Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Bowing for Success: Apology



Japan is a culture of bows (お辞儀) for every occasion. I will be exploring those moments and the proper etiquette for bowing over the course of several weeks.

Posture
Men - hands at the sides
Women - hands at the sides or clasped in front

Movement
Keep your eyes down
Keep your back straight
Bend at the waist

Strategy
Bows of apology are the longest in Japanese culture; just as the langugage has you lowering yourself in the eyes of your observer, so do bows, only literally so.

Bow first. Start apologizing. Continue bowing. Bows of apology usually have you bending your back at a 45 degree angle, especially if you're dealing with a superior. The duration of the bow is important as well; usually three seconds is sufficient, but you should weigh your actions based on the offense.

Special Circumstances

If you happen to be off your feet during a bow, on a tatami mat, it is proper to bow kneeling, with your forehead touching the ground. This is referred to as saikeirei (最敬礼), the most respectful bow.

Unlike in greeting situations, where one speaker will bow a little too far, causing the observer to bow slightly less, and each follow in a series of progressively smaller bows, an apology is for you alone. Make it count - angle, frequency, and duration.

Gaijin on Skis (スキー)



Social Experiment
Try going to a popular ski resort in a full ski mask, covered head-to-toe, and wear a thick set of goggles. It may be your one opportunity to pass for Japanese. The only other way is to be born Japanese.


I thought I'd successfully infiltrated the ranks of the Japanese snowboarding class, but my western nose gave me away; at least, I realized it did as I was shooting down the mountain like a rocket and some passerby still yelled "HELLO!" at me. Did he honestly think I had enough time to reply?

Mizuho Highland is one of the most popular ski areas in Hiroshima Prefecture. Although I had heard the powder could be rather bad at this particular resort, I decided to check it out anyway. Luckily, it was snowing all day, so the powder was excellent. Other conclusions about Japanese skiing:

1. In Hiroshima Prefecture, the ski areas are incredibly small, given what I'm used to in the Rocky Mountains. Maybe between 5-15 slopes per mountain.

2. Snowboarding is incredibly popular here. When I visited Mizuho the population was 90% snowboarders.

3. Maybe this was exclusive to Mizuho Highland, but they had lift tickets that could only be attached not to your jacket zipper, but to your shoulder with a plastic strap you could buy for ¥200.

4. Almost everything else is the same. Gondolas, ski lifts, rental places, overpriced food.


If you're traveling from the Hiroshima area to Mizuho Highland, there is a bus (スキーバス) from Hiroshima Station that leaves at 6:50 and 8:45 AM every morning. Be sure to reserve a seat in the nearby JR Chugoku bus ticket office. The bus leaves Mizuho at 5:00 PM and returns to Hiroshima Station by 6:30.

Rental services must be prepared in advance, and JR Chugoku takes care of everything - skis, snowboards, snow pants, heavy jacket, and boots. You can rent the same equipment from a shop on the Highland side (ハイランド) of the mountain, but it's more convenient and cheaper with JR.



Snow Japan Report on Mizuho
Mizuho Highland Homepage
GetHiroshima Information

Interesting side note: apparently "nice try" is some form of Japanese kana. I heard a ski instructor telling his students that very line as they attempted to use a snowboard for the first time.

An Alternative Golden Week



Golden Week is one of the three national holiday weeks in Japan; this year it will fall between April 29th and May 5th. This is peak travel time for the Japanese people, so be sure to plan accordingly. If you're looking for an adventure...

Yamaguchi 100 Hagi-O-Kan Maraniac
(第19回山口100萩往還マラニック)


Think of it as the Japanese equivalent of an ultramarathon - any distance over 42.195 km. Although this course is barely a quarter of the 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, the time limit makes it a much more strenuous journey.




Distance: 250 km
Start: May 2nd, 6:00 PM
Entry fee: ¥30,000



Distance: 140 km
Start: May 3rd, 6:00 PM
Entry fee: ¥14,000



Distance: 70 km
Start: May 4th, 6:00 AM
Entry fee: ¥9,000



Distance: 35 km
Start: May 4th, 6:00 AM
Entry fee: ¥5,000


Online registration - deadline is March 30th

Official website in Japanese complete with maps, traveling details, and photos

Map of the starting point, in Yamaguchi City

GetHiroshima Information

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Samurai Parade

On March 21st, there will be a Samurai parade on the island of Miyajima. Japanese and foreigners alike are allowed to wear Samurai armor on this occasion. If you would like to participate, call Hamada-san at the Miyajima Sightseeing Association. Japanese only - it would be rude to even attempt to engage him in English. Cost - 10,000 yen.

082-944-2011 from 9 AM to 4 PM.

