Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Picking up the Slack



With some 4,000-odd foreigners currently looking for ways out and around the mess NOVA has created, the jackals are starting to swarm...

EF English First, also on Tokyo Craigslist

An Open Letter to Nova Teachers:

We at EF English First have been following the Nova situation closely. For those of you who want to continue teaching and would like to stay in Asia, we would like to present you a potential alternative by coming to work in China.

EF English First is the world's largest private language educational company. Founded in 1965, we specialize in English education and operate in fifty countries around the world. Over the last several years, we have been growing very quickly in the Chinese market. Today, we have close to 100 schools and are opening a new school every week. Last year, we were named the official language school of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

We are looking for up to 1000 qualified teachers and academic leaders to help China talk to the world in preparation for the Olympic Games. It is an exciting time to be in the world's fastest growing economy, and in this global age having both Japan and China experience will set you apart from the crowd.

Understanding your situation, we have put together the following special Nova teacher package:

Prepaid international flights
EF will book and pay for your international flight to China, as well as an international ticket home at the end of your contract.

Free temporary accommodation
You will be put up for up to two weeks – free of cost to you—in an international standard hotel upon your arrival to China. During your transition period, EF and our network of real estate agents will help you find appropriate accommodation.

Loan for start-up expenses
We have prepared a sufficient loan to help relieve you of any upfront expenses during your first few weeks in China.

Induction program
Our comprehensive two-week induction program includes a welcome package, airport pick-up, city orientation and specialized training courses.

In addition, we have a full and competitive salary and benefits package.

This week, we will hold informational seminars at our EF Tokyo Center. This will be an opportunity to learn about our organization and the next steps to apply. Feel free to call contact us at efrecruitment@ef.com or call +86 21 6133 6045 to learn more.

Best Wishes,
EF English First Recruitment Team
efrecruitment@ef.com


At first glance, this seems like nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to draw in desperate jobseekers looking for a way out of a less-than-desirable situation in a foreign country by offering a "grand" experience in another ESL education environment; ambulance-chasing mentality, if you will. On second glance, that's exactly what it is.

In additional to the cockroaches, there are also rumors than AEON and GEOS teachers are being fired mid-contract to bring unemployed NOVA employees on board at reduced salaries. Any firsthand knowledge of this?

...

For more results, be sure to visit the Facebook group NOVA Group of Japan for job opportunities, discount airfares, and offers of assistance from teachers in slightly better situations.

We received the following information from HIS, the travel agents, for British instructors or those returning home to Britain.

HIS is doing a special flight for NOVA instructors wishing to return home. The flight costs 440.00 GBR (inc tax) and is an Asiana flight via Seoul. They depart Osaka and Tokyo 4 times a week on Tues, Thurs, Sat, and Sun. There is an excess luggage allowance of an extra 15 kilos, which can be made at the time of booking.

The flight can NOT be booked as normal through HIS offices in Japan. They are being offered exclusively through the London office of HIS. They must be booked and paid for in the UK. Instructors can book from Japan via email to sales@viajapan.co.uk or by phone on +44 20-7484-3328. Japanese offices of HIS will not be aware of the offer.

If instructors are short of money HIS will accept payment from parents or family members on their behalf in the UK. Tell HIS at time of booking and parents can call either Ian or Ed in London on +44 20-7484-3310 to arrange payment. Payment by Debit or Switch cards is at no extra cost, paying by credit card will incur an extra 2% charge.

If instructors have any questions they can talk to Ian or Ed at the number above or to Angie Lockwood in the London office at +44 20-7734-2727.

East Asia Personnel Quality Control Group
NOVA Corporation



Let's Japan.org is continuing to monitor the situation with teachers and Nozomu Sahashi, Japan Probe probably remains the foremost authority with up to date information, and Trans-Pacific Radio's Ken Worsley is keeping good track of the numbers over at Japan Economy News & Blog.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Hitchhiking in Kyushu


Courtesy of Jupiter Images


My experience in the realm of hitchhiking for long distance travel has been rather limited. During the summer I spent working at a fishing lodge in Alaska, my life blood was clean unmarked pieces of cardboard, on which I would inscribe my destination in thick black letters for the benefit of the drivers. Sometimes to Soldotna, 46 miles to the west. Occasionally to Seward, a great distance to the east. But perhaps most often to Anchorage, the goliath (in Alaskan terms) of a city to the north.

In Japan, however, I've had no real reason to experiment with this particular form of travel. With trains running everywhere (and always on time), buses relatively cheap, and a country built around railroad tracks rather than koku michi (国道, country roads), why hitchhike?

I received an answer to that question on my return from the Nagasaki Bayside Marathon, having exactly ¥4800 at my disposal (to last me three days), and eight hours to return to Kagoshima. 難しい、ですね?

The plan? Not much of one. Stay alive, eat little, and try not to get hit by cars.

First mistake - fall asleep instantly on the train out of Nagasaki, intending to stop at a point where the rail runs adjacent to the main highway. The result? ¥2350 fare adjustment, and not much distance to show for it.

Fortunately, there are positive signs. I am in a small town on the main road to Omuta (大牟田), a hitchhiker's bread and butter.

A businessman steps off a shuttle bus in front of the one-man station, and beckons me with "hello", eagerly extending his hand. I am such a celebrity in Japan. So why don't I get endorsements like Brad Pitt? I could sell those watches better...

Anyway, it's not too much time for me sticking out my thumb and walking backwards like a desperate fool, when a man about my age slowly swerves his white car towards the siderail.

Hiroyuki-san was 31, a native of Saga, and his wife had just had a baby boy two months prior. He tends to take a lot of business trips around Nagasaki-ken (returning from one then), and was more than happy to have me on board.

Sidenote in the present: before I continue, all should know it truly is a different world over here: the generosity, the kindness is what one should expect from other human beings, but we've been adapted by each of our respective cultures to think differently. What is and what is not "required" to others. There is still hatred, fear, and plenty of crime, but weekends like this one tend to drain all of my negative feelings through a sieve, leaving only the optimistic side. Tired as my legs are, hungry as I am, the fact remains I am sitting on a train right now with a ticket that another soul paid for to improve the quality of my journey home. I want to give back everything that has been given, but I fear such opportunities may not reach me again.

Case in point - Hiroyuki and I were discussing my travels, girls, and even the war - didn't get very far there - when I told him my planned route along Highway 3 (between Fukuoka and Kagoshima).

This man lived in Saga. His wife was waiting for him in Saga. He was used to returning home to Saga. Instead, he took time from his schedule and family to see me deposited safely in Kurume (久留米), along Highway 3. I refused at first, telling him Saga was fine, but I think he knew how much time was a factor for me.

Easing his car over in front of a gas station, just as dusk was beginning to fall, we exchanged a series of goodbyes, took a picture together... he gave me a small gift of senbei to take to my office.

Looking back on it, he must have either been impressed by my adventurous spirit, or thought I was out of my mind... maybe a little of both. Half marathons and hitchhiking do not go hand-in-hand. I think the only things to follow a long distance race should be: food, and lots of it; a nice relaxing soak in a sulfuric onsen; sleep, and more of it; a steak dinner with a beautiful redhead; again, still working on that last one.

Hitchhiking at night, regardless of the country, is a tad risky. Nor will it necessarily bear any fruit. Some Japanese, particularly families, might pick up a foreigner midmorning, as a novelty or a free English lesson, but darkness changes the equation.

However, after 45 minutes, give or take, a middle-aged couple cleared the convenience store bags out of their back seat and bid me welcome. The driver was retired, and tended to speak a little fast for me. His wife spoke excellent English (I didn't subject her to that), and was a little shy. We did have quite a fluid conversation, however, and they offered me a drink when we stopped at a 7-11 for a rest. I even managed to rest my eyes once we were satisfied as to the other's personality and goings-on.

Back in Kumamoto at 8:45. Decisions, decisions. Just like in the morning's race, my sanity was wearing thin. Not helping in the matter was a Japanese Mormon, accosting me a mere thirty seconds after I was dropped off. 200 kilometers to Kagoshima. I was in the middle of the city, not far from the castle. A poor choice, a poor place. Even assuming I acquired a ride at that instant, it was at least 2-2.5 hours back to Deer Child Island (鹿児島, nice kanji).

I did think about hitchhiking all night, or sleeping outside and waiting for commuters to start their journey south. Not an option, though - I had work at 8:30 AM on Monday, and had already taken two "unauthorized" days to see my cousin's wedding. I am such a tool. Must go... must... but can't.

