech warning system.

I hate the noise. everybody hates the noise. But, it does keep them out of the rice fields.

Just today (before, if you aren't reading this when I wrote this, which was a while ago, even though I am writing it now), I was watching an old lady ride her bicycle agonizingly slow on what the Japanese fondly call a sidewalk (the rest of the world calls them sewer system covers). She was riding in a straight line averaging about nine wicked serves a minute. I heard her apply her brakes as there was a primary school boy a good 100 metres in front of her. The boy jumped in fright at the cacophony and quickly ran to the side (the middle of the road) and waited the two minutes for her to pass.

Then the real fun began. The old lady noticed another old lady riding her bike towards her. Swerving.

Brakes were applied in a friendly warning to the other. The swerving continued. As they approached each other, I could see one of the women squinting around looking for a high level of ground upon which she could step down onto until the trouble passed.

But there was none.

She bravely swerved on.

It took a full four minutes and 47 seconds, but they miraculously swerved around each other while bowing deeply.

I still have nightmares (today, as of your reading this) of the old women and their double-helix bicycle paths. I dread having to ride my bicycle past an old lady or Kermit the Frog on the street (shudder).

Somewhere bicycle writing,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title from Nazareth: BICYCLE

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Talk To Me: A Survivor's Tale of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb

Originally titled: An Interview With A Catholic Priest. You'd think the old title would tell it all - well, not this time. Rather than get into a discussion of religious views, I thought I'd try to learn more about the man behind the cloth.

Pretty much right beside my apartment building sits the Ohtawara Catholic Church. I guess I'm not much of a Catholic, because I never visited, and only did so reluctantly after I received a phone call from the parish saying that they had received some of my mail by mistake.

Padre Bernard Hiyamizu Yoshimi is a member of the Order of Franciscan Monks living and working in the Buddhist-dominated culture of Japan. The Padre is a thick-set gentleman of average height (5'-8") with a full head of black hair with a few strands of grey that belie his 65 years. He has bushy eyebrows that peek out from behind his tortoise-shell glasses.

As with most holy men I have met, he has a cherubic smile. I think he senses I'm not afraid of him. I think most people he sees are afraid of him because of who he works for, and that makes them uncomfortable. It also makes him feel uneasy because of the suffocating effect his presence can have, though he wouldn't admit to that when I asked him later.

It was a strange feeling as I watched him grind the beans to make a strong pot of coffee. He asked me all sort of impersonal questions about my life in Japan as he served me some cheesecake. Between mouthfuls of delight, I began to chat with him about his life.

"I was born on Goto Island. It's a tiny chain of islands two hours to the West of Nagasaki," he began. Immediately my ears perked up as some quick mathematical calculations would have put him near the second atomic blast in his 17th or 18th year.

"You're right. My family moved to Nagasaki city when I was 12. I was there when the bomb exploded. I wasn't in the actual destruction zone of the bomb. I guess it was sheer luck or God's will that I was far away to have ben spared the nightmare," he says catching himself.

"But the next day (August 12, 1945), I went down into the city to help the injured."

I tried to study his face, but it gave no clue--I wondered if it shook his faith in God. However, I promised myself I would not get into a religious discussion with him.

It suddenly dawns on me that he walked into a city a mere 24 hours after it had been bathed in radioactive fire--and it was still burning--to help the injured.

"Well," he pondered whimsically, "you have to remember that no one knew how dangerous it really was. We knew people had very bad burns on their bodies, but we didn't know the atomic bomb would cause lingering death so many years into the future.

"So I went into Nagasaki and stayed there for weeks."

I hesitate to ask him about his own health, so he asks for me. "Am I well? I'm 65-years-old, and I'm happy with my life and with God." I wanted to ask him about what he saw, what he felt, but he sat there with such a grim resolve that I knew he was suppressing something. I just met the man. Best just to leave well enough alone.

In October of that year, he went east to Tokyo to enter the priesthood. He said he had reached that decision when he was 10-years-old, but it took many years of pleading to convince his parents of his calling.

I asked him if he had ever felt any prejudice for his religious preference - after all, here in Japan, the nail that stands up gets hammered down--conforming is expected.

He said he had never felt it, nor had his parents. He supposed his grandfather may have, because that was around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Not everyone embraced the views of the foreign visitors. His grandfather did when he converted to Christianity.

As a young monk, he soon had his own parish in Nagasaki. Now after 41 years in the priesthood, he lives in a small, rural city named Ohtawara, which literally translates to: big-rice field-field. His  church is always full with his small flock of about 50 people (including my friend Tomura-sensei of Wakakusa Junior High School). He said he did hope to add me to his flock. Perhaps his desire to talk with me was to measure my mettle--just as mine was to measure his.

It was then that I thought about doing a few more of these 'interviews' for some future project (this blog). Divine inspiration? The Father wasn't saying. He just sat there and giggled.

My talk with Father Bernard was not interesting for the things he had done while under his contract with God, but rather what he did prior. Hearing, feeling and seeing an atomic mushroom and then walking into it to help people makes him far more interesting than the labels of religion.

It showed me the measure of the man.