A Cry for Culture

They [English teachers] are exempt from most of Japan's rules and obligations, provided they at least pay lip service to societal conventions. They get paid for little more than speaking a language they grew up with, and they rarely even have to prepare a lesson plan. But they are also looked down upon by the average Japanese. I remember Genji's comment one evening at the dinner table: "The English teachers that you send here, in your country they're not good for anything more than pumping gas." It was unlike him to be so blunt unless he thought he was stating the obvious.
A Year in Search of Wa

I hate it when I've slipped into such a routine here that I find quotes like that strike quite a nerve. Why? Because it's more or less accurate for the foreign population. What percentage of foreigners in Japan work as English teachers? 80%? And of those, what do you associate with them more - being a fully integrated member in a Japanese community or being the stereotypical foreign dog who goes out drinking every night and coming home with a Japanese girl?

BHL. Back home loser. We've all heard it before; sorry to surprise those of you who didn't know. It's the more common term among Japanese girls used to describe foreign men in Japan. We didn't have any social grace or applicable job skills, so we turn to the land of the rising sun, more out of desperation than interest.

I want to dispel this notion among those of us that at least try to become part of this culture. I'm just as guilty, and I know it - I learned more about Japanese hospitality during my moments of crisis than my everyday life (e.g. the end of my adventure to Irori Sanzoku), and this upsets me. I had originally planned for my Golden Week holiday to be filled with western-style relaxation in a large city; after realizing I haven't had enough contact with the people I came here to understand, this will not be the case.

I issue to you, readers, Japanese or otherwise, a call to culture. Tell me everything you've done that is decidedly un-foreignerlike. If you're Japanese, do you hear from your friends about foreigners? Are we really considered disrespectful louts? No better than les miserables?

I've reached an impass in my Japanese study, due mostly to my arrogance and cold logic - so many Japanese people understand English. So many. And those that don't are at least trying. English is the international language of business. I had two encounters just this weekend with Japanese people that refused to speak Japanese to me, even when I answered their questions in anything but my native tongue. I know Japanese will open additional doors for me, but English has already eroded the floodgates in this country.

Tell me your stories, and after you read this, do something decidedly Japanese. I don't care what. Visit a Shinto shrine. Go trek the 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku. Read the story of Kaguya Hime. Set out for an adventure relying on the kindness of strangers. If we stay in our own little world within Japan, then everything we have done since arrival will have been a waste. Traveling on the weekends isn't enough - being the tourist is detrimental. Fight to understand. I will do the same. Send me your thoughts.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Pursuit of Happyness (幸せのちから)



The Pursuit of Happyness premiered in the land of the rising sun this weekend, and I caught the first Saturday showing. Will Smith even came to Tokyo to promote it.

This isn't a movie review. I don't do those. Rather, I'm trying to get into the mindset of the Japanese people: what would they think of this Hollywood movie, very American-themed. I saw it with a few Japanese friends, and they just replied it was "good", nothing more.

Will Smith plays a intelligent man who happens to be down on his luck; he risks everything, including the welfare of his five-year-old son, on a non-paying internship to a major brokerage firm, while he has little-to-no income, is living on the streets, yet still maintains the appearance of a businessman on the run. Eventually, after months of hard work, suffering, his efforts pay off, and he is on his way to a new and better life. Capitalism at its finest. Anyone can rise to the top if given the chance.

But how will this go down in Japan? Here, the stake that sticks out gets hammered down (出る釘は打たれる, deru kugi wa utareru): there is a certain method to life, engrained in the minds of all Japanese youth. You obey your parents. You go to school. You attend the right university. You follow the path to a well-founded Japanese company, and you slowly work your way to CEO over the course of a lifetime. After decades of 18-hour work days, you can retire, and have your thoughts to yourself.

This isn't the world I'm from. Anyone can make anything of himself or herself. An internet company can turn a 20-year-old college dropout into a millionaire overnight. A talent scout can approach you in New York City and put you on the cover of Vogue.

I honestly don't know if this is true in Japan; I am sure through all of my Japanese contacts, I haven't seen anything to indicate otherwise. A man with nothing but a high school education (like Will Smith's character) in Japan doesn't rise very far in the working world. The right university, the right connections, the path is formed practically from birth. The computer age has changed the rules, but not the people.


Will Smith is talking to his son during a leisurely game of basketball. His son (only 4-5 years old) tells him excitedly he's a pro basketball player, heading to the top. After a pause, his father gives him some advice, telling him not to reach too far; he doesn't want him wasting his life pursuing something that may never happen. A split second later, he realizes the hypocrisy behind what he just said; he's not only betting his life and happiness on a dream that may never happen, but his son's as well. He quickly relents:

"Don't ever let anybody tell you you can't do something, not even me."

This point I'm kind of split of on. Respect for your elders is held as one of the greatest virtues in Japanese society, individualism the most feared. Yet, in today's world, we do see many Japanese youth abandoning the longstanding family traditions or businesses and going on alone with their own lives. Taking the initiative is not an admirable quality. Conforming to the mold is paramount.


Will Smith's character is homeless. The Japanese, for all intents and purpose, pretty much ignore the homeless. Oh, there are good samaritans, and there are homeless shelters in cities with a large enough homeless population like Osaka, but I believe their thinking on the subject is very 19th century: the homeless are criminals, and cannot be helped. Of course we know this is hardly the case. People fall into bad luck.