In the middle of the city, lugging a backpack, a gym bag, the senbei, and sporting my new race shirt. I haven't eaten dinner. My quads and calves are still sending messages of sharp pain to my brain. The lack of movement due to sitting in cars for the past few hours is setting me up to walk like Frankenstein.

I reach an offramp where a couple had been waiting for me. They assumed I was just headed to Kumamoto Station, which wasn't too much of a leap (foreigner, lost in a new city, has to travel by train). When I explained that in fact I had 196 km and a long night ahead of me, they were quite simply... flabbergasted. What kind of man risks his job and well-being for a weekend trip? And who hitchhikes such a long distance so late at night? Can't say I blame them for reacting in such a way.

Had I continued to pass from car to car that night, I honestly believe one of two things would have given - my will or my legs. But this couple, this married couple from Kumamoto to whom I had been talking to in fractured Nihongo for less than ten minutes, offered to drive me to the station and pay for a shinkansen ticket to Kagoshima. I was shocked enough that I don't believe I thanked them as well as I should have (ten "domo arigatou gozaimasu"'s isn't sufficient, right?)

The most expensive kind of train ticket. To a silly foreigner. To a stranger. To a creature passing in the night, easily overlooked or passed without second thought. It is good to be seen.

And so I sit now listening to tunnels whizzing by at 200 kph, my city approaching momentarily. My face is still salty from sweat, my calves aching for relief, my stomach punishing my internal organs for the lack of nourishment...

But I feel light, floating above this car and out into the moonlight, seeing those flickers of light in the distance, each a car, a house, with individuals who help, who care. Three of those lights will always be in my memories, and I will look through the glare and find them again... find the places where such kindnesses exist, and learn from them, let their actions and feelings become engrained in my life. But, of course, they really already have.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Back in Motion



Nagasaki Bayside Marathon (長崎ベイサイドマラソン)
October 28th, 2007

At some point on Sunday my heart stopped. My soul left my body, began floating into the beyond, when it suddenly glimpsed me continuing to pound the pavement because that's my purpose on this Earth. I am a runner. Evidently, I am also a masochist. And I believe the most difficult things in life must be earned through sweat, blood, and guts.

The day started out commonly enough; I awoke in a foreign environment, threw on some thin clothes, and prepared to satisfy my need for speed. My legs felt as useful as two thick pieces of bamboo, a result of my travels the day prior.

I was concerned. My long distance experience was exclusive to the states, and it was in the distant past, still rippling from the effects of the 2006 Boston Marathon. Add to that 17 months of a Japanese diet, a 12 kg loss in muscle mass, and three weeks of inconsistent sleep... out of my mind.

A clear morning. Sunny skies. Junior high school students gawking at me as I picked up my bib number.

1496 runners for a half marathon. I had to beat them all, or die trying.

I blink, and two kilometers have already past, my legs carrying me through the congestion towards a small gap between the heats, just large enough for me to stretch my arms.

The crowds of athletes are dense, the families cheering "gambatte" and "fight" (ファイト) from beyond the barrier of green cones. A grandmother looks directly at my reddened face and claps even louder. A tunnel approaches.

Cruise and cargo ships lie resting on our left, the majestic view of Inasayama (稲佐山) on the right. A world of constancy - shoes hitting the road, sunlight beating down our energy, spectators' voices always passing through the soft wind.

9K. I feel no pain, no thirst, only anger at allowing myself to do this. Why? Why couldn't I have played football in high school, dated that blonde cheerleader, and set myself on the path for a shallow, yet happy, existence? Runners are deep thinkers - how else can you spend three hours by yourself in motion?

A familiar tune forces me to smile, turn my head, and clap in support. I find the strength to put on a show for the junior high school band, letting them see I am moved by "Eye of the Tiger". The thrill of the fight.

"...it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward."

Sage words. The only thoughts present as I continue in a trot up the steepest hill towards the Megamibashi (女神橋). How hard you can get hit... An 8% grade, and I'm still running, still standing, still strong. Thank you Rocky.



15K. The midmorning sun is starting to bake my head, amplified by the metal and concrete structure of Nagasaki's landmark bridge. The ships and finish sit 6 km in the distance, just within sight. The salt flaking off the side of my head comes not from the surrounding seawater, but my own sweat, rubbing against my cheeks now as I trudge, head raised high to the shimbun photographers, in a veneer of courage.

18K. A game has begun. A competition between a fellow distance warrior sporting a black warmup with red stripes. No words. No eye contact. But somehow we are aware of each other, and push.

We push past 19K, where I know I can now finish without stopping. Steady on pace, mo chotto (little more).

Something inside me breaks at 20.7, and I relinquish to the beast inside. Turning to the right, I face my opponent and bellow: "dekimashou!" (let's go!)

He takes the lead. I shove right back. Spectators are ogling, clearly bemused by our plight. Neck and neck, we cross the 21.0975 mark, nearly tripping over our own legs. Enjoying the moment, ignoring the pain - the path for true adventurers.

Clock time 1:30:34
Actual time ~1:28:00
100位/1496


Mention in the Nagasaki Shimbun

長崎ベイサイドマラソン&ウオーク4246人が汗

 第6回長崎ベイサイドマラソン&ウォークは28日、長崎市の水辺の公園を発着点に行われ、女神大橋を渡るハーフマラソンの部では39歳以下の男子を山川貴広(長崎市)が1時間9分18秒の大会新記録で、同女子は近宗操(福岡県)が1時間26分37秒でそれぞれ制した。

 県内外から4246人が参加。特別招待選手として1992年のバルセロナオリンピックに出場した小鴨由水さんが参加した。

Friday, October 26, 2007

NOVA: How it had to End

Let's keep this simple, shall we?

1. NOVA was broke and expected to file for bankruptcy
2. NOVA was broke and filed for bankruptcy
3. NOVA President Nozomu Sahashi is in the wind, following his unexplained absence at an emergency board meeting
4. There are approximately 4,000 unemployed foreign teachers in Japan, low on funds and with limited time for housing
5. The company's debt totals 43.9 billion yen

Nova Corp., Japan’s largest language school chain, filed for bankruptcy Friday with estimated debts of about ¥43.9 billion as it failed to recover from a crippling penalty for false advertising.

Osaka-based Nova said it applied for protection from creditors under the Corporate Rehabilitation Law with the Osaka District Court, and pledged to find a sponsor for rehabilitation under the supervision of a court-appointed administrator. The court accepted the application.

The Jasdaq Securities Exchange said Nova’s stock has been suspended from trading and will be delisted on Nov. 27.

The company, offering mainly English conversation classes to an estimated 420,000 students nationwide, said it has shut down all its schools, and Nova President Nozomu Sahashi, who has a 16 percent stake in the company, is nowhere to be found.


Source: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20071026z1.html


For Unemployed NOVA Teachers

- For those in the Tokyo area, there will be a meeting to discuss options at 7 PM on October 28th at the National Union of General Worker's headquarters in Shimbashi

〒105-0004
東京都港区新橋5-17-7
全国一般労働組合東京南部
なんぶ外国人分科会

Email info@nambufwc.org for more info.

- For Australian citizens, be sure to look at this official notice issued by the Australian Government in response to NOVA's recent annoucement

- For those in semi-stable positions who still want to stay in Japan, be sure to check out Gaijinpot

- For those in the Kagoshima or Miyazaki area, feel free to email me if you need emergency housing


To get your mind off things...

Submit to me your own graphic version of just how the NOVA bunny should commit suicide:



Courtesy of NOVA teacher James Rolton




Courtesy of Japan Probe




Courtesy of News on Japan


Other links:

http://www.chinapost.com.tw/headlines/2007/10/26/49893/Japan's-largest.htm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7063205.stm
http://www.japantoday.com/jp/news/420582

More Help Against Fingerprinting

A proactive blogger has set up an online petition to condemn the Japanese government's decision to fingerprint foreigners, set to begin November 20th.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

C is for クーキー



I admit I can come across as ambiguous at times. Issues are not always so black and white for me, and it takes time and research to come to a firm conclusion.

Not this time. You mess with my chocolate snacks, and there's going to be war. I don't care what they did, who they killed, how many old ladies they knocked over, if they're hiding Osama bin Laden: if the chocolate tastes as moist and sweet as it did before, all the better.

Shiroi Koibito (白い恋人, White Lovers) chocolate in Hokkaido is the best in Japan, undisputed. Anyone who tells you otherwise has not tried it, or has faulty taste buds.

Imagine if you will, a cold February day on the powdered streets of Sapporo. The sun is long absent, the sky a grey contrasting with the pure white of the snowy earth.