Somewhere opening up my mail,

Andrew Joseph

Today's title is by Stevie Nicks.
PS: The photo above shows the memorial in Nagasaki when on February 5, 1597, the locals killed 26 visiting Jesuit missionaries who were attempting to spread Christianity in Japan. The memorial was constructed in 1962 and contains 26 life-sized bronze statues.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Great Balls of Fire

Originally titled: Oh, my Buddha!
Welcome to Japan - 1991.
A chill permeates the air. Trees have traded their green togs for more flamboyant ones. Nighttime descends rapidly upon the unsuspecting participants. Peace on Earth and goodwill to everyone, as shops have their annual Christmas sales.
Hey! Waitaminute! This is Japan!
Christmas sales? Ninety per cent of the population is Buddhist. What is going on here?!
As I'm sure everyone knows (this is sarcasm), 26 true-believers of the word of Christianity were murdered in Nagasaki over 300 years ago. And even until maybe 15 years ago, it wasn't a good idea to admit you preferred god over kamisama (Japanese word for god).
So what has happened? Why are the stores celebrating THE Christian enkai (party) of Christmas? Are there a lot of Christians now living in Japan? Nope - 99.7 per cent of all Japanese are Buddhist. Could it be for the small foreign contingent living here posing as English teachers? There's only about 1500 of us on the JET Programme.
Or, could this all just be a sham, as the Japanese retailers have found yet another way to sucker the populace who are are well-known to have a love-affair with American culture?
Jumping on the theme of Japan's Western fidelity, merchants have been able to sell every western-style culture to the hungry masses. American baseball caps, Budweiser, Valentine's Day (which the Japanese have corrupted to be the day women give presents to men first, and then on March 14 - White Day - men give presents to women... it's so they don't waste their time giving presents to a woman who might rebuff them), Boss Day (although not popular back home, it is a billion-yen business propelled by the butt-kissing workers in Japan), Halloween and now Christmas.
Japanese families are now putting up Christmas trees, decorating them with stars and angels and placing presents underneath. When I asked why, no one had a proper answer, except that everyone else was doing it. Ah, so desu ne (oh yeah). Keeping up with the Suzuki's. The true meaning of Christmas is more sales and inventory clearance.
Fortunately, they haven't gone all the way yet. With the exception of a KFC (Colonel Sander's old place) advertisement, Christmas has not yet come to television. Rudolph, the Grinch and Frosty have not yet made a miraculous appearance.
Hurry people, hurry. There are only 35 more shopping days until that event two days after the Emperor's birthday. Read about the BIRTHDAY presented here.
(In the photo here, you can see the Crown Prince (next in-line to the Emperor) Naruhito and his wife, Crown Princess Masako, when they came to visit Tochigi-ken in July 1993, seen here at Nasu-Shiobara train station. Lousy photo, but I was far away and using a disposable camera. It's the closest thing I have to a photo of an Emperor.) 
While I am not one to begrudge anyone wishing to celebrate Christmas, I am sorely disappointed that few Japanese seem to know or care about the tradition they are making a mockery of.
Although... come to think of it... the West seems to make quite a mockery of the sacred tradition of Christmas, too. Oh well, I guess the Japanese are just copying the West, after all.

Somewhere wondering how I'm supposed to afford 23 Christmas presents for my office. Owe-owe-owe,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Today's title is by the one and only Jerry Lee Lewis. It's HOT! This is from the Dennis Quaid movie, of the same name as today's blog - It's HOTTER!
PPS: Why this title? Think about the lead-in phrase to Great Balls of Fire.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Red Beans And Rice

This one was originally titled: Of Rice and Yen.
As a foreigner from a country not quite the United States, but often mistaken for the same, I am constantly asked about my feelings about the Japanese-Yankee rice trade. My first reaction  is, of course, who gives a rat's you-know-what, but as an ambassador for Canada (aka U.S.A Jr.), I should perhaps not speak so irrationally. Or maybe not.
Let's see.... Hmm. At every school I visit, I get a school lunch served to me that invariably consists of rice and something else. I always get asked (always!) is Japanese rice is oishii (tasty)? How the heck would I know? It's rice isn't it? It tastes like rice, so how is this rice any more delicious than any other rice?
Now, the taste of chili con carne a la Andrew is oishii, but rice is like o-cha (green tea). To quote my friend and fellow AET Tim Mould; "It's got no taste!"
However, all Japanese people swear that Japanese ri-su tastes better than American rice. How do they know? have they ever sampled California rice? I don't think that Rice-A-Roni or Rice Krispies count. For that matter, how many American's actually know where the rice they rarely eat comes from?
Since I am almost from America, the Japanese are anxious to know of opinion regarding the taste differences. Now while I can tell the difference between new Coke, Classic Coke, Diet Coke, Caffeine-free Coke, Diet Caffeine-free Coke, Cherry Coke, Diet Cherry Coke, Taste-free Coke (o-cha), RC Cola, Pepsi Cola, Pepsi Free, Diet Pepsi, Spam Pepsi and several species of bathtub mold (not Tim), I just couldn't explain the nuances between the western and eastern rices.
Then it dawned on me. Since I am of Indian heritage (dot, not the feather), the rice my folks eat must be Indian rice. I never at much rice while growing up until I got to Japan, and that was only so I wouldn't starve to death. I have observed that Indian rice is a long-grained rice that doesn't stick together, while Japanese rice is a long-grained fruit (vegetable - what the hell is it??!!) that sticks together until you pour soyu (soy) sauce on it. And what of American rice?
Is it different from the other two? A long-grained rice that sticks together? It has to stick together or else the Japanese would never buy it - chopsticks, don't you know.
Anyhow, the Japanese won't let the American rice into their country (circa 1992) because according to the Japanese, the U.S. of A. sprays a preservative chemical on its rice so that it can be safely transported abroad.
The Japanese say, between puffs of cigarettes and gulps of whiskey and sake (rice wine), that they are wary of chemicals that might be harmful to themselves.
A word to the wise, people: If Japanese rice IS more tasty than American rice, it may be because of all of the drunk men who routinely relieve themselves in the rice fields. Yum. I'll have bread, please.