It comes down to appearances, of all things. Homeless people in Japan know they are looked down upon, but I will give you this: they keep their dignity. They are not drug users or thieves. They set up their futons at night, throw a tarp neatly over it if it's raining, and set their shoes outside, as if they had a threshold to their part of the world. Laundry is hung to dry on trees. Dress is still meticulous; I would not recognize the people I've seen in the park as homeless if they were walking downtown.

The movie follows this façade precisely. Will Smith understands he's involved with a professional business, and dresses in a neatly-pressed suit and tie every day, despite his situation. He doesn't want to be seen as homeless, as someone to be pitied. The author himself admitted he would have looked like a businessman on his way out of town - wearing a suit, carrying bags, and guiding his son.

A Year in Search of Wa follows up on this with a Japanese businessman who had been homeless for years, yet kept his business suit as his only clothing. He patches it up, makes sure it is cleaned every few weeks, and takes the jacket off when he lies down...

When he walks among the people at the station, nobody notices him. That minor gesture - or lack thereof - makes him feel a part of things. And he reacts like any good citizen when he sees a dirty man in wrinkled clothes sleeping on the ground. "I will never be like that."

...

The play: that he is a successful businessman taking a lunchtime stroll in the sun. Only he never gets up to go back to work. But the suit - that's more than just a prop. It's his dignity, his face.

...

"One day," he says, still rubbing, "it will be destroyed. And then everything will be over."



Irreconcilable differences, breaking traditionals, and keeping up appearances. Think about it.

Akiyoshidai Marathon (第17回秋吉台カルスト高原健康マラソン)



Yamaguchi Prefecture will be be hosting the 17th Akiyoshidai Marathon on March 4th. If I haven't mentioned it to you before, almost every race in Japan is referred to as a marathon (マラソン); maybe the name just sounds more impressive. It doesn't matter whether you're running a 5K or the full distance (42.195 km): marathon.

I mentioned this once to a fellow runner who happened to be Japanese; he didn't know the history of the run in ancient Greece. Although I'm confident many Japanese people were taught Greek history in school (my students have refreshed my memory about a few mythology details), this does go to show how katakana (foreign Japanese writing) is used in society - it means nothing; it's just a name, like mine. You can go into Starbucks and order a プリミムホトチョコレト (premium hot chocolate), and then have to specify whether you want it あたたかい (atatakai, hot for drinks) or つめたい (tsumetai, iced).

Half Marathon (ハーフ)
Start Time 10:50 AM
Price 3000円

10K (10 キーロ)
Start Time 11:05 AM
Price 3000円

5K (5 キーロ)
Start Time 11:10 AM
Price 3000円


If you're commuting from Hiroshima, you're probably going to want to have a friend with a car, or take the Shinkansen early. I'm not sure if the station is near the starting line.

You can only register online for this race here, but like always, you need a Runnet account if you're not registered. If you're unfamiliar with the Kanji, feel free to email me.

Take a look at some of the pictures along the course (コース): this promises to be a rather scenic race, although I can't guarantee sunny weather. If only the cherry blossoms were out early...

Official race website

The deadline to sign up is February 2nd

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Predicament



One of the biggest misceptions Americans (if not all other cultures) have about Japan is that although Japan may have their long-standing traditions and inherited culture, we're all human beings at heart, subject to the same desires and feelings. That although we were raised differently, we can still live in each other's worlds if given the chance.

All the Hollywood movies you see, all the books you read, involve a young, naive westerner journeying to Japan, ignorant of the Japanese way of life. Yet over time, and through many trials, he or she meets a traditional Japanese person who can teach him the ways of the Samurai, the craft of the Japanese sword, the intricacies of farming rice, the art of Japanese cooking...

Fictional stories or not, few of us ever actually have such opportunities. We come here without connections to the cultural underbelly; we don't know the Judo master, who knows the owner of the fine restaurant, who knows someone who can guide us through the lesser known parts of this great country. Japanese people are probably the most interconnected of all cultures; I'm not referring to superficial text messaging by today's Japanese youth; this is old Japan, the people connected in an unweildy lattice of favors, friends, family, business partners, and above all on (obligation). Sometimes all you need is the right friend to help you.

In regards to the ignorant foreigner-Japanese master relationship, no one really knows what they're getting into. Complete obedience. Unconditional servitude. Logic and reason mean nothing unless your senpai tells you so. Gravity doesn't keep you on the earth; your senpai wills it if he so chooses.

My predicament... I am an obnoxious, headstrong, independent, dignified dirty foreigner, by all standards of old Japan. And although I may be able to survive by changing by ways, I'm not sure I want to. I like being unique and headstrong. I enjoy defiance, and shouting my opinion for all to hear. To top it off... I'm just not Japanese.

There are two worlds most dominant in Japan right now, and I'm honestly not sure which one I like more. I clearly respect old Japan: the traditionalists, everything you read about in Japanese history, from the art of the ikebana, to the behavior shaping corporate strategy meetings in downtown Tokyo. I relate more to the Japanese youth, the "American" Japanese people; they aren't hung up on repressing their behavior or blind obedience. They're individuals, not marked by the two hundred fifty years of history that affected their parents' generation. But, just like their American counterparts... they feel shallow to me, lacking the traits that I've come to associate with Japan.