I'm sitting rather frigidly on a bench sculpted from a huge block of ice. Looking at my surroundings, however, this should come as no surprise; a walrus with whiskers the length of a small boy is left with an eternal smile; a peacock has its feathers raised, though nothing that could be considered a predator is nearby; a young girl runs ahead of her parents and falls spectacularly in a multicolored heap.

The last days of the Sapporo Snow Festival (札幌雪まつり) are upon us. With the images of junior high schooler snowball fights freshly burned into my mind, as well as my camera, I'm taking one of many opportunities to relax and watch life pass me by.

But what is a show without a little snack? Two things come immediately to mind: chocolate and warm chocolate. Shiroi Koibito chocolate snack cookies... fresh milk chocolate poured delicately between two thin sugary wafers, the combined taste of which is enough to bring strong men to their knees in the overwhelming onset of flavor; sugary yet still sweeter, creamy yet perfectly flaky, and perfectly soft, allowing the cookie to pass through my teeth of its own accord, instead of the other way around.

To drink? Nothing less than the chocolate drink of Ishiya, a liquid smoother and more delicious than any hot chocolate in existence.

As you may have guessed, I have strong feelings about what I put in my stomach. Which is why I was a little disheartened to read that the chocolate has not been available to buy since August, in response to a "scandal" that occurred when Ishiya changed their expiration dates to extend shelf life.

It doesn't matter. That chocolate is consumed so quickly and in such vast quantities I doubt any piece has ever approached the expiration date. Unfortunately, the government cannot understand the scrumptious delights of Shiroi Koibito, and have effecively delayed sales until Nov 22nd.

"Ishiya's products may be popular, but its conduct has been extremely sloppy."

Yes, sloppily delicious. I accept your apology.

Incidentally, if Ishiya is willing to sponsor this blog by renewing my traveling spirit with free samples, I wouldn't say no... Think about it... "Keeping Pace in Japan, powered by Ishiya Shiroi Koibito chocolate"... It may not raise much cash, but the sentimental value will soar.

Either way, if there are any souls in Hokkaido who happen to be making their way south, I'll gladly pay for some.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Rape in Hiroshima

Following the alleged rape of a 19-year-old Japanese girl by four US Marines, all members of the US military now have a strict midnight curfew for the base at Iwakuni pending an investigation; the four charged with the crime will be held on base until further notice. This alleged rape occurred at approximately 3:30 AM on October 14th... the first night of the Sake Matsuri in Higashi Hiroshima (東広島).

It wouldn't surprise me in the least if these charges were true, but naturally, I have no right to pass judgment over a case I know nothing about. Let's just say... the military presence in Iwakuni is not valued by the residents of Iwakuni or Hiroshima. Every chance most of those leathernecks get, they run into town, get drunk at El Barco, and find the first Japanese or eastern European girl who's willing to let them touch her. I hate generalizations like that, but anyone who lives in Hiroshima knows it to be true; go down to El Barco any Friday or Saturday and watch.

Just like in Okinawa, there are many Japanese protesting an "unnecessary" military presence in Honshu. With an incident like this in the news, true or not, we may start to see some concessions from the US; in 1995, two Marines and a Navy medic abducted and raped a 12-year-old Japanese girl on Okinawa. Following that incident, the US was pressured to return some of the seized land to Japanese control. Although increasing military ties are forming in response to the North Korean threat, will we see a relocation of the forces at Iwakuni?

4 U.S. Marines suspected in gang rape of Hiroshima woman
Saturday, October 20, 2007 at 07:11 EDT
HIROSHIMA — Japanese police have started investigating four U.S. Marines from the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture on suspicion of gang raping a 19-year-old Japanese woman in Hiroshima earlier this month, police said Friday.

The four are suspected of assaulting the woman in a parked car early Sunday in the city's Naka Ward after they met her at an event hall in the same ward and took her out by the car, the Hiroshima prefectural police said.

The four had taken part in a dancing event at the hall late Saturday that had attracted about 300 to 400 people, according to the hall.
Hiroshima police are planning to request that the four men be transferred into their custody from the U.S. military, based on the provisions of a bilateral agreement that governs matters related to the U.S. military including its personnel.
Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara said, "It is very regrettable if it is true. We will protest after confirming the facts."
The incident is likely to stiffen the opposition of Iwakuni residents to the Iwakuni base, although Ihara, who had been opposed to a relocation plan for U.S. carrier-based aircraft to Iwakuni air station, proposed to the government on Tuesday starting discussions on an agreement.
Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba told a news conference Friday, "Investigations are under way, but if it is true it is extremely regrettable."
The Iwakuni base released a statement saying it is aware of the allegations, is conducting its own investigation, and will fully cooperate with the relevant local authorities.
The U.S. Embassy in Japan issued a statement saying, "The U.S. Embassy and the U.S. forces in Japan are cooperating fully with Japanese authorities on this case."
"The U.S. forces in Japan and the U.S. government are committed to maintaining the highest standards of discipline for U.S. military personnel in Japan. We take reports of this nature very seriously," the statement said.


Source: http://www.japantoday.com/jp/news/420318

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Roads to Sata

This one is definitely worth a mention. Any similar experiences?

...the woman at the ryokan door stood twisting her apron about in her fists.
"Are there any rooms free?" I asked with an encouraging smile.
"Well, yes, there are, but we haven't got any beds. We sleep on mattresses on the floor."
"Yes, I know," I said. "I've lived in Japan for seven years."
"And you won't be able to eat the food."
"Why, what's the matter with it?"
"It's fish."
"I like fish."
"But it's raw fish."
"Look, I've lived in Japan for seven years. My wife's Japanese. I like raw fish."
"But I don't think we've got any knives or forks."
"Look..."
"And you can't use chopsticks."
"Of course I can. I've lived in Japan for..."
"But it's a tatami-mat room and there aren't any armchairs."
"Look..."
"And there's no shower in the bathroom. It's an o-furo."
"I use chopsticks at home. I sit on tatami. I eat raw fish. I use an o-furo. I've lived in Japan for seven years. That's nearly a quarter of my life. My wife..."
"Yes," moaned the woman, "but we can't speak English."
"I don't suppose that will bother us," I sighed. "We've been speaking Japanese for the last five minutes."


The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, Alan Booth

Why Were We Chosen?

Another interesting pickup from Debito makes me wonder just what criteria Tokyo Marathon officials used to select from the vast number of entrants.

Although I've seen being foreign as an advantage when applying for sporting events - trying to make them more "international" - I certainly hope there's not a trend in Japan (or anywhere for that matter) to exclude gifted athletes who might overtake the native competition.

"Let's be fair, let Japanese win our sports events" may be better phrased as "Let's be fair; let's let the Kenyans run their races as they see fit and all runners can compete equally." Despite Kenyans' and Ethiopians' natural abilities in long distance running, I have seen Americans and Europeans overtake them: this is not a matter of race or nationality, but strictly talent.

I don't care who you are, where you were born, or what you do... someone out there is better than you. Deal with it, don't lower the standards and, consequently, lessen the value of healthy competition.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Last Straw

Pay for NOVA teachers has now been pushed back from the 15th to the 19th, to the 25th, to the 31st. This has lead many to stop coming to work entirely, awaiting funds that will probably never come.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Getting Antarctica


Picture courtesy of http://www.marathontour.com/antarctica/index.shtml


26.2 miles. 42.195 kilometers. It's difficult enough as it as. Now could you imagine being one of the few people who've managed it across seven continents? After Tokyo, I believe I'll see if there's a way to "run" through the International Space Station, or gather enough wealthy sponsors to have the first person on Mars start running for three hours... "That's one small step for man, I'll see you suckers at the finish."

2008 Antarctica Marathon

March 5, 2008

"You will come face to face with icebergs, penguins, seals and whales while exploring the most pristine corner of the planet. Historians and scientists will provide lectures on board ship and wildlife excursions during landings in remote areas among seal colonies and penguin rookeries and at research bases."

Believe it or not, the 2008 and 2009 races are currently sold out (not that they had too many seats to begin with), but you can be put on a standby list. Temperatures range from 15-30 degrees Fahrenheit minus wind chill. The price? About USD$6000-7000 for packages from Miami.

Course map:
http://www.marathontour.com/antarctica/antcoursemap2.pdf

Website:
http://www.marathontour.com/antarctica/index.shtml


However, if you're interested in a different way to "get Antarctica", read on. I thought this story on Brave New Traveler was pretty interesting, but have yet to encounter anyone in Japan going for it (or who've even heard of it). Kudos Madeleine Somerville, and FYI, there are three people who have been born in Antarctica...

