Sunday, December 05, 2010

If it wasn't obvious before...

I need a break from blogging for a while. I have wanted to post the Japanese reactions to the attack on South Korea and its relations with China, but there's been so much information coming in I just can't keep up. I'll still be around, but don't expect too much.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

I Want to Teach English in South Korea

My own contribution to the xtranormal universe (prompted by this one on being a travel writer). I didn't make one on Japan because I honestly couldn't think of as many harsh things to say about the ESL system - if anyone comes up with a good one, send it my way.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Best Method of Transportation Between Japan and China?

A friend just forwarded this to me and I thought it was pretty funny. A cheap laugh, but still.

1. Go to Google Maps

2. Click on "get directions"

3. Put Japan as the starting location .

4. Put China as the destination

5. Scroll down to line #43

6. Laugh at the absurdity of it all

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Green Tea With Sugar

An interesting lecture on the science of choice. Opens with an anecdote on Japan.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Do I Generalize Japanese?

I'm exploring this topic the best way I know how, which is simply to sit and type until I reach some kind of revelation... or just leave a series of questions in my wake. Recently, a friend of mine told me she found my travel writing incredibly offensive, if not downright racist. I couldn't understand where she was coming from, and kept prying until she said she thought I generalized an entire race of people, in saying that "all" Japanese do the same for foreigners.

But was it true? Had I been living in Asia so long that I started to embody some of the behavior I and others see on almost a day-to-day basis? When I wrote about life in Japan, did I paint all Japanese with the same brush, leaving no room for individual behavior? It reminded me of a joke I liked to tell around expats in Japan:

When a Japanese person trips, it means he had an accident. When a foreigner trips, it means he doesn't know how to walk.


Implying that, to your average Japanese observer, foreigners simply can't be seen in the same light as a fellow Japanese. Things are seen in absolutes, especially where behavior or habits are concerned.

- You saw a foreigner passed out drunk? Well, that's what foreigners do.
- You're living in Japan but you're not an English teacher? That's impossible; all foreigners are English teachers. You must be mistaken.
(this is hyperbole, if you can't tell).

Is that offensive? Before I say anything else, I should say: that was not my intention. For whatever that's worth.

That being said, I can't deny the experiences I had in Japan. Never at any time did I feel a part of that ultimate in-group, Japanese society. And, of course, you can take that as you will: maybe my Japanese skills weren't up to par; maybe I didn't try hard enough to fit in; maybe I was just too stubborn to ever fit in. I personally believe there is and has always been (but hopefully will not always be) a clear barrier between Japanese people and foreigners... on the part of Japanese. Why? I know I'm generalizing here, but with good reason. This is not dealing with Japanese as a race, but Japanese that were born in Japan to ethnically Japanese parents, raised in Japan in the Japanese school system, and continue to live their lives in Japan; in other words, not any ethnically Japanese people raised outside Japan. No Japanese could go through that process without developing a sense of group mentality. Spending time in schools, becoming part of the system, told to fear individuality. In-groups and out-groups. And foreigners are the ultimate out-group, as gaijin (外人).

I've said it before: people who think Japanese are racist in the western sense of the word - and yes, there is a difference - are mistaken. There are racists as Americans and Europeans have come to know them in Japan: bigoted ignorant idiots. But, those who spend time in Japan know bigots aren't representative of the population as a whole. So why do they feel discriminated against? Japanese people don't treat foreigners differently because they have strong objections to white or black skin; they treat them differently because they are not Japanese. They don't fit into society's rules and therefore, must be treated like they don't belong. Ironically, this is more of an attempt to make foreigners conform; it doesn't work, because we can't (very similar to the mentality behind ijime, bullying). More on the subject here.