A Japan divided against itself... cannot stand.


ikana kereba narani
I must go.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Heart of the Matter

...highly intelligent and creative, he has committed his life to a system that rewards only obedience; a place where seniority is everything and innovation is not only frowned upon but penalized. How does he manage to survive?

"If you want to live in Japan for a long time, then you must be reborn. You must forget everything you know and everything you believe in, and start over. You must value age and experience over book learning. You must do as you're told and blank your mind to any other thoughts. You cannot feel resentment against the system, not even for a single moment. You cannot demand fairness or equality, or even hope for it. You must learn to believe in a society that is based on hierarchy. It is a completely different way of thinking, of living, of being. If you do not accept it utterly, into your soul, then you will not survive."


- A Year in Search of Wa, Karin Muller

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Your Portion



Read an interesting self-published book by an American, Glenn Fishbine, who worked as a technical consultant in Tokyo for a few months. Despite his short time in Japan, he gave me an insight into the meaning behind Japanese corporate meetings: namely, there is none.

"The purpose of a meeting in Japan is not to come to a conclusion. The purpose of a meeting in Japan is to develop a consensus about the current status and direction."

Leave it to Japan to adopt a mentality than is quite efficient, but still infuriating to the western brain. As a worker bee, you don't meet with fellow bees to discuss new directions and objectives; rather, you blindly follow the orders of the queen, only communicating with each other about how to best carry out those orders. The comb is still built, the honey still sweet, but I'm not one to go buzzing around the workplace.

Business meetings in Japan by foreigner standards are quite useless; of course there are exceptions, and different standards, but for the most part managers relay little information directly to you. So your part, your obligation, following the meeting, could be summarized in less than two minutes. However, you are expected to stay and learn about other progress in different sects that may or (most likely) may not affect you. Consensus. Not progress.

Read a preview of his work here and you can download the full version for free.



About one third of Americans are overweight. Even before I came to Japan, one reason I thought why this was so was portioning; we receive more food than is necessary from restaurants and feel obligated to eat it, either from machoism or feeling: you paid for it, you eat it all. Pints and gallons of ice cream. Super-double-ultra-fragilisticexpialidocious gulps from 7-11. Chili's Big Mouth Burgers (who am I kidding? I miss those). The examples are endless; perhaps the movie Supersize Me studied this phenomenon best, although Morgan Spurlock didn't exactly have too many controls in his little experiment.

Where America compensates for these huge portions with diet and exercise, Japan succeeds on its own merits. Portions in Japan are probably on the order of one fourth as large as those you see in America. A McDonalds burger easily fits in the palm of your hand. Häagen-Dazs in a container you could fit your fist around. Even the style of ordering at izakayas is conducive to good health; you order small dishes as you go, each dish containing enough food, but not enough to gorge yourself on. A few pieces of sashimi; three chicken legs; personal pan pizza. No wonder I've lost weight since coming to Japan; it's amazing there are any obese Japanese people.




Apparently there is an opportunity to don a samurai costume on March 21 on the traditional Japanese island of Miyajima. Everyone should take advantage of this, regardless of cost. How often to you get to experience the warrior soul, in a part of Japan associated with an ancient era. Feel the weight on your shoulders, let the history course through you. I'll post more when I know the details. Source

Friday, January 19, 2007

Qualms



I admit my faults. Leave no stone unturned. I'm not recanting any of my previous entries or articles regarding Japanese behavior, but I will admit they are rather premature. They were the rantings of a foreigner in many ways new to Japan, and his struggle to make sense of the Japanese world. In that sense, they are very helpful, and perfectly reasonable; anyone new to the working conditions in the land of the rising sun would probably experiences the same thoughts.

I do not pretend to be the ultimate authority on Japanese culture or working conditions. If I were, it's a safe bet my blog would get more than thirty visits a day. Nevertheless, I'm never wrong, because I've never claimed to be right; these are my opinions, nothing more. Take them as you will.

Henceforth, I will put up more of an effort to be decidedly un-"gaijin", more Japanese-friendly, and not sweat the small stuff.

After this...

Leave it to That 70's Show to come up with the analogy I've been searching for since I arrived in Japan. They may not be the most eloquent characters, but this time, their dialogue rang very true.

The eikaiwa environment is condescending to me mainly because of the dialogue. All across the country, Japanese managers are instructing foreign workers: "Let's go! Let's do it! Let's go to the classroom! Let's talk to students!"

So who are we, as native-English speakers? We're the ones subject to orders from Japanese workers in the form of cheers. Yes, that's right - I find most upbeat, genki speaking is condesending because it reminds me all too well of something cheerleaders might say to doting fans. They might feel as though they are treating us as respectable office workers, but I find myself to be more in tune with someone on the receiving end of: "Where's your school spirit?"