"Emilio Marcos Palma was the first child born in Antarctica, January 7, 1978. Because he was born to Argentine parents on the Argentine Base Esperanza, near the tip of the Antarctic peninsula, he was declared an Argentine citizen. His unusual birthplace has brought Marcos a visit from Prince Andres of Holland, letters from presidents around the world, and an invitation to Antarctic Treaty meetings. In 1986 Juan Pablo Camacho was born at the Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva Base, becoming the first Chilean born in Antarctica. Soon after a girl, named Gisella, was born at the same station. Eduardo Frei and Esperanza bases are the only ones in Antarctica with families living year round. The most recent population numbers available included 13 families at Eduardo Frei with 17 children younger than 14 and 10 families at Esperanza with 21 children. Most of the children living there now were born elsewhere."

All in a decent age range... Look them up, and start working your game.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Looking Back: Marathons II

Boston Marathon 2006

I'm sitting on a Delta aircraft heading to Atlanta precisely 24 hours after the start of my first Boston Marathon. What a city. I flew in at night, and as such didn't get the view, but that certainly changed on dawn Sunday morning. Beacon Hill, city hall, old lighthouses and churches, I couldn't believe how historical everything was. Looking back, I'm glad I didn't pay to do the official course tour beforehand... it was far better to see everything for the first time during the race. The race... where to begin... I left the hotel around 8:40 and proceeded to walk to the Boston Common - the buses were lined up and down Tremont Street. After waiting half an hour to board, they proceeded to squeeze long-legged runners into buses designed for elementary school kids. Anyways, I'm just glad I didn't cramp. The bus took about an hour to drive from downtown to the small village of Hopkinton for the start. Nice town, but incredibly disorganized on the Boston Athletic Association's account - I left the bus, really, really, really needing to go to the bathroom, and proceeded to wait AN HOUR for one... you'd think they'd be aware there were over 20,000 of us. After that, they were already calling my heat to the starting line; I barely had enough time to eat a snack, stretch, change, apply sunscreen, and go. After that it was ok - nice enthusiasm from spectators, organized corrals at the start, I had no problem finding room, and plenty of conversation to be had. In no time at all, the anthem was played and the crack of the gun was sounded... wow... some things just don't change. The F-16's flying by were a nice touch, though. Just like the Freescale, I was thinking "what am I doing here... I can't do this... I must be out of my mind... hey, that girl's pretty hot..." nonstop. But like it or not, I knew I had to try. I honestly didn't know if I would finish, if I would end up walking. My long run in preparation for Boston was only 16 miles - with hills, to be sure, but I knew and any idiot will tell you it should be at least 20 miles.

Mile 1:
All downhill, no problem. I told myself I'd go out at around 7:20-7:30 min/mile pace, but I had a feeling I was going faster, and I was comfortable with it. I know the two thousand or so people ahead of me slowed me down a little, but I wasn't even remotely tempted to go out with a bang - I allowed myself to be passed. By a LOT of people. No worries. I did end up getting all of them in the end. The clock at the end of mile one showed 0:07:30. I knew I was about 30-40 seconds off the clock, so I knew I was going faster than expected. No way I could keep this up...

Miles 2-7:
These were fairly uneventful. I thought I couldn't keep my pace, but I did, running 6:45, 6:50, 6:52 miles back and forth. Amazing. However oxygen deprived my brain was, I was still aware that this was the easy part - all downhill. I didn't pick up refreshment until mile six I believe... a nice gatorade. The spectators were great. I can say with total confidence it was their enthusiasm and my fellow competition that allowed me to run so fast. There were a lot of kids - some just wanting high fives as we passed, others handing out bananas, orange slice, water, sponges, gatorage, and vasoline (no, I never took that). I hoped I didn't corrupt them with my shirt, which read "if you can read this, I just went Kenyan on your ass" on the back. Everyone thought it was hilarious. I had gone over a few gentle uphill slopes, nothing too major.

Miles 7-10:
Here's where I really worried about keeping up my pace. Still feeling fine, still hydrated, still encouraged, but I kept telling myself "make it to 10... see how you feel then..." My fellow competitors were really nice about dropping me our current pace - I'd overhear them talking after a mile mark, and simply ask. I should point out - everyone I talked was amazed this was only my 2nd marathon, and I was in the corral I was in. I hardly saw anyone younger than me.

Miles 10-13.1:
The fun begins - still on 6:52 average pace, still energized (consumed a Powergel pack), still swept up by the crowd. Shortly after passing the 20K (12.4 miles), I ran by Welleley college. If I could do any part of that race over it would definitely be Wellesley. Nonstop crowds of girls on the right hand side, all begging to touch and kiss you... no, I'm not joking, they had signs. I should have made out with at least one of them, but I didn't want to stop. Oh well... maybe I'll stop by there in the future. The 13 mile and half marks were just past the college. Denser crowd than usual, and my family was there, just catching sight of me at the last second. I came in precisely on pace, the clock reading 1:30:31.

Miles 13.1-16:
The point of no return. I knew if I got past 16 and still felt ok, I could probably finish. Like I said, 16 was my long run. But also, mile 16 was at the bottom of a hill and the official start of a four mile uphill ending at Heartbreak Hill. I would say I was perfectly paced up to a little past 16... then the hills began.

Miles 16~20.6:
Yeah... despite popular Boston Marathon sentiment, and you may think I'm lying, I had no trouble managing the hills, including Heartbreak. Oh, it was a strain, of course, and it did bring me down to 7:00 pace, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Let's see... a nice, gentle uphill and back down for 16-17.5, followed by a somewhat steeper hill leading to the 18 mark. 19-20 were ok. One perk, to be sure, my legs were NOT cramping or aching at mile 20 like they did in Austin. I had not hit the wall just yet. I was a little fooled by Heartbreak, though - there's a hill just after 19, about the same grade as Heartbreak, that levels off and again proceeds up, up, an up. But I tell you, no problems with Heartbreak. Those occurred afterwards...

Miles 20.6-23:
The top of Heartbreak was uneventful. I reached the top; that's all. Nothing spectacular. I must admit it probably drained my legs more than I was consciously aware. After 22, my left quad started shaking, hurting, straining, buckling is more like it. I don't know why I kept going. "Gotta keep breathing, stay alive..." may have floated through my head at one point. I'll tell you, though, despite the pain, I couldn't help admire one sign a group of girls had made saying "Chuck Norris wouldn't stop." That was funny. Thank you Chuck Norris, thank you for Boston.

Mile 23:
Oh yeah, the pain is still there. And it's spreading to my right heal. My right quad is still ok for the moment though. I could have sworn I overlooked the 23 mark and was hoping for 24... each one of those last miles lasted soooo long. At this point we were just crossing over the interstate into Boston proper. The crowds are continuous, neverending. Makes me wish I wrote my name on myself or lifted my head a little higher. Oh well. Great crowd. Despite the pain, it's still a profession runner feeling. I should point out I really, really want to stop. I HAVE to stop. I swear I feel blisters, and stumps of pain where my legs used to be. Trudging on...

Mile 24:
Like Freescale, I now know I can finish. My pace is still slow, but I also know I can beat 3:10. HOWEVER, I don't know if I'll keeping running. The pain is overwhelming even on the downhill grade. I'm passing tens of people who have stopped on the sidelines or started walking, and I know I'm not very different from them. Play to the crowd, spread your arms, listen to someone playing Eye of the Tiger...

Mile 25-26.2:
Mile 25... mile 25 was a blur. I think I hit it along a street parallel to Tremont, but who knows. I can recall "25 M" printed on the pavement. Once more, I know I can finish, but I'm still not sure I can go without walking. I know there's a final right turn coming up, but it never seems to happen. I'm half expecting to see my family there, but it did occur to me they may not make it in time (turns out I was going faster than they thought). Ok, stick with me here... I'm still thinking of walking. My body and spirit aren't drained of energy (thank Gatorade endurance formula for that), but my legs hurt ten times worse than they did in Austin. I knew I should have pushed myself to 20. A painful reminder as I round the final corner. The final stretch. It's still like 600 meters, but the finish is in sight! Packed with spectators. I'm literally stumbling in as I cross the finish, passing a few, getting passed by a few others. But it's over. It's done. And I did it.

Final time 3:04:46

Kitty Cats



English Expressions:

Curiosity killed the cat
Discretion is the better part of valor; it's not always good to be overly curious.