So I need to know, and I need honest answers from my readers. Is that argument inherently offensive and racist? I honestly believed it was just being pragmatic. I suppose it very well might be 日本人論.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Noticing Immediate Differences: Japan and Korea

I'm sitting at one of Fukuoka city's famous yatai: a food stall lining the river, usually stocking fresh ramen or sushi. This time, as I perch myself on one of the red stools and start slurping loud enough to attract the attention of Japanese, it's as though I'm settling into a warm bath. With Japanese signs around me, Japanese speakers chattering away, and the local food settling in my stomach, it's no wonder I feel a great sense of relief and excitement coming back. I'm certainly comfortable in Korea, but I can't read all the signs, I can't speak worth anything, and I'm much more lax in getting to know people. Maybe it's because I've just been abroad too long.

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As if on cue, a young lady strolled up to my yatai, looking inquisitive but a little out of place. The owner greets her in Japanese and directs her to a stool, but she remains standing, asking for something in particular.

"It's ramen," the owner says to her.

She said something I didn't catch, so I chimed in, assuming she was Japanese: "It's delicious, the best in Fukuoka!"

She didn't react at all to what I said, but, as if making up her mind, slowly sat down and waited for a bowl. I thought I might as well enjoy a conversation about the food:

"福岡に住んでいる?" (Do you live in Fukuoka?)

Again, no reaction. I was confused now, until I realized she had only spoken one word of Japanese.

"Korea?" I asked, a little uncertain. But she nodded. "Ahhh, 안녕하세요!" As if on cue, the Japanese man to my right commented on my eating habits:

"I've never seen a foreigner eat ramen like a Japanese."

So, of course, to be polite, I spoke with him for a few minutes. About food, my travels in Japan, his work… and then it hit me.

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Two months in Korea, and I can't even ask a Korean person if she's Korean. Two years in Japan, and I can understand why a Japanese might look funnily at a foreigner loudly slurping noodles. Not only that, but I can talk to him about it at length. It was almost the perfect contrast between the life I had, and the one I'm living now. Will I one day be eating 고기구이 in Busan, talking merrily in Korean to the people sitting around me? Or will I stick with my affinity to Japan? It's only been two months, but I still feel as though Nippon has more of a draw for me than Korea.

A few things happened on this last trip that made me reevaluate my experiences in Japan. True, I was coming to the country as a tourist this time around, which definitely affected my perspective: why should I care if Japanese instinctively speak English to me if I am in fact a visiting English speaker (who just happens to know a little Japanese)? But… as I was visiting an onsen ryokan in Hakone at the request of japanbooking.info, I probably felt more respected that day and night than any other time in my two years in Japan.

Maybe I'm mistaken. But I certainly didn't feel professionally respected during my year teaching at AEON, as I was basically an interchangeable part of the eikaiwa machine. I did enjoy my time at Shin Nippon Biomedical in Kagoshima, but the company was so laid-back by Japanese standards; not that this was a problem, mind you… I just felt I was given more attention in Hakone. I was respected as a travel writer, and that alone may have boosted my ego more than one year in a scientific company ever could have:

- It was the first time I can recall being addressed as "Turner-sama"
- Conversation between my contact and the owner was smooth; they trusted my Japanese ability when it was necessary, and we switched to English as needed
- I think I received more than just superficial flattery when asked about my travel experiences in Japan; they both seemed genuinely impressed with my knowledge and appreciation of onsen.

In any case, when I first disembarked the JR Beetle International Ferry in Fukuoka, a few things were immediately obvious. Korea has a fine system of roads and sidewalks, but Japan's are definitely more orderly and cleaner. Citizens of both countries use bowing as a form of respect and introduction, but Japanese are much more genki about it; just walking into a 7-11 I immediately noticed that eyes were on me in a way they hadn't been for two months at any Family Mart in Busan, Uljin, Seoul, or Gangneung. In that sense, I suppose customer service is just more user-friendly; workers are always "on" in Japan, from beginning to end.