Dinesh D'Souza gave an interesting interview on The Colbert Report about the international perspective of America.

"We in America know there's a big difference between some of the excesses in our popular culture and the way Americans actually live. But abroad, they don't know that. The only America they see is the face of TV, and the music industry, and the movies... so they're getting a distorted picture of America..."

This reminded me a lot of a recent story on Common Ties called Americans and Unicorns.



I have many qualms with the American government; but through it all, I knew beneath all the superficial bickering there was a system in place with a certain degree of dignity and respect. Thank you Rep. David Wu, for proving me wrong.



Thursday, January 18, 2007

Turning the Tables



Valentine's Day is steadily approaching in Japan. In the land of the rising sun, women traditionally give gifts to men on Valentine's Day. Men are supposed to wait until March 14th, known as White Day. As is the worldwide trend, this holiday is more popular among the younger generation. Be sure to get your favorite Japanese girlfriend the gift of Shiroi Koibito (白い恋人, "white lovers" chocolate) - famous in Hokkaido.

Shiroi Koibito factory in Sapporo, Ishiya. This factory is a tad Willy Wonka-esque: it has a theme park surrounding it, complete with Oompa-Loompa sized houses.




Although there is plenty of skiing to be had in Hokkaido, I've been searching for resorts closer to home. Osorakan is a fairly popular area on the highest mountain in the prefecture. There is even a convenient bus from Hiroshima Station.

Most communities in Japan celebrated the Tondo Matsuri this past weekend by gathering in a local park, burning bamboo, and cooking omusubi (おむすび, rice balls). Although these are fairly common in Japan, many Japanese people I talked to didn't even know about them. Apparently if you're in a tightly-knit community this ceremony would be quite nice to enjoy the company of your neighbors, meet new people, and enjoy the heat of the flames in cold weather. But if you're just a tourist showing up to a random fire, you might not be as well received. Still, there are public Tondo Matsuri ceremonies for the masses. One was held in Hiroshima at the Gokoku Shrine near Hiroshima Castle.

I don't often post English commercials, but this is pretty funny. Thank you Japan Probe and Lost in Ube.



Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Where is the Snow?

One huge incentive to come to Japan was the opportunity to experience weather as it was meant to be experienced. Four distinct seasons: summer, fall, winter, and spring. Somehow, I have inherited Demeter's power and unwillingly carried the unpredictability of Texas weather to the land of the rising sun. I'm sorry.

Rain yesterday. Sunshine the week before. And no snow in sight. It truly is Texas in Japan. Please make it stop.


Searching for the best times to view the cherry blossoms? Japan-Guide has the answer.

Remember that the Golden Week holiday is fast approaching. Be sure to make your travel plans now. It's Okinawa for me.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Blooming and Wilting



My apologies for taking a week to blog. I've been really lazy this week, but I did manage to secure my plans for going to the Sapporo Snow Festival. I added quite a few new links to my side bar, including a fellow runner's blog from Okinawa. Check it out - Running in Okinawa. Although I might be faster than he is, my blog is sorely lacking the organization his has; I'll start working on getting JPG images of my running trails and a proper page set up.

Also some new acting links, featured some all-English theatre groups out of Tokyo. Yokohama Theatre Group and The Tokyo International Players.

Well... it's been eight months. My eikaiwa contract expires in four, which means... life is beginning all over again. Searching for a job, a life, a girl, my place in the world. For the most part, my time in Japan has been a positive experience. I'll never regret coming here. But, should I stay? Here's what's going through my mind right now. I feel as though part of my life has been blossoming, blooming into a wonderful, brand-new shape. Yet another is withering, dying from lack of use...


Blooming

One of the hardest things in the world to accomplish in a lifetime is to convince yourself you've made an impact. People will remember you. Your presence in this world had some significance. Being a foreigner in Japan gives you a taste of what it's like to be a minor celebrity, especially if you stray away from places like Tokyo. I must admit that feeling rubs off on me a little. I enjoy it. I enjoy standing out in a crowd, catching people's eyes, knowing they're thinking about me. Pure vanity? Absolutely, but it's comforting in a way.

Some of my creative skills are being brought out by the land of the rising sun. I have inspiration to write, to read, to imagine new possibilities. Japan has such amazing places to photograph. Studying the Japanese language gives me a chance to keep my mind active and alive. Studying Japanese history gives me a new insight into a world I had never known.

The quality of food here is excellent. I had never eaten sashimi before, and traditionally stayed away from most fish. I have broadened my palette with octopus, eel, raw chicken, raw fish, liver, okonomiyaki, and the rare blowfish. Japanese food is good for your health, good for your spirit. Green tea lengthens your lifespan.

Travel is extremely convenient, no matter where you're based. I can get to Tokyo within the day. I can be eating ramen from a yatai in Fukuoka by nightfall. Being in this part of the world gives me greater access to vacation destinations never thought possible from the US. Australia. New Zealand. Taiwan. China. Cambodia. Singapore. The list goes on... all for the taking.