Cat got your tongue?
Are you having trouble expressing yourself?


Japanese Expression:

猫舌 (ねこじた)
nekojita
Cat tongue; unable to withstand hot food.

Debito Steps In

I'm still looking for individuals who will be entering or leaving the country on November 20th, the day fingerprinting is set to begin.

Although it may not be exactly what I'm looking for, Debito has posted a template of a letter protesting the new fingerprinting policy.

指紋押捺及び入国管理法について
“平成18年5月24日, 法律番号043.

前略 私達は最近可決された、日本での永住権を持ち、日本に居住し、労働し、日本に家族を持つ全ての外国人に対して写真及び 指紋押捺を義務付けるとする新しい法律に関して、非常に懸念しております。
 この法律は私達外国人を犯罪者としてみなし、私達の居住する地域だけでなく日本の家族や子供、同僚や友人から隔離するものであります。
 平等で公平な社会を供給するために、憲法に記載があるように政府は日本に居住する全てのものに対して平等に扱うことを保証せねばならないと確信いたします。
 私達は貴殿に、永住権を持ち日本に居住する者、または日本に家族を持つ者がこの法律の対象から免除されるように法改正にご助力及び提案頂けるよう、切に希望致します。法改正により、平和的かつ公正に私達が居住する地域との調和を生むものと確信し、貴殿に法改正への援助を賜れることを望みます。
 この件についてご質問等ございましたら、上記の住所へご遠慮なくお問い合わせ頂けます様お願い申し上げます。
 貴殿からのご回答をお待ち申し上げております。
 末筆ながら、貴殿のご健康と益々のご活躍を祈ります。草々


Mr. Suzuki

Your address

To the right honorable...

Reference finger printing and immigration law.
Heisei 18.5.24, Law No. 043.

We are concerned at the recent passing of a new law by the government which forces all foreign permanent residents who live and work in Japan, or have a Japanese family to be photographed and finger printed.

This law stigmatizes us as criminals, separates us from our families, children, colleagues, and friends, as well as the Japanese community that we live in.
We believe that to provide an equal and fair society, we believe that the government should ensure that all people who live in Japan should be treated equally as written in our constitution.

We would kindly like you to support/propose a change in this law so that all people, who have permanent residence or have a Japanese family, are exempt from this law. This would bring us in line with other special permanent residents who have been granted an exemption from this law. We believe this will provide a harmonious, peaceful, and a fair society that we live in, and we hope you will support us by proposing such an amendment to the law.

If you wish to contact us please do not hesitate in contacting me at the above address.

We look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,
Jane/John Smith.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Looking Back: Marathons I

I've had a few people emailing me asking for information on running in Japan and some of my past race experience. Although I had an old running blog while living in Austin, I didn't think anyone would be interested in hearing my particular brand of racing narratives. Happy to be wrong.

Here's my account of the 2005 Austin Freelance Marathon, formerly the Motorola Marathon, now the AT&T Austin Marathon. You can view the results here. Sorry about the American standard of measurements - I still think in miles instead of kilometers.

One comment for the running cynics. I know you all wonder why people do this to themselves. The truth is every runner, at every marathon, in the history of time has questioned his sanity as the gun goes off.

...

Wow... how to start... not quite at the beginning of the race, although that was interesting. I guess the race really began for me about 6 AM, an hour before the start, while we were still driving and about to park, when the rain decides to pick up and start pouring down in gallons. Quite possibly the most disheartening thing I've ever had happen to me before the start of a race - obviously I didn't want to go through my first marathon completely soaked from mile 1. Nevertheless, the rain and lightning cleared up nicely around 6:40, leaving me in a prime position to start.

I positioned myself, quite insanely, at the top of the 3:00 pace group. It was my first marathon, and yet I still believed I could break three hours first time out. Quite mad, I know. No sooner than the national anthem was sung, Rick Perry said his thing, and we were off, towards one of the few uphill stretches on the course. I knew I went out way too fast even before I saw a clock, and I promised myself that I'd start at 7:00 minute/mile pace; instead, I was going about 6:50 minute/mile. Big mistake. To tell the truth, miles 1-6 in the Freescale were pretty simple. Still had my energy, didn't need to hydrate, and a nice steady downhill past mile 2... no problem. After that, though, big problems - the sun decided to come out and shine down directly into everyone's eyes from miles 6-8, not to mention the draining effect. This was the point where I lost all rational thought but to simply keep moving, keep breathing, one foot in front of the other. I said it for the 30K, and I'll say it again: when you're in a race that long, your mind will grasp onto any thought to avoid thinking about how far you have to go, how fast you're going, and how much pain you will soon be in. One foot in front of the other is probably the smartest thing I could think of over the course of 26.2 miles.

Mile 9. My parents came out at this point, just to cheer me on, and I barely caught a glimpse of them and just smiled. I'm feeling a little drained in my upper body and my stomach starts to feel very empty - a very bad sign. I didn't eat enough breakfast. Too late now, because there's nothing to be done; power gel packs, even taken regularly, can't make up for the nourishment of a solid meal before the race. I hydrate myself around mile 11, and grab some Poweraid to replace electrolytes. In actuality, I know that I'm not even halfway there, and even when I am, I know I won't feel good. On the plus side, I'm running side by side with my 3:00 pace leader, so I know I'm ok for the moment. How long that will last, no one can tell.

20 Kilometers. I'm expecting to see a friend from UT cheering me on, but she hasn't shown. Again, nothing to be done. Now's the time for power gel. I drain it quickly. Pain hasn't set in my legs yet, but the stiffness is there, and my shins feel a little worn due to the concrete. On the plus side, at least I'm headed in the right direction - towards downtown, towards the finish. By the time the half marathon finish rolls towards me, I know I'm not going to be able to keep up my pace; I'm doing extremely well at this point - 6:52 pace, and going strong, but I know my reserves are running out. I see the happy people going in to finish the half; if only the marathon could end there too... I'm still with the pace leader, nice and steady. One foot in front of the other.

Downtown. Down Congress. Huge fan scene. I can barely hear them, barely see them. I'm fairly winded by this point, and I know there's still 13 miles to go. The only thing I can do to keep my mind from falling apart is just to do a countdown - 13 miles to go, 12 miles to go... I'm still with the pace leader, but the crowd really isn't that motivating. What would be more motivating is breaking right across the Congress bridge and going to finish right now. U nfortunately, my legs have other plans. As I turn onto 6th Street, I pass my parents again. They can't do anything for me at this point. They offer me some more power gel, but I don't think it'll help yet... maybe at mile 20. As soon as I pass them, I see it - a steady, ever increasing uphill slope towards miles 16-17. That was really disappointing. There's still no pain, but something definitely doesn't feel right.

It happens at mile 16. I want to stop. I need to stop. I must have been insane. There's no point to any of this. Suicide might be preferable at this point, and probably less painful. I'm winded. I'm soaked. I'm sticky from sweat and spilled Poweraid. Yet for some reason I keep moving. Nothing on the side lines motivates me. I just keep going. Steady pace, one foot in front of the other.

The turnaround at mile 17. Even more disappointing - a LONG, steady uphill all the way back to Congress. And I know exactly how far that feels. I'm hydrating at every stop now, but it doesn't seem to help. Already I can feel like every last patch of water and energy is being sapped and depleted from the cells in my body. And I've still got 9 miles to go. I'm still with the pace leader, miraculously; I really don't know how. My legs do hurt now, hurt considerably. But in my mind, I know I can go at least to mile 20, because I've run that far before. Not at this pace, to be sure, but I think I can do it.

Mile 20. The uphill slope has stopped, thank God. I retrieve some power gel and down it in one gulp, almost gagging. It was worth it. I'm still with the pace leader, but I know I won't be for long. I hydrate with some more water and power aid, but it really doesn't help - I know I need the electrolytes, but all the sugar causes a sudden drain after I swallow, something that can't be helped. I can't see the finish as the lake comes into sight; probably a good thing, so I don't know exactly how far I have to go. But I do know... 6.2 miles. 10 kilometers left.

I stop thinking. My brain is mush. I hit the wall just before the 21st mile mark. I want to stop, I need to stop. My legs are on fire, feel like swollen protrusions of pain. I have no breath; my chest is being sapped of all its strength. Hydration doesn't help. Cheering doesn't help. Pace leaders sure don't help, because I lose them. I guess this is where the marathon really begins.