Somewhere in a rice field,
Andrew Joseph       
PS: Today's title is by Booker T & The MGs  - GROOVE to their heavy sound. Awesome stuff.
PPS: While the Japanese DO love many things American, they hate it when it threatens their cultural identity... and rice is a cultural identity for the Japanese.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Substitute

Konnichiwa (Hello). How are you? I'm fine thank-you. An-do-ryu? Ha-ha! Itsu my joke. I say instead 'How are you!
My-on-aise is Takashi Tsuruno. Mis-ta An-do-ryu is on bacation andu hasu asked me to fill his oki (large) shoes. Thirty centimetres. Sugoi, ne (cool, huh?)
He didn't tell me what to write, except he say to make it funny. I think I will perhaps I will try to do my best. Maybe.
What do you like sports? Maybe basu-ball will be funny, but I don'to like basu-ballu bery much. I like the Tokyo Giants.
Sumo I hate. Bigu hate. I like Takanohana and Wakanohana and Chyonofuji. I don'to like Musahshimaru, Konishiki or Akebono. I don'to know why. Mr. An-do-ryo once told me that when the gaijin sumo players (last three mentioned) win a game, you can'to hear the crickets because they are Japanese crickets. He thinks the Japanese crickets only like Takanohana and Wakanohana, too. Of course. They are bery handsome boys.
Let'su have a conbersation together with soccer. I like soccer bery much. I play soccer when I was in a junior high school student. I play soccer ebery day. I play bench. I like soccer bery much. I like the new J-Reague bery much.
I like their hairstyles bery much. Kak-ko-ii, ne (cool, eh)? I want to cut my hair like Kazu (Kazuyoshi Miura, Japanese soccer player and 1993 Asian Player of the Year)... but, my mazur (???? oh, he means 'mother') says: Dame! (No way!). She says no one in my office has hair like that, so i can't either. She's right, I suppose. Besides I can'to afford the hair-care products.
Isn't the new J-Reague great? I went to see the soccer game in Utsonomiya (Tochigi-ken's capital city south of Ohtawara) on June 30 (1993). My mazur made me some food. I ate some tako-yaki (octopus balls, though no testicles... like the Chinese chicken balls, ya perv). I had a beeru. I had some O-zushi (sushi) and another beeru. Then I had some shiokara (squid guts) and a beeru and some ikka (squid) tempura (tempura) and a beeru. Oishiiiiiiiii! (tastyyyyyyyy!). Eberything always tastes better at the stadium.
I bought a nice basu-ballu cap and a shirt with a killa whale (it's not so tasty, but we have heard it is a part of Japanese tradition, so we have to kill it and eat it), some key chains with all of the team mascots on them that I gave as meibutsu (non-food presents) to my office workers who were with me at the game. I also purchased some bean paste in the shape of a soccer ball for omiyage (food-based presents) that I gave to my boss because he let me sit four seats to the right of him when everyone knew I should have been five seats away. He is a bery goodu boss.
At half-time when the raser (laser) light show and dancers were on, I went to one of the gift shops and bought some nice flags to wave (I hope I didn't block anyone's view!). I also got some some bumper stickers that look cute, but I can't put on my new white car, or else I won't get full trade-in value when I get rid of it next year.
The game was bery excited. My office was doing the 'wave'. We had to. Eberyone else was. We didn't want to stand out like a gaijin. I don'to remember who won, because I don'to know who was playing. There were, however, lots of deer horns and JR train men pointing at invisible signs (Kashima Antlers vs. JEF United, I believe). I like Mitsubishi Red Diamonds best because I have a white Mitsubishi car. All my friends have one. I think we work for Mitusbishi. Okay. I am finished now. Bai-bai.

Someone else,
Tsuruno Taka-san.
Title by The Who. I ask Mr. An-do-ryo who sings. He says 'Exactly' and then laughs. I don'to get it. Stupid gaijin jodan (foreigner joke).
PS - Photo - that's Mis-ta An-do-ryu on bacation in Saipan. I think we took over that island in WWII.