In addition to attention on the street, I receive lots of casual attention from Japanese girls. I was hardly a loser back home, but my being foreign definitely gives me a leg up on the dating competition over here. Basic statistics will set you free. 1% foreigner population. Millions of Japanese girls.

Finally, I have to say the experience itself, actually coming over to Japan and trying to make a life, was very worthwhile. Attempting to integrate myself into a foreign culture has had its ups and downs, but overall, I'm grateful for the time spent here. I was fulfilling a lifelong dream, one first conceived when I was seven years old, playing The Legend of Zelda on Nintendo NES. I've been humbled by kindness, humiliated by my own behavior, and exposed to something new almost every day. Not many people can say that.


Wilting

Standing out in crowd can be both comfort and curse. I may attract attention from the masses, but I'm still alone in a sea of people. Millions of Japanese people, and little old me in the crowd. I feel like Scarlett looking out that window into Shinjuku, searching for her place.

While I am exposed to Japanese, my English skills, my eloquent speaking skills, are lacking. Since I'm not exposed to native speakers every day, I don't always get the chance to have the normal conversations I took for granted in the states. Sure, I meet friends from time to time, and I use English in the classroom, but it's not the same. I need discussion. I need controversy, intensity.

Meaningful friends are hard to come by. I have a greater chance of striking up conversations with people I normally wouldn't, just because we can both speak English, but we usually don't have much in common. Nor are we the best people to hang out together. Same goes with finding a girlfriend. I have nothing against Japanese girls, but if someone can't fully communicate with me, she's not someone I'm going to be socializing with. I expect Japanese people to treat me the same way. If we get along, have a few things in common, and are on the same wavelengh, a Japanese girlfriend would be great. So far, though, None of the foreign or Japanese women I've met have appealed to me as significant others. As someone who really doesn't like casual relationships, this is difficult.

The variety of food. Don't get me wrong, the quality of food is excellent, but I enjoy a wide range of meals. Mexican, French, Italian, normal size hamburgers... many things are lacking in Japan. I just wish there were a few more restaurants, a few normal sandwiches, and things without mayonnaise or teriyaki sauce.

My job. Lately I feel as though I'm just going through the motions, walking through the part. Where is the imagination? The creativity? Will I be this way forever? Is this what life is supposed to be like, a job with no opportunity for promotion, with the same nightly routine? Is this how people live? I just feel like there's no room to progress, no path that would lead me to a stable home and a family someday. I certainly don't want to spent years of my life in the same grey-walled office filling out meaningless paperwork and returning to a small, empty apartment. I am slowly learning Japanese, but without Level 1 proficiency, I'm merely the token foreigner, subject to condescension and the willful glare of a juggernaut manager.


As you may have noticed, there are definitely more reasons for me to stay, but the reasons to leave seem to be weighing more heavily on my soul. So I'm looking for jobs. Both in Tokyo and back in the US. Of course, I'd still be open to another country, but it depends on circumstances. I've got no debt, no home, and no future lined up. Any thoughts? Anyone else in this position? Good day.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Hoping for Kokura's Luck

Teaching you... history

Any high school student can tell you the first atomic weapons were unleashed upon Nagasaki and Hiroshima. A little known fact - Kokura, a smaller city in Kyushu, was actually the primary target for Fat Man, but cloud cover prevented proper visual confirmation of the city, and the secondary target, Nagasaki, was chosen. Since that time, "Kokura's Luck" is known as escaping a disaster without being aware of it.


A United States nuclear submarine and Japanese tanker collided early this week in the Arabian Sea, with no injuries or reported damage.

CNN Story

These recent entries by Japan Probe are just crazy - do they actually teach Japanese girls this stuff?


As of late, I've been searching to expand my acting resume. This recent article about members of the US military exploring model careers was interesting, and lead me to these sites.


As I have discussed on previous occasions, English is a harsh, crude language compared to the simplicity and politeness of Japanese. If you're a native English speaker approaching a Japanese person, you might want to keep a few ideas in mind:

1. Japanese people can be extraordinarily sensitive to comments you might find to just be poking fun. Making light of Japanese television, or even slightly critcizing everyday aspects of their culture, is not the best idea.

2. If you're in the business environment, or in a situation which requires you to express your ideas, be sure to frame your questions carefully, the same way you would in Japanese. It's better to state "shouldn't I do this...?" than "I think this is right."

3. Be careful with negative words in general. Even when you're simply alluding to a hypothetical situation (e.g. "I ate dinner at a terrible sushi restaurant"), you might be giving off the wrong impression.

3. Hand gestures, in particular pointing, are condescending. Pointing at someone, waving your finger, has the same effect as treating him as a dog.

4. Smells aren't exempt either. Strong aftershave, bad BO, excessive perfume... all of these are probably ten times as meaningful as they might be in the west.


This article is proof beyond all else that the media is slowly moving towards inevitable pablum, and serving no other purpose than to be the world gossip column. Right up there with the Republicans defending their actions on Iraq - regardless of on which side you stand, it's hilarious to watch them squirm.