I miss the 22nd mile mark; I guess I was just blind to it. Nothing feels right, and I know it won't again. The only thing on my mind is how best to stop running, how to get over to the finish line with the food and the water as quickly as possible. Despite the pain, the logic is overwhelming, and it occurs to me at mile 23 - I have to keep breathing, stay alive, keep moving forward. There's nothing else to be done. I'm feeling the worst I have ever in my life. No exaggeration. Nothing left, no speed to release, just the eventual running until my legs snap in half.

I hated the spectators at mile 24. They knew it too - "just a little further, you're almost there, you can do it!"... yeah, right. They have no idea. They don't know what this feels like. I know exactly how far I have to go: 2.2 miles. I also know I'm incapable of going that far at any speed, might not be capable of walking that far. I can see the pace leader - he has about a 30 second lead over me. He tried to encourage me, but I just didn't have it in me. Everything aches. My legs, quite in pain, sore, and tired from the rigid movements, are now starting to cramp. And to top it off, I get a stitch. I haven't gotten a stitch from running in years, and yet it chooses to present itself now. That alone tells me I can't make it, I shouldn't be able to make it, I'm not meant to make it. But I keep going, I don't stop.

Just before mile 25, there is huge temptation placed right before my eyes: my apartment. Right here. Now! With its bed, its food, and its air conditioning, I know I have to go by it as quickly as possible before I yield to temptation. Even worse, I'm all too familiar with the hill I have to ascend to escape sight of my home; it's bad. It's really bad. My legs are cramping on all sides, and I don't know what a muscle tear feels like, but I was sure I was starting to develop one.

I know I can't keep going. I haven't been sure since mile 21. I'm running on the rightmost side of the street, on the hard concrete, because for some reason that feels slightly easier. There's only one thing on my mind: how far left to go. 1 mile. 0.6 miles. 0.5 miles... the 26 mile mark. This is the ONLY time I know for sure I can finish. That's it. I don't stop, I just keep myself moving, one foot in front of the other. 0.2 miles to go. I round the corner. More people are there, as well as a long, golden chute. My salvation, my reward.

Finish time 3:00:57

Monday, October 15, 2007

Luck of the Draw

Apparently 156,012 people registered for the 2008 Tokyo Marathon, a sharp increase from the 95,044 last year.

I wonder just what criteria were used for the lottery... previous times? Time of registration? Randomized numbers? Being a foreigner already in Japan? Several members of Namban Rengo, a large running group in Tokyo, have been selected as well.

February 17th, 2008. Four months and counting...

STRIKE!

今から! The General Union is calling on Nova teachers to participate in a strike today, October 16th.

Situation at Nova

As many of you know, Nova is on the verge of bankruptcy and is likely already insolvent, burdened with massive liabilities from terminated and ongoing student contracts, and little assets since most properties are rented. Administrative staff were not paid on their most recent payday of Sept. 27 and have yet to be paid. Management has already said that teachers’ salaries will not be paid on Oct. 15 (tomorrow) and may be paid by Friday, Oct. 19. The situation for thousands of foreign and Japanese employees around the country is serious. In addition to unpaid wages, some are being kicked out of their housing, others are having visa problems.

Meanwhile, President Nozomu Sahashi is nowhere to be found and refuses to file to the court for bankruptcy protection. Such a filing would aid all employees to retrieve 80% of their unpaid waves through government subsidies and to start to receive unemployment benefits (’for those who have been employed long enough). The company is falling apart without Sahashi filing properly, the worst possible of situations, making it far more difficult and time-consuming to get our wages paid and onto the dole, etc.

Union’s Plan of Action

Only public pressure (or shame) will push Sahashi to do the right thing and file properly. We plan

1) to hold a massive strike ON TUESDAY of all members. (Initially we planned it for tomorrow but CHANGED TO TUESDAY to co-ordinate with General Union in Osaka)

2) to file a petition at the Shinjuku Labor Standards Office to prosecute Sahashi for criminal failure to pay wages as is stipulated in Labor Standards Law

3) to protest outside the LSO in front of the media to demand such a prosecution

4) to hold a press conference to explain the union’s position on the current situation

These actions are being coordinated with out sister union, General Union, in Osaka. It is crucial that all members go on strike on Tuesday and meet at the following times and places:

Schedule of Events

Monday Oct 15: We will fax document to Nova management notifying them that all members will strike for the entire day Tuesday.

Tuesday 11 am: Meet at South Exit of Okubo Station on the Sohbu Line

We will then walk to the Shinjuku LSO at 11:15pm

11:30pm We will say a few words to the press and then enter the LSO with our petition to prosecute Pres. Sahashi.

12:00pm-12:30pm We will demonstrate outside LSO in front of press

12:30-13:00pm We will hold a brief press conference

13:15pm to 14:00pm We will hold a union meeting back at the union office to decide our next collective move.

Again, remember all members must strike on Tuesday since we will be notifying management that way. Since we have many new members, we can decide tomorrow what future actions to take. But it is crucial that we act as a union tomorrow, particularly when there will be press attention.


http://www.japanprobe.com/?p=2941
http://www.debito.org/index.php/?p=651

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Blog Action Day



I remember my first days in Japan very clearly.

Although I had been informed about the rainy season, I didn't really understand the implications. A little rain, so what? Yeah... The rain really wasn't the big shocker though, as the first blast of heat and humidity just really overwhelmed me. Combine that with the right amount of jet lag, an inconsistent diet of bento and コーラー, a lumpy dorm room matress, and adjusting to a completely new culture, and you've got the ingredients for a downright unpleasant person; imagine every pore of your body screaming for dry air, relaxation, nourishment, and much more sleep... things that would only come with time.

Fortunately, karaoke nights and the right food eased the tension. Ahh... yes... the food. とんかつ in the station restaurant. An import store not far away, dispensing Dr. Pepper and chocolate pretzels.

And the cake shops. There must have been ten of them in Okayama Station (岡山駅), ripe for the plucking. I was still a little hesitant to shop for food in any place other than a convenience store at this point, as I was slowly picking up the phrases necessary to survive.

However, I needed a treat. Dinner had been delicious, but my stomach still believed it to be 6 AM in the US, and being awake at that time meant little else but a snack. Brimming more with hunger than confidence, I found my feet stumbling through the underground passage on the less-traveled side of the station, and walked up to the first glass enclosure I could find.

Chocolate. Strawberries. White cake. Cookies. Forget my stomach, my mouth needed this more. Ignoring a look of concern from the shopkeeper that I would later understand to be a rather common "foreigner alert" system, I pointed at one of the moist chocolate slices and proclaimed to the whole station "KORE O KUDASAI" (yes, それをください wasn't quite in my vocabulary just yet).

However, despite the setback, she obviously knew what I wanted, and proceeded to make her first attempt to make things more awkward for both of us: she asked me a question. Big mistake. Big, big mistake. A sure way to drag things out for ten minutes. As neither of us could understand the other, she just had to guess from my responses of "はい" and "いいえ" when I was going to eat this thing. The counters for minutes and hours were difficult.

Having made her own determination about my eating schedule after a pointless conversation, she unleashed her fury on the small black confectionary by trying to suffocate it: first came the plastic covering; then two disposable ice packs; a small plastic fork; a thin cardboard box; a paper bag, designed to fit perfectly over the carboard box; and finally, the coup de gras, a plastic bag with handles. All this for a slice of chocolate cake, half the size of one I'd expect back home for the same price. On top of that, I planned to eat it immediately. Waste upon waste upon waste.

In Japan, this is an all-too-common phenomenon. Although the Japanese are practical in many more aspects of life than I'd expect in America, there are always times to say "only in Japan". I think this is one of them. Wrapping within a wrapping within a wrapping, whether you're purchasing a slice of chocolate cake or a pair of socks.

However, despite these examples of wastefulness, this country is far above the grade in terms of recycling - trash is always sorted into three categories: burnable, non-burnable, and recyclable (with the exception of my current home, whose residents also have special bags for volcanic ash). Although you can find these sorted bins in homes, train stations, and shopping areas, just remember that there aren't too many wastebaskets out on the street.

In terms of inorganic recycling, I think Japan sets a fine example.

But what of food...?

There was a recent story on Japan Probe about how a particular homeless man lives on the streets of Tokyo:

"Hamahara eats free fresh food -- rice, fish, meat and vegetables. Because of strict Japanese hygiene laws, lunch boxes are discarded by convenience stores about 15 hours after they are prepared."

Let me explain something about Japan: if conformity is valued, then freshness is nothing less than a virtue. Rarely will you find any meat, fish, vegetables, or fruit at a supermarket older than a day. Around closing time, food is marked down because they know few, if any, people will want to purchase such "spoiled goods". Fish, in particular, should taste as though it were prepared ten minutes prior to consumption. In fact, if you find the right izakaya, you can eat live fish, watching the heart beat as you chew.