Friday, June 18, 2010

HELP

See Masahiro run.
See Kimiko run.
See Naoko welcome you.
See Kazuo welcome you.
See Chieko do more for you than you asked.
See the pretty little people wearing their pretty little uniform uniforms.
See Pochi bark and wake-up Andrew.
The above sentences aptly describe a visit to any Japanese service-oriented area--with perhaps the exception of Pochi the dog... even though it's true, too.
The wonderful thing about Japan is that the so-called 'services' sector in the West is an honest description here. For those of us having visited a store in Japan, you'll not find one instance of a worker there bowing and scraping and welcoming us into the establishment they work for.
Where else but Japan could a person walk by a gas service station and hear happy little workers run and welcome customers in polite shouts--complete with modern Japanese rock music playing in the background. After asking how much fuels is needed, the station attendants begin, in teams, to check: the oil; tires; antifreeze; empty the full to over-flowing ashtrays; and clean every speck of glass on the car and any the driver might be wearing. After servicing both driver and car, they then clear a path for easy access onto the road. A person doesn't even ned to ask for these services.
Yosh, sumimasen (hey, excuse me). Restaurants and bars are an experience not to be missed, as most readers of this blog seem to like their al-key-hall. Folks in these industries run all over the place quickly getting you food and drinks and actually seem happy about it.
TIPS... it's an acronym meaning "To Insure Prompt Service". Tips are not a part of the Japanese vocabulary. Now recall the folks were you live. Remember how the waiters won't let you out the door unless the tip you may or may not have left met with everybody's satisfaction?
I can still picture those fine eating establishments where you have to tip the guy who opened your car door, the guy who parked your car, the hat and coat-check girl, bribed the maître d' to admit he hadn't lost your your dining reservation, the guy who brings you the food you may have ordered, and the guy bringing your car back around so you can finally leave.
In Japan, if you leave money on the table for their good work, they promptly run after you. When your car finally stops at a red light, they politely knock on your window, bow deeply while extending their arms straight out to you holding the money you must have mistakenly left behind, apologize for disturbing your red light, bow and bow again before leaving for that jog back to the restaurant.
And what of the banks? All of the women who work servicing customers--they are ALL women--look sooooo cute in their pretty little uniforms and aesthetically similar hair - smiling and gesturing and trying to get all of your banking done for you, even though you are in the wrong line.
And then there are the plethora of bicycle repair shops that dot the landscape. Sure Japan has a lot of bikes, but surely it doesn't need a 1 to 1 ratio of repair shop to bicycle? How do they make enough money to survive? On one occasion, a shop fixed my light, patched a flat and straightened a tire - in 10 minutes.  Back home it might or might not be ready for you on Monday, but you can pick it up on Wednesday because Tuesday is when we're playing golf, and when you do, bring a long your credit card and several bank statements to prove you can afford the charge. In Japan, it cost me ¥500 (yen) which is only $5.64 Canadian. The guy only asked for ¥200 ($2.25), but it just didn't seem right, and I didn't wish to take advantage of my minor celebrity status.




Somewhere enjoying the good life - except for that darn dog,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by The Beatles. On their 1965 HELP album,  the British Parlophone cover (see photo on top) shows the Beatles using their hands in flag semaphore letters to spell out H-E-L-P. Except it doesn't. The U.S. Capitol Records release (see photo above my signature) has the lads standing in different positions, but it too doesn't spell HELP. The UK version spells; N-U-J-V, while the US version spells N-V-U-J.
HELP, I can't spell.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What I Like About You

Do you know what I hate?
People lacking every day manners. It's when you go through a door, take a look behind you and hold a door open for some people a fair distance away, who simply walk through yakking to each other and don't bother to say thank-you.
It sucks. They suck. And, it puts me in a foul mood.
On many an occasion, I have turned back around, bowed deeply and snidely remarked: "You're welcome your highness" before walking off.
Only once has someone had the guts to actually apologize for their rudeness - which was quickly (and gratefully) accepted by myself.
Its like this happens at least once a day at work - I'm in a company complex with maybe 5,000 people in it. Perhaps it's just my dumb luck to always hold the door open for jerks.
In Japan, I never had that occur. In three years there, I found the Japanese to pretty much be en masse a very polite country.
Perhaps that was my dumb luck, too, and the current lack of manners here in Toronto is just some karmic evening up of things.
Was it simply me being a gaijin (foreigner/outsider) that commanded me instant respect in Japan - or was it because the profession of teacher is highly respected? Both and neither.
This entire blog is built on observance. I like to watch people. And learn. I watch social interaction between friends and strangers. Let me tell you, while there may be a difference in familiarity, it does not breed contempt in Japan.
The bow (atama) or even a nod is a sign of respect and acknowledgment, and both are rampant in Japanese society... it's almost as though the Japanese people actually walk through life with their head held a little higher so that they can actually see people pass by.
I'm not saying that the Japanese people are constantly bowing and scraping whenever a stranger walks by, but I'm not saying they don't do it. It's like they know or have had it beaten into them, that people matter.
Why I chose to stay three years in Japan wasn't just about a crippling recession going on in North America circa 1990-1993 - rather it was because I enjoyed the people there.
And not just the other gaijin AETs (asisitant English teachers) in the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme - many of whom I was friends with or slept with. Okay, maybe that was a reason to stay three years - but I never felt insignificant there in Ohtawara or Japan. Not like I sometimes do here in Toronto.
I know I said it before, but it sucks.
Manners - Gyogi.
The Japanese have a difficult time in saying "NO" to a person and instead have invented 15 ways to say "Maybe"... which if you hear, you know it means no. It's meant to spare one's feelings.
Japanese people are always bowing and offering others a chance to go first. I've held doors and not once did I get anything but a hai domo (yeah, thanks). Not once was I let down.
He has good manners - Kare-wa gyogi-ga-ii.
Okay, people in line don't stand back and  let others go first, but at least they know how to form a line. In Toronto, screw women and children, it's every man for himself - especially on the buses or trains, where Torontonians never met a line they could get behind.
I told you about once overpaying for a taxi (phonetically spoken in Katakana as 'takushi'--ta-ku-shi)  by about $450 - my first night out with Ashley while in Tokyo - and how the driver corrected my mistake. Re-read it HERE. There might be a test on this later.
In the next blog, I'll tell you a bit more about the service industry in Japan - specifically the people involved in it.