I come not to criticize but to educate:

"Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Japan for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up in Tokyo not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at the Roppongi as innocent as children, longing for the hostess bars. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only ¥30,000 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and girls they lack. And they'll walk out into the bar; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the runways, where they sat when they were teenagers and cheered their strippers. And they'll watch the show and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The smoke will be so thick they'll have to brush it away from their faces. People will come Ray... people will most definitely come."

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Around Hiroshima

Teaching you... business schedules
At first glance, it seems like a gift that most eikaiwa in Japan schedule your work days from Tuesday through Saturday, leaving Sunday and Monday off. Despite appearances, however, this is not done to give you a Monday available for normal business hours. Indeed, Monday is the Sunday of Japan, when many businesses are closed. National holidays are frequently on Mondays. A Monday-Friday workweek will give you more three day weekends and flexibility.


Hiroshima Ekiden

On January 21st, teams from all 47 prefectures of Japan (useful fact) will race over a 48 km course. I'm not exactly sure of the criteria for racing, but it's a safe bet you need to be a professional runner. Either way, this should be an interesting spectacle. Come to Hiroshima Peace Park at 12:30 for the start.



GetHiroshima information
Official ekiden site


Miyajima Oyster Festival

It's a shame that the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri and this event are scheduled on the same weekend... I'll be sure to petition the country to ask they be separated next year. Come to the island of the famous floating torii and enjoy eating fresh oysters until you pass out, or take advantage of the aphrodisiac qualities and find a significant other for the evening. February 10th-11th.

GetHiroshima information
Official site


It hasn't started snowing in Hiroshima yet, but the coldest time of the year should begin in February. Cherry blossom season starts in late March, early April. Almost every place in Japan is wonderful during the unofficial national flower season; remember, the best sights are one week after the blossoms start opening, in full bloom. Invest in a decent camera; these flowers don't last too long. My recommendations - the path leading from Saijo to Hiroshima University. Himeiji Castle. Kyoto, at the famous "rock-splitting" cherry blossom.

Running through Yoyogi Kōen (代々木公園)


Graffitti in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo


Freedom. Freedom to express yourself. The will to act. Freedom to post videos like this on YouTube.

Yoyogi Park is all of these things in one package. I didn't even get to see the usual attractions given that it was a Japanese national holiday.

If you are traveling through Tokyo, it's not too difficult to figure out the most Tokyo-esque places are Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, and the downtown area. Save Ueno and Asakusa for the traditional vacation. Asakasa is filled with embassies and office buildings.

I heard of Shibuya as the youngest district of Tokyo - a place where eighteen year olds shop, relax, and possibly get a room at one of the numerous lovel hotels on Dōgenzaka. Dōgenzaka is an area just west of Shibuya with the largest number and variety of love hotels known to Japan. Vending machine selections, themes ranging from a medieval castle to Star Wars... it's interesting just to pass through the area.




Shinjuku may have them beat in terms of neon and raw advertisements, but there are still plenty of stores and restaurants in the area surrounding Shibuya station. You might recognize it from a scene in Lost in Translation. Although, the hotel in that movie is actually the Park Hyatt, in Shinjuku.

Yoyogi Park, just like Tokyo, breaks all the rules. Walk about twenty minutes north of Shibuya (or take the JR Yamanote Line to Harajuku Station), and you might find yourself hearing the distant sounds of a rock group. Could be a KISS cover band (very popular in Japan). Could be two girls dressed as vampires beating on a pair of drums.



Anything is possible in this park. Visit on a Sunday with decent weather, and you'll most likely run into a few colorful Japanese artists expressing themselves. Painting their faces crazy colors. Juggling in groups of ten. Spray-painting and dancing as a show. Playing normal music.

Pictures of Yoyogi
Harajuku Information

Definitely something you should see if you're passing through Tokyo on a weekend. I don't know how often people come out during the winter, though. With all the travel options available to you (subway, JR lines, bus, taxi, etc), just be sure to stop by.

Another option - great place to run. Although Yoyogi is in one of the most urban populated cities on the face of the Earth, you don't get that impression running through the park. It's quiet. Thick trees on the outskirts eliminate any clues as to the surrounding Japanese apartments (although the skyscrapers in the distance are harder to block out). It's your own little patch of the country, in your own little running world. The park is clean, quiet, and undisturbed. Enjoy the biking trail, the path leading up to the Meiji Shrine, or just settle for running loops around the grassy area, where kids fly kites and others throw the baseball around.


An interesting fact about Japanese New Year's festivities - most stores you come across will be boasting "grab bags" anywhere from 1,000-10,000 Yen. Maybe more. It's quite common. When I was going through the Asakusa shopping area just before the ball dropped, I saw one store offering some bags. Out of thousands, they guaranteed that ten had Nintendo Wii inside, six has Playstation 3, and others had cash. Interesting. It's probably just a way to burn off inventory.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Thousand Words

Pictures from Tokyo and Kyoto are now up. View them here.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Back from Scarlett's Stomping Grounds


Shibuya Station Area, courtesy of GOTR

Tadaima. I was repatriated, but not for too long. May be trying to go to Las Vegas for my birthday in a few months... either way, I need money. Lots of money. I don't care whether it's Yen or dollars. Any ideas? I'll give you some too - always looking for more comprehensive links for my "Living in Japan" linkbar.