This may not be unique to Japan, but it's still disturbing to think about... food capable of feeding millions being discarded around the world due to our rising standards. Whole Foods may offer recycled paper bags, organic foods, and energy-efficient products, but they're just as bad as the next Japanese convenience store when it comes to sell things past their "prime". Anyone remember that we used to salt and dry meat? Refrigeration is pretty recent. BBQ was invented as a means to eat old, but perfectly edible beef.

People like Hamahara and dumpster divers have taken advantage of an inherently flawed system, and are able to survive on nothing but contributions from bakeries, supermarkets, and convenience stores. Unfortunately, I don't believe the world is likely to change in this regard anytime soon; if anything, food will be discarded more quickly as 3-hour-old pineapple seems to be "contaminated", a slice of bread becomes "stale" in less than 10 minutes, and entire animals are shipped directly to the consumer to prevent browning of the meat.


This entry was written in support of Blog Action Day, October 15th.

Nibble Nibble

"Don't have your flesh eaten by others" is an axiom I struggle to uphold day in and day out. In this best of all possible zombie-free worlds, I have beaten aside cannibals one-by-one, and fought off a member a fraternity, who, in his tequila-induced drunken state, must have thought my arm resembled corn chips.

Even then, there have been some close calls: a date who believed she was a vampire; a 4-year-old who wanted to practice biting; and my own brother, who took out his frustration with his teeth.

All well and good. But this past Sunday, I was weak. I allowed it to happen. More to the point, I paid someone to have parts of me bitten off.

Now that I have your full attention, I can still report: I am not speaking metaphorically...

I'm sitting on a leather cushion at a foot onsen booth inside a bathhouse in Hiroshima with the taste of milk still lingering in my mouth. Foot onsen, or ashi-no-yu (足の湯), are strategically placed in front of restaurants, at the end of hiking trails, and even in airports.

The bath attendant is a young woman in her 20's, and from her expression, she's simply delighted that a foreigner such as myself would choose this particular place to soak. As we're casually chatting about the availability of hot springs in America, I lift my left foot slightly and try to restrain a laugh. A fish just nibbled the sole of my foot in that split second.

But he's not alone; all around my toes, tiny grey fish are swimming in and out, from side to side, thinking nothing more of it than if I were a piece of oddly-shaped coral.

Unlike coral, however, I seem to offer more nutritious value to these speedy sakana (魚). They're attacking my flesh with the ferocity of piranha, but I can only sense a hundred tiny brushes passing slowly over the skin on my feet; it's as though my nerves are firing incorrectly, struggling to pin down whatever is causing such precise yet random sensations.

They're so close I can trap them between two toes without fear of retribution. I can control what areas they concentrate on eating by flexing just the right muscle. If I move, they follow instantly. If I lift my foot from the surface of the water, they strive to gorge themselves until the last possible second.

Eerie, yet pleasant and unique. Looking down at my feet a mere fifteen minutes later, I do notice a difference. Smooth, like they've been trimmed with a fine blade or even a lazer. There's even a lingering ticklish feeling as I'm walking back towards the shiden (市電) stop.

In the distance, I swear I heard the theme from Jaws slowly building...


Picture courtesy of http://www.yunessun.com/

The fish starring in this little adventure are the Garra rufa (ガラルファ), aptly named "Doctor Fish" (ドクターフィッシュ) when used for medicinal purposes. Predisposed to consume algae in the wild, they are starved when used at these baths and used to consume dead and diseased skin. Imported from Turkey, they are mainly used as a treatment for psoriasis; in Japan's case, I think it's more like a novelty onsen.

About doctor fish (日本語)
Doctor Fish - Wikipedia


Onsen with Doctor Fish

Hakone Kowakien Yunessun - the first onsen to bring the fish to Japan and one with a great variety of baths (soak in sake, coffee, green tea, wine...)

Honoyu (ほの湯) - a nice luxury onsen in Hiroshima

Friday, October 12, 2007

Review, Vagabonding



All quotations from Vagabonding unless otherwise cited

Vagabonding is a choice. A choice many people, even in the modern world, refuse to allow themselves to consider.

"This is a book about living that choice."

From the beginning, Rolf Potts draws me in with his straightforward style and practicality, putting into words what I've been struggling for years to understand about myself:

I am a vagabond.

"Vagabonding-n. (1) The act of leaving behind the orderly world to travel independently for an extended period of time. (2) A privately meaningful manner of travel that emphasizes creativity, adventure, awareness, simplicity, discovery, independence, realism, self-reliance, and the growth of the spirit. (3) A deliberate way of living that makes freedom to travel possible."

No, not quite - I want to be a vagabond, roaming free of societal constraints, and living life not through destinations but the journey between.

Living life. That's what it really all comes down to. I'm not going to hold myself on a higher plane than an office worker in Pittsburgh or an airline traffic controller at LAX; if they really enjoy their jobs and ways of life, who am I to tell anyone otherwise?

I, however, am not.

I am not satisfied with routine. I do not enjoy filling the most meaningful or any part of the day with that which has the least meaning...

"...we don't have a lot of time on this earth. We weren't meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements."
- Office Space

But this is precisely what many people do - we "live our lives", we work our jobs, buy our groceries, fill our houses with "avocado green furniture sets", and await the next time our bosses are in just the right mood so we can request a few days' vacation time.

And why do we do this? Allow ourselves to spend the best years indoors, and cut off from the world around us?

"Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?"
"We're consumers."
"Right. We are consumers. We're the bi-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra."
- Fight Club

We surround ourselves with possessions, believing them to be a source of comfort and security, when in actuality they are nothing more than a steel trap slowly choking our ambitions. Think about it:

1. Go to college. Get a degree.

2. Get a stable full-time job. Start working.

For many people, this is it. From the moment they enter that workplace, they "need" things: a bed, a picture frame, a computer, a tea cozy, an unused hiking stick, a set of flower curtains...

And when a long-awaited vacation does come? We find ourselves rushing back home to be once again in a comfort zone - a prison that keeps one from staying on the road and living life as it was meant to be lived.

One big reason you see so many young travelers, Potts pointed out, is they have little in the way of stability: no debt, no house, few possessions, no job...

Although some might associate this with being a burnout or bum, I believe it stems a little from jealousy: "My way of life only allows me five days of vacation, so there must be something wrong with you, penniless vagrant, if you're able to do more than that. After all, I am the one with the job, the money, the house with the picket fence, and my life must be superior to yours."

Yet there is one thing that the vagabonds have in scores and the rich have none: time.

Allowing yourself to believe this cynical view, out of spite or complacency, is a huge impediment. I've been there myself, as a teenager, seeing backpackers (perhaps vagabonds) walk past my 4-star air-conditioned hotel, thinking they must have terrible lives, with no home and so little money. In actuality, they probably pitied me.

The solution? Simplicity.

"...not only does simplicity save you money and buy you time, it also makes you more adventuresome, forces you into sincere contact with locals, and allows you the independence to follow your passions and curiosities down exciting new roads.

In this way, simplicity - both at home and on the road - affords you the time to seek renewed meaning in an oft-neglected commodity that can't be bought at any price: life itself."

Potts goes on quite a bit about travel preparations vs. spontaneity, and the best methods to explore new areas, but I believe these first few chapters are his coup de gras, for it is here we can find the problems facing most vagabonds in getting started, and exactly why they mean nothing to anyone serious about long-term travel.

...

I'm going to simplify, pay my debt, build my savings, and reach further than ever before. Join me?


Rolf Potts is not the first vagabonder the world has ever seen, but I believe he is the most elegant and succinct in his writings. Read his blog here or take a look at the Vagabonding homepage. I don't believe he has ever been to Japan.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Autumn Colors (紅葉特集)



Just as I reported the blooming of the cherry blossoms around the island in April, so will I keep you up to date on the changing of the leaves. Right now, most of the country is looking like the middle of November.

Look for the latest here.


Miyajima (宮島)

Peak time: mid-November
Link: http://kouyou.yahoo.co.jp/spot/ch132/index.html

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Alea Iacta Est



(Click the picture or here to view video)

It's easy to become frustrated to the point of homicidal when both halves of the world try to make your life as difficult as possible. I departed Tennessee at 6:30 AM Sunday morning. I stayed on the ground in Chicago for five hours, before hearing the announcement that the 12:50 flight to Tokyo had been overbooked, and volunteers were needed to give up their seats in exchanges for $800 flight vouchers, meal tickets, and hotel rooms... an opportunity I had to pass up, as I had a JAL connecting flight. Strike one.