Somewhere bowing deeply to the Japanese for showing me the courtesy of good manners,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by The Romantics - I love their music! Have a listen - PLEASE.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Seven Nation Army - okay, 32 nation army

With the 2010 World Cup going on in South Africa, and Japan being involved--as of this writing, it had just beaten Cameroon 1-0 in its first match of the games--it seems prudent to talk about an important event in Japanese soccer that occurred while I was there.
I'd been a hotshot half-back and coach--I once coached the Humber College Women's Indoor Soccer Team (Why women? They looked a helluva lot better than the guys did in their shorts!), and although by 1992 I was only 27 years old, I was nearly nine years removed from my last game played.
I was out of shape, lacked the aggressive killer instinct that made-up for my lack of skill, and maintained the ego to think I was still a decent football player.
After playing 40 minutes with my students at Kaneda Kita Chu Gakko (Kaneda Kita (North) Junior High School) at their soccer club activity and doing nothing except suck wind, it was obvious that my days of glory had long since passed. All that was left for me to do was to become an armchair soccer player.
Fortunately for myself and others of my ilk, Japan had just organized itself its first big-time professional soccer league, affectionately called "J-League".
Although the first year of the League in 1992 was essentially a round robin contest for the Nabisco Cup involving 10 professional teams, it merely whet the appetite of the crazed Japanese for more soccer.
When the first official J-League games began in 1993, the Japanese were rabid. Really. Frothing at the mouth, blathering on and on about all things football.
This new J-League consisted of 10 teams in 1993: Kashima Antlers, Urawa Red Diamonds (Reds), JEF (JR East Fukukawa) United Ichihara (now Chiba), Tokyo Verdy Kawasaki, Nissan F.C. Yokohama Marinos, Yokohama A.S. Flügels (folded after the 1998 season), Shimizu S-Pulse, Nagoya Grampus Eight (have dropped the Eight from the name), Gamba Osaka and Sanfrecce Hiroshima FC.
If you check out the photos scattered about, you'll see stickers of the team logos for seven of 10 teams plus the J-League's official mascot. Looks weenie, but know that nobody does cute like the Japanese. Cute sells in Japan. And it must have worked, because the Japanese know their soccer.
A key signing for the J-League was one Gary Lineker (and HERE), a damn fine English soccer player who played for Nagoya Grampus from 1992-94 before retiring. Other famous players include Kashima Antlers signing of Brazil's Zico (and HERE), and Jef United taking Germany's Pierre Littbarski. They all lent the league instant credibility.
So what's the big deal? Well, aside from playing an exciting attacking game of soccer, Japan focused more money and effort into having its national team become more than an also-ran in qualifications leading up to the World Cup.
Although the national team won a bronze medal in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, the lack of a home league killed any possible growth of the game. Thanks to the J-League, however, beginning in 1998 through 2010, Japan has qualified for the last four World Cup's.
And, while I did not pick Japan to make any noise in this year's tourney, I am happy to see myself proved wrong -- after this first match.

Somewhere saying Ganbatte kudasai (Do your best/good luck, please)!
Andrew Joseph
First half of the musical title by The White Stripes.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Crystal Ship

This was originally called "Weather Tis Nobler In The Mind To Suffer The Slings And Arrows Of Outrageous Fortune" - but that's not a song by a rock group.