Tokyo breaks all the rules. I said it before, but now I speak from experience: there are two countries here: namely Japan, and Tokyo. Lost in Translation was quite right to choose Tokyo, rather than any other Japanese city.

I'll have a full report on my un-Japanese experience shortly. In the meantime, a few updates.


Language

Take note - six months in, and listening is coming pretty naturally. At least in terms of numbers. I can understand the transfer information announced on the Shinkansen and in stations. Must have heard more loudspeakers on all the city blocks, stations, trains, subways, and buses in Tokyo than I had in my entire time in Hiroshima.

Also in terms of listening - discerning foreign languages from Japanese is relatively simple. Of course, I'm the kind of person that practices isolating voices when he's in a crowded restaurant. A useful muscle to flex. Japanese is very fast, but also dull, quiet, and has a certain melody. It conveys humbleness. Foreign languages like English stand out - expressing volume, individuality, harshness, irregularity. It would be as if you heard a Japanese person speaking very slowly, loudly, and exclaiming "SU...MI...MA...SEN" to a person on a train with their own flair.

I found a great English bookstore in the Roppongi Hills shopping area with some good language books, but for now I'll sticking with the standard Basic Kanji Book, a nice way to practice brushstrokes.


Reading

Fear and Trembling is a quick and fascinating read. It follows the life of a Danish girl born in Kobe who pursues a life in the Tokyo corporate world. This is during the pinnacle of the Japanese domination of the business world (assuming you don't think that's still going on): the 1980's.

Granted, this was a unique experience. Very, very unique. But it still rings rather true to a story I read not too long ago on Trans-Pacific Radio about bullying in the workplace. That, coupled with a choice Law and Order episode, leads to a natural conclusion: some women can be frighteningly evil if given the chance. So can men... I just don't expect it from women for some reason. I don't play to gender stereotypes, but I can't help but think how they affect how I view gender behavior.

Let me sum this up: a woman gets hired by a reputable Japanese company. She makes a questionable first impression (yes, that was her fault). She serves tea and coffee for her first few weeks (quite common for a newbie). Essentially it follows a series of repetitive and pointless tasks she is asked to perform. She had the opportunity for advancement, only to have it snatched away by a jealous manipulative co-worker. Eventually she ends up replacing the toliet paper in the bathrooms. Her dignity (at least on face value - at her core, I believe she kept her dignity), is removed piece-by-piece, her individuality never asserted, her intelligence never used for the good of the company.

Japanese businesses work. They work rather well, of course. And they work on the principle of group mentality. The needs of the many are paramount. There are no individual needs. If you happen to assert those, you be struck down like an insolent fly. American and many western companies differ in that approach. We believe workers should work for themselves and the group. Maintaining some level of independence. Respecting an individual's opinion. Sometimes it's to the detriment of the whole. Sometimes it's not. But it also works.

The willpower and steadfastness this woman exerts is incredible. If Japanese people are required to show half as much restraint as she did in the workplace, it's a miracle the entire country hasn't resigned. After being continuously demoted, she refuses to resign, refuses to disgrace herself even further in the eyes of those around her... even those who put her in such a place. I honestly couldn't do it. Maybe that's the western brain kicking in, but no reputation is worth what she went through. Maybe I'm shallow. Read this book.

Transportation





Kyoto Station is probably the most impressive I've seen in all of Japan. Futuristic, simple, and practical. Well-designed. You could spent hours here taking pictures from every perspective, and you have a great view of central Kyoto from the skyview garden.

Hiroshima Station, as well as many of those I've encountered in western Japan, isn't very modern. I've often wondered why they don't upgrade to the automatic ticket gates you see in Tokyo, or even Fukuoka. This leaves it with security about as reliable as the Gantoku Line in Yamaguchi (small, small, small line for country towns).



The Moonlight Nagara train, running between Tokyo and Ogaki, departs at 23:43 from track 10 in Tokyo Station. The train is entirely reserved seating from Tokyo to Odawara, then becomes cars 1-3 reserved and cars 4-9 non-reserved. After Nagoya, cars 7, 8 and 9 are detached. More details to follow.

After my experience with the cheap and "unconventional" side of Japanese travel, I've decided to just stick with what works. Time is the priority, not money. The Shinkansen and domestic airline travel are best.


Commerce



I don't know why I didn't bother to research this before, but Nintendo's corporate headquarters is located in Kyoto, not Tokyo. Not a swallow's flight away from Kyoto Station, if there were any Japanese swallows.

Nintendo HQ


To satisfy your desire for all things foreign in Japan, be sure to remember: Lawry's: The Prime Rib in Asakasa Twin Tower, Tokyo. Cold Stone Creamery in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo. Outback Steakhouse, next to Roppongi Station. Gold's Gym adjacent to Nijo Station, Kyoto.