The plane touched down at precisely 4:05 PM, five minutes behind schedule. This was particularly disasterous to me, as my flight to Kagoshima departed at 6:55 PM from Haneda; anyone who's ever tried to make the journey from Narita to Haneda within a limited timeframe knows exactly what I'm talking about: it's too risky to take the shuttle bus during peak hours, and the trains take a minimum of 95 minutes. Strike two.

I'm racing through the terminal towards immigration, and as I round the corner, I know I'm doomed: no fewer than sixty people are between me and Japanese soil. Even with my visa, passport, gaijin card, and customs form in hand and ready to use, I'm no match for bureaucracy. Now here's the interesting part; to add insult to injury, I make out a familiar face on the television screens perched over the front of the line... the face at the top of this post, in fact. The condescending tone is barely audible, but the images are unmistakable, the warning to gaikokujin evident even to first timers: prior to November 2007, your fingerprints will be taken at the border. Strike three.

And my last shred of restraint is outta here. Thank god I didn't bring any remote controlled cars, or I would have jumped the gun and thrown open the emergency exit in the middle of Evan Almighty. A watery grave is better than becoming complacent enough to find humor in that movie.

...

Fingerprinting foreigners will begin on November 20th
Source: http://articlestash.blogspot.com/2007/10/japan-to-fingerprint-photograph.html

"The government will approve a draft ordinance stipulating that a mandatory fingerprinting and photographing of visitors aged 16 or older will enter into force on Nov 20, officials said Thursday. The revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law incorporating such a measure was enacted in May last year in a bid to block the entry into Japan of individuals designated as terrorists by the justice minister.

Under the law, scanned fingerprints and other biometric data will be stored in a computer to be checked against those of past deportees. The system can also be accessed by investigative authorities, they said. The measure excludes ethnic Koreans and other permanent residents with special status, those under 16, those visiting Japan for diplomatic or official purposes, and those invited by the state."


Permanent residents and Zainichi will be fingerprinted
Source: http://www.debito.org/index.php/?p=454

"...the new Immigration procedures, according to the Japanese Government, apply to (English original):
==========================
1. Persons under the age of 16
2. Special status permanent residents
3. Those performing actions which would be performed [sic] by those with a status of residence, "diplomat" or “official government business"
==========================
http://nettv.gov-online.go.jp/prg/prg1203.html
"Special status permanent residents" (tokubetsu eijuusha) mean the Zainichi generational "foreigners". This means regular-status permanent-resident immigrants (ippan eijuusha) or "long-term foreign residents" (teijuusha) are NOT exempt. They will be fingerprinted.
This means you if you're not a citizen, a Zainichi, or naturalized. Every time you enter the country. Don't comply, you don't get in. Be advised."


What you can do

Talk to me. I want to hear from people who will be crossing immigration on November 20th or 21st. Email me or post a comment.

In the interim, I still want to get people started on a letter of protest. Debito has posted some good sample letters to send to those in authority beforehand, but I'm still waiting on people with some eloquent Japanese skills to submit something that can be presented to immigration officials.

There will be an Amnesty International Symposium in Tokyo on October 27th (source) to discuss this issue.

Date: Saturday, October 27th, 2007
Time: 14:00 - 17:00
Location: 9th Floor, KOREAN YMCA (YMCA Asia Youth Center) 2-5-5 Sarugaku-cho, Chiyoda-ku Tokyo
http://www.ymcajapan.org/ayc/jp/
Admission: 1000円
Simultaneous translation service available (Japanese-English)


がんばって. できましょう.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Posttraumatic Reverse Culture Shock

I can't imagine what it would be like if were able to transport instantaneously from place to place.

For me, travel time is naturally inconvenient, but a necessity. You leave one world, you enter another. In the interim, you exist in a place that is neither here nor there, a world without culture, without substance - I don't believe I can give the inside of a 777 any higher praise.

While I was leaving Chicago, I truly was in a different reality - Chili's restaurants, English bookstores, faces from every nationality staring me down.

In the limbo, there is nothing - bland food, plotless films, the grey exterior of the seat in front of you. Little interaction. Windows that reveal only clouds or total darkness. No fixed points. Transient, indeterminable, unreachable.

And Japan. How would one suddenly cope if we could just press a button and have everything change, feeling like we're still grasping at the residual images from a dream: the Dr. Pepper machine, the overweight woman prattling on about Britney Spears, the wide open spaces between buildings... all of these things have vanished. In their stead, we find a Japan Railways ticket dispenser laden with Japanese characters, a dignified obasan clutching her parasol, and mountains bearing down every corner. Too much, too fast.

From the moment I first walked off that plane at DFW airport, two things immediately stood out:

1. I saw more fat people within 15 minutes of landing than I had in two years in Japan.

2. For less than a minute, I couldn't distinguish the faces of Caucasians as easily as I could those of Asians. It was rather eerie.

Other differences cropped up over time:

- wide, open spaces
- crosswalks turn to red immediately rather than giving ample warning
- recycling isn't as common
- the food is heavy, heavy, heavy; one breakfast was enough to sustain me for a day after being accustomed to Japanese cuisine
- Coca Cola is sweeter in Japan
- the air is dryer; I've noticed that there is something in the air in Japan that reacts badly with the skin; many of the Japanese people I've known have had splitting cracks bordering on bleeding
- land can be flat
- there's an overwhelming sense of belonging, of being where I'm supposed to be

No one understands what it's like over in Nippon; I'm a novelty, an abnormality, the details of my life unbelievable and incapable of being processed. I wish I could convince others to visit.

I am the Warrior

After finally taking the time to order a blood test kit online, I have determined my ketsuekigata (血液型). As my fellow residents are no doubt aware, the Japanese place a great deal of significance on how their blood types influence personality.

Blood type theory
Japanese blood types


Type O – The Warrior

trendsetter
loyal
passionate
self-confident
independent
ambitious
vain
jealous

Type A – The Farmer

calm
patient
sensitive
responsible
overcautious
stubborn
unable to relax

Type B – The Hunter

individualist
dislike custom
strong
optimistic
creative
flexible
wild
unpredictable

Type AB – The Humanist

cool
controlled
rational
sociable
popular
critical
sometimes standoffish
indecisive


And my students thought I was a stuck-up type A... ha!

English as Therapy?

Were psychology patients recommended to go to NOVA in an attempt to create some normalcy in their lives? David Markle over at Japan Probe has collected an interesting pattern of stories from NOVA teachers.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Marathons, Near and Far



The lottery results of the 2008 Tokyo Marathon have now been announced. If you received an email, you're in. I'll be seeing you there.

2008 Tokyo Marathon


Secondly, just as I was leaving the windy city, the Chicago Marathon was underway with some disasterous results. One runner died, and 300 were treated for heat stroke. Around the airport, employees were saying it had been an awfully warm October.

CNN story

Tadaima

Back in Nippon and ready to report on the latest in many developments, including the preparations being taken for fingerprinting foreigners.

In the meantime, my full photo sets are now up and ready to view, as soon as I finish editing them a bit. Enjoy, if you didn't get a chance to see my earlier work.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

In Japan Next Week



Sake Matsuri (酒まつり)

Dates
October 13th, 11:00-20:00
October 14th, 10:00-17:00

Location
Central park in front of Fuji Grand, Higashi-Hiroshima (東広島)

Price
¥1500 at the door

Access
From Hiroshima, take the JR Sanyo Line east (usually departs from track 4 or 5) for exactly 35 minutes local, 32 minutes rapid to Saijou (西条). Walk straight ahead for 5,6 minutes.

Sake Matsuri Website
My report from last year




Dragon Boat Festival (ドラゴンボートフェスティバル)

Dates
October 13th and 14th

Location
Nejime Town (根占町), Osumi Pennisula

Access
Start swimming. I believe there is only one bus that travels into south Osumi.

Event Website


I am off to America this week for a wedding; make sure Satsuma can survive without me. Tokyo seems to have torn itself apart in my 10-month absence.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Voices of NOVA

Trans-Pacific Radio has done a really thorough job researching and discussing the situation with NOVA. Ken Worsley was enough of an authority to have Radio New Zealand contact him for an interview, and now TPR has just posted phone interviews with NOVA employees, among them instructors who recently arrived in Japan expecting steady paychecks and housing...

What to do if you are threatened with eviction