I really needed a vacation. I didn't go anywhere during the winter - and it showed.
No longer was I the sparkling model of efficiency (my view). Now I was a borderline paranoid hypochondriac (everyone else's view). I started developing headaches and dizzy spells, and complained to anyone who would or wouldn't listen all about it. There's no way it could have been due to the blow to the head suffered a few chapters ago in the bike/car collision(s). It had to be stress.
On March 21, 1991 I was off work, though pundits might suggest that I've been 'off' for years.
Myself and Ashley, who may possibly be my girlfriend at this exact point in time, or perhaps not, rode our bicycles to the Nishinasuno-eki (eki means 'station') at about 6AM. We laughed at the cold and bitter gale that blew in our faces with such fury that we occasionally had to stop to walk our bikes--we knew that later in the day we'd be in the warm regions of Japan.
After traveling up to Kuroiso on the local JR (Japan Rail) line, we caught a shinkansen (bullet train) to Ueno-eki in Tokyo and then caught another bullet train west to Kyoto. To-kyo and Kyo-to. Notice how each city uses the same two words? Tokyo literally translates into 'Eastern Gate' and Kyoto into 'Gate to the East'. It's funny what sticks in your head for 20 years.
Arriving in Kyoto at noon (not including biking, it was a 525 kilometre trip... and that six-hours includes lots of time spent walking to tracks and waiting for trains and the local train ride north to catch the shinkansen) we quickly walked to a youth hostel and booked space for the evening. It wasn't my idea, but more whining on that later. It's time for whining of a different nature, about nature.
Ashley and I then went sight-seeing. She had a plan, and that's a good thing because I, due to an innate lack of direction, tend to go whichever way the wind blows.
We checked out a few temples, but by our third such tourist trap, it was quite evident that the weather was as cold as some of my girlfriends had occasionally been, though not as this particular moment.
I, by some quirk of luck, had a coat. Ashley, did not. Not wanting her to freeze to death, I gave her my coat which was gratefully accepted. Chivalry may not be dead, but I secretly wished it was.
Later that evening at the youth hostel, I had to try and sleep on a thread-bare futon with a skimpy blanket. I froze my muscular butt off. Even worse, to avoid hanky-panky, all male visitors had to sleep in a room separate from the women. How is this enjoyable?
But, like all of my adventures, the worst was yet to come.
The second day in Kyoto (March 22), it rained. Hard and cold. Here are some wet photos of KYOTO. Remember, only one of us had a coat, but I did still have a baseball cap. I insisted we go to a hotel (heck, I'm buying), but the Japanese-style one Ashley chose unfortunately had a hissing and flying cockroach in it that was, without exaggeration, the size of my foot (30-centimetres=12-inches or one perfect foot). That cockroach seemed to take great pleasure in dive bombing us.
Anyhow, screaming like little girls--which is fine for Ashley--we spent the night under the covers. No sex, but rather to protect ourselves from this refugee from a Godzilla film.
For our third day, we decided to try our luck in nearby Osaka, which had previously been lucky for me (HERE). It was drizzling rain, but was awfully cold. I was again without a coat--why didn't we go shopping for a coat??!!--and I was thinking how nice Ohtawara would be at this time of year. What was I thinking? March in Ohtawara would be the same as here.
Anyhow, here's a link back to the famous Osaka-jo castle - CASTLE.
Did I mention that neither Ashley or I had brought more than one set of warm clothes each? Dicey.
From Osaka, Ashley had us take a 9PM ferry boat ride to Kyushu. While waiting, we visited the absolutely stunning Osaka Aquarium. This is a must-see place - Here's a Video.
After getting useless information from many a Japanese person (probably tourists!), we finally were able to find the ferry's ticket office. While they didn't have any cabins available--apparently they are booked months in advance-- we were able to get economy class accommodations. It meant not having our own room, and we'd have to share it - something like a youth hostel, but we'd at least be together.
How bad could it be? I figured we'd get a futon and blanket to use on a gymnasium-sized floor. Mope. Here on the HMS Bounty II, we (us and a gaggle of Nihonjin) were let to a holding pen that was about 40 per cent smaller than the average-size junior high school classroom (where each class of mine had 25-30 students).
On the floor, 48 blankets were placed - six rows of eight blankies. Each blanket was four-feet long and one-foot wide. When Ashley and I put our traveling luggage down, there wasn't much room left at all. It was a 15-hour voyage.
I won't delve into the fact that there were seven additional rooms jut like ours - all with their own stand-up video game coin-ops right outside the room where the door never closed. Heck, Ashley and I were lucky... there were about 50 more people who were unable to find a 'space' in the rooms and had to sit/flop on chairs next to the door that led to the outside deck... and for some reason, that door was also open more often than not.
I no longer had to wonder how 5000 people can drown in Bangladesh when a ferry capsizes.
The next morning's weather was, at least, nice and sunny. Still, it was no small comfort to me to have to experience this hellish nightmare. Yup. Don't pay the ferry man, until he gets you to the other side.
At least this boat-hell was an appropriate passage to Beppu. The town of Beppu is known for its numerous hells - hot steaming pools and geysers made of unearthly colours that would seem highly reminiscent of Hell had anyone actually been there and described it to the Japanese Tourist Board.
My first day in Hell was warm and pleasant, though our second day there consisted of a steady rain. Check out Pix of BEPPU taken from a 1930's photo album I picked up at a 'garage sale' in Utsunomiya, the capital of Tochigi-ken. THIS photo is one I have of a nice red Hell - red from the heavy iron content in the water.
The day after that, we traveled to Miyazaki, home to a 36-metre high Peace Tower that was built in 1940, a year before Japan's attack on the U.S. protectorate of Hawaii. It was raining in Miyazaki. A lot. Mere words can not even begin to describe how hard and cold the rain was. WET PHOTO. This the only photo I have or found worth taking of this place.
The following day, we ventured to Kagoshima. While it wasn't raining (yet), it was very grey and overcast. the clouds obscured a magnificent volcano that guide book says is there. Maybe the gods had thought I had left the city, but the sun came out for a few minutes allowing me to snap a few photos to prove it really existed. Did you know that photographs taken directly of the sun the sun don't come out very well?
Here are some KAGOSHIMA PIX from that old photo album plus a few I took.
Our penultimate stop was Nagasaki. I was disappointed. I mean I knew that the city had the crap bombed out of it by an atomic bomb back in 1945, but I expected to see some cool buildings there rebuilt in the old style framed by the dull grey skies. Instead, I got buildings that looked a lot like they were based on American design. To make matters worse, for a city that once glowed with nuclear radiation, this very hilly city made walking a bitch. And, it was still cold enough that Ashley and I had to continue wearing our 'warm' clothes - still damp and now onto our eighth day).
It rained again the next day, but we did spend time checking out the atomic bomb museum. Man. Never again should we ever use an atomic or nuclear weapon. Horrible stuff, but definitely worth the visit.
Here are the only photos I have of NAGASAKI thanks to a house fire.
On the tenth day, it was time for us to head back home to Tochigi-ken. It was drizzling when we left, but when we arrived back at our bicycles in Nishinasuno-eki, it was raining harder that it had all trip. It was also 10C colder.
Oh yeah, on the two trips west and back, Mt. Fuji was obscured by clouds. Japan's tallest and most-famous mountain and I haven't seen it in nine months, even though it's supposed to be visible from the Nasu Mountain north of Ohtawara. It's just always been raining or snowing or fogging.
Oh well. At least I had fun, and more importantly, not only did I get to see a lot of great sights, I finally got to change my clothes.
What kills me is that it's not even the rainy season yet. Yeesh.

Somewhere building an ark,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title: The Doors. "There is the known and the unknown, and in between are the doors."