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Some things I had forgotten… the money is quite big. I remember how small US bills were by comparison. Japanese women, IMHO, are more attractive. To me, of course. But I also think they age considerably better. Food and cost of living are markedly more than that of Korea, but that was to be expected. It was just so surreal being back in a place where life had been going on the whole time I was away; it was as if I expected things to just freeze and await my return. Instead, I discovered Hakata Station was completely rebuilt, my favorite ramen yatai was relocated, and my language skills were much better than I had assumed they would be; memories and words came flooding back once they were required.

Another benefit to being back was getting a haircut. Of course there are plenty of cheap and decent places to get your hair cut in Korea, but this is one area I hate experimenting with the language for the first time; when it happened in Thailand, I ended up with a buzz cut: the barber thought I wanted to leave a quarter inch, not just cut it off. In addition, in Korea I might have accidentally walked into a place of prostitution:

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Certainly looks innocuous enough, but in Korea, two of these means it's a front for sexual services. One is legitimate. In the end, it was easier to pay ¥1000 at a discount place in Shizuoka and state I just wanted a trim.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Try Hakone: There is more to Japan than Tokyo and Kyoto

I began my morning at the same time one would expect a Tokyo salaryman to rise. But he would gaze upon grey buildings and the same morning commuters ambling to Shinjuku Station, whereas I was surrounded by mist and fog. Far from Tokyo. From any large group of Japanese. There had been only one option to sleep as I stumbled down Subashiri Trail, using only the moonlight to guide me, and that was my current resting place, Taiko-kan.

Many climb Mt. Fuji for simply the experience, as those who do reach the summit are members of yet another in-group in Japan. Others, like those avoid the crowds by climbing in the winter, are veteran mountaineers, some of whom might enjoy running the mountain huts during the summer months later in their lives.

As for myself? I just wanted to get my legs good and sore, my skin sticky and salty, in preparation for the relaxation awaiting me just north of the Izu Peninsula.



I can't help but wonder why foreigners come to Japan in the first place if so many don't even bother to get off the beaten path. I know everyone has their own interests and perhaps limited time, but why do I only hear stories of visitors sticking with Tokyo, Kyoto, and sometimes Hiroshima and Mt. Fuji? Is it because they worry of using transportation other than trains, with the relatively cheap Japan Rail Pass? But anyone with this pass can take the shinkansen to Okayama and catch a number of local trains into Shikoku, a land of Buddhist temples, the oldest running hot springs in the country, and even Iya Valley, the rural home of Japan scholar Alex Kerr, in the time it would take to reach the floating torii in Hiroshima Prefecture. Why then do they always go to the modern high-rises and pachinko parlors of Tokyo, the traditional temples of Kyoto, the Peace Park in Hiroshima, and say "I've experienced what Japan has to offer"? Even Kerr has made this point: tourists fly thousands of kilometers, take the train for hours to their destination, and when an opportunity arises to go somewhere off the beaten path, the typical response is "but it's so far…"

Or maybe it's not an issue of distance but one of comfort; the accommodations have already been arranged, the closest bar serving gin and tonic located. Why go to the trouble of looking for something else?

To them, I would say: why in the world did you come to Japan in the first place? To see the source of the photographs in every guidebook ever published? Let's let Google be the test, shall we? Do an image search for "japan", plain and simple. What comes up? A map of the country, obviously, the streets of Tokyo, temples of Kyoto, geisha, trains, Mt. Fuji, the floating torii of Miyajima, and cherry blossoms.

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If you come to Japan in April, cherry blossom season, that is the itinerary of the majority of foreign tourists: land in Tokyo, ogle the bright lights, take the train to Kyoto (passing Fuji on the way; easily spotted from the shinkansen), bus it to Gion, and hopefully spot a geisha. Maybe some will make the trip to Hiroshima - only two hours from Kyoto - but by and large, these two cities get all the attention, even among foreign residents.

There are some places in any country that draw in locals more often than tourists. Of course travelers want to experience aspects of a different culture, but when it involves more than looking or buying a ticket, some just don't stretch themselves. Take hot springs in Asia, for instance. Communal