Friday, June 11, 2010

New Year's Day

It's New Year's Eve, 1990. This holiday season has sucked for a variety of reasons: my now on-again girlfriend, Ashley, is away on a vacation to Thailand without me; my family and friends a million miles away; and I don't know if this holiday season is worth celebrating.
And then I remember that I'm in Japan.
I've been afforded an opportunity to experience a new language, people, foods and culture that, relatively speaking, few people will ever get to do.
It also helps to have a great friend like Matthew Hall.
There was a fair bit of snow on the ground - 30 centimetres (12 inches), it was chilly with a slight wind, but generally quite a nice night. For those of you who think that Japan is a tropical clime - well, maybe it is in Okinawa way, way south of the main island, but here in Ohtawara, the weather is very close to Toronto's... just not as cold in the winter (and less snow) and more heat and humidity in the summer.
It was around 7:30PM. Feeling down about life, I took a swig from a 2-litre bottle of Coca-Cola and flipped on the television.
THUD-THUD! went my door as someone knocked on it. My friend and supervisor, Kanemaru-san had broken my doorbell yesterday in THIS BLOG.
Grumbling under my breath as to who it could be now (VIDEO), I glanced through the peephole seeing Matthew and his teacher Hideaki Suzuki-san.
This Mr. Suzuki was the first Mr. Suzuki I had ever met in Japan, and he was by far the funniest.
Matthew and I must have lucked out/in (whichever one is good luck), because we seemed to be surrounded in good-natured folk who not only took an interest in our work-life, but also in our home-life, without being overly intrusive.
Anyhow, Matthew and Mr. Suzuki had dropped by to see if I would like to join them at the Ohtawara Temple to ring in the new year. Seeing as how I had nothing better to do and liked these two guys, I did not hesitate to say HAI! (yes!). Although in fairness, if I was closer in distance to that babe Kristine, I would have dropped these guys like a bowl of natto! I'm just saying, is all.
So... we arrive at Koushin-ji (ji means 'temple;) in downtown Ohtawara near the AiAi town grocery store.
Here's an overview of the temple:






It's packed to near over-flowing with people, but I don't see any priests or monks. Apparently it's a tradition for folks to go to the temple's bell (bottom right corner of the temple, and the photo at the top of this blog), make a small donation, pray in front of it and then pull the rope to make the bell ring--I might be wrong, but I believe the ringing of the bell is to wake up the gods to make them hear your prayer/wish.
Maybe it was the fact that there were suddenly TWO gaijin walking amongst them like Godzilla versus Mothra, but we created quite the stir there. I can't speak for Matthew - though in this blog I have certainly tried - but as we moved closer to the bell near the centre of the complex, I kept hearing my name whispered about in growing crescendo.
"an-do-ryu-sensei, An-do-ryu-sensie, AN-do-ryu-sensie; AN-Do-ryu-sensei; AN-DO-ryu-sensei: AN-DO-RYU SENSEI!" (which translates into Andrew Teacher, if my name was said in Japanese Katakana-alphabet phonetics).
It was cool. Having been extremely shy until I was about 24 years of age, I was reveling in my new-found glory at the age of 26.
I was famous. Almost as famous as I was in my own now-egomanical mind. Not surprisingly, I cracked a smile and waved to a few of the people chanting my name--all of whom seemed to be students there with their respective families.
As I walked to the steps toward the bell, a thunderous hush came over the crowd, as they waited breathlessly to see just what the hell a gaijin was going to do at their temple.
The thought did enter my mind that what I was doing might be sacrilegious, but neither Mr. Suzuki or Matthew seemed concerned, and both continued to march alongside me.
I hope they didn't feel like C-3PO, R2-D2 and Chewbacca standing around while Han and Luke got a medal from Princess Leia. NO MEDAL video.
As I approached the bell's rope, Mr. Suzuki whispered that I should toss in a five yen coin, clasp my hands together like I was praying, close my eyes and lower my head slightly; pray; and then pull the rope.
Seems simple enough.
I pulled out my Hanshin Tiger's coin purse (the Tigers are a Japanese baseball team that had ex-Toronto Blue Jays Cecil Fielder on it. Cecil is the big daddy to Prince Fielder, an all-star with the 2010 Milwaukee Brewers).
I cracked open the money holder, fished around a moment and pulled out five one-yen coins and tossed them into the brass prayer vase that was holding the coins this evening.
The crowd sucked in a ton of air, causing many a nearby flaming torch to go out.
Apparently you have to specifically use a five yen coin - not five one yen coins.
I figured, what's the difference? It was the only way I could get rid of these stupid coins!
After Mr. Suzuki quickly explained to me my gaff while interjecting the word bakayaro (stupid idiot) a few times, I offered to do it again, but with the proper coinage.
He shook his head in the negative and gave me one of those looks suggesting that it was alright and that I should continue. I believe it involves a squint and the pushing up of the lower lip hard into the upper lip, while shaking your head.
I prayed. I pulled the bell's rope ringing the 1,875-kilogram bell. I moved to the right and began walking away--to applause.
I was getting a standing ovation - probably because there were no seats - but people seemed to appreciate my effort.
I turned and watched Mr. Suzuki toss in five one yen coins and do his thing. His coins toss was followed by a chorus of "Yata"'s as everyone suddenly realized that using one yen coins was just as good as using a five yen coin! Yata is like a "hooray!" and no one really cares for the one-yen coin, which is the monetary equivalent of $0.000112903 CDN. Visit HERE, if you don't believe me.
Although I had now been here in Japan for five months, this may have been the first time I was actually able to sway people into trying something new.
There's a cultural thing in Japan where if you or I were to present the greatest thing since sliced bread to the Japanese, they would suck in air between their teeth and try and find a nice way to suggest that the old way they've been doing things is still the best way, sliced bread be damned. They prefer rice, anyhow.

Somewhere, a ringing bell means another angel has got his wings---that's from the Jimmy Stewart movie where I swiped the title of this blog from. Jimmy rules!
Okay, that ending was lame. Let's try again.
Somewhere, it's a new year, and I feel good about things again,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Today's title by U2.
PPS: With all that bell pulling, Suzu-ki translates into Bell-tree.
PPPS: What did I wish for? Better times with Ashley? Any time with Kristine? My apartment to defrost? Believe it or not, I wished for the altruistic world peace rather than the women.
PPPS: Wish I had a do over. My apartment is freezing, but better times with the women might have helped me feel warmer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny

Because someone demanded it, presented for the first time in nearly 20 years... the awesome origin of Ralph Tochigi, the most interesting man in the world (feel free to add assorted ooh's and aah's) and the inventor of the Zippo lighter that saved a rice field and destroyed tastebuds in one fell swoop - that story is here: NATTO.
This story is his bio. Welcome, welcome to you bet your life. Say the magic word and win a hundred dollars. If you remember where this line is from you may already be dead. DUCK.
Bitten by a radioactive spider, young Ralph Tochigi... no, that's not it. How about: Rocketing to Earth from the dying planet Krypton... no, that's been done, too.
Ummmmm... ummmm... (writer's block)... ummmm... born in Florence, Italy in 1479, Ralph was the first child to be named after noted Renaissance artist Raphael. Unfortunately, his art-loving mother, April, missed the mark a bit, as the painter would not be born until four years later. Also, her spelling was atrocious as she left out an "a" and an "i" out of her son's name. (Editor's note: That should be an "a" and an "e"). Right. Sorry.
Since his father was a Japanese rice farmer and had a helluva commute every day, his family (including Ralph's brother's Mike and Don and his sister Mona Lisa) decided, once and for all, to move to Nippon (that's Japan, you gaijin, you) in the autumn of 1490.
This meant that young Ralph has missed a year and a half of school and would not be allowed to attend until next April (no, not his Mom).
Instead of pining away his day playing non-invented video-games, he decided instead to learn farming techniques from his father Ed (short for Edo), in the town of Sakuyama in Shimotsuke-ken (what is currently known as Tochigi-ken, or the Province of Tochigi).
After 12 hours of intensive studying, he had learned all there was to know. Still, it wasn't enough. He decided to try and make his dad's rice the oishi-est (tastiest) in all of Japan.
By the age of 12, Ralph had discovered that urinating on rice while it was growing made the harvested grain taste better. He then sought to determine which imbibed liquid beverage would add the right "flavour" to his urine. It turned out to be sake (Japanese rice wine), which he accidentally invented when he was 13 years old. (That's another story - maybe).
Young Ralph's fame quickly spread like manure on a rose garden as he decided--for absolutely no reason--to make his father's large square rice field into several smaller squares of rice field.
This was a major break from the conventional techniques of Prairie wheat farmers that would be invented 328-and-a-half years later.
The smaller rice fields were not any easier to work with at first. Then it suddenly dawned on him that it would now be easier to spray an allocation of sake-urine over the smaller rice fields. His discovery revolutionized the face of Japan. Click HERE for some of my awesome photos of rice fields. Makes you hungry, eh?
At the age of 21, Ralph opened up Japan's first 7-11, though it soon folded as his controversial Burrito with corn confused the locals who didn't know what corn was.
One year later he re-opened under the new name of LuLu's. It too failed as the locals could not pronounce the "L's" in the store's name without hurting their tongue--which is apparently needed when eating to avoid choking.
To solve the pronunciation problem, Ralph invented the Katakana alphabet in 1481. However, due to retrograde writing on behalf of the writer (me), the store's copy-writed name had expired.
Y'see, in 1481, Ralph would have only been two-years-old... therefore in order to explain the date, rather than admit to the writer making a mistake, he (me) has chosen to explain it via retrograde writing. Clear? Good. Now someone explain it to the Editor (me).
Later in life, as his powers of genius left him, he moved to the area of Korea now named Utsonomiya (the capital city of Shimotsuke-ken). and opened up the first Pachinko parlour, a game he had devised while asleep. This is what PACHINKO is.
Despite the success of his inventions and discoveries, he did not end up a rich man. He died yen-less after a forced Mafia take-over by the Walt Disney Gang led by hot-tempered Don Aldo.
Although Ralph's ideas are still in use today, he died a broken and bitter man after failing to invent Spam--his favourite food.
Much to his chagrin, a city and prefecture now carry his name. That is, it would have been much to his chagrin if he were still alive and hadn't choked to death on a piece of mochi (Japanese rice cake - Read about it CHOKING) on New Year's Day 1527 at 3:47PM (exactly). It was a Tuesday. This at least, is true.
Somewhere prevaricated by
Andrew Joseph of the Ralph Tochigi Institute of Agriculture and Urology, Ohtawara branch.
PS - Today's title brought to you by the letter P, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the group: (Frank Zappa &) The Mothers of Invention. You won't like it - but I do.
PPS - I guess the writer's block went away.
PPPS - I invented Ralph Tochigi back in 1991 or '92. Check out the guy in the Dos XXs beer commercials for someone who also claims to be the most-interesting man in the world: THIRSTY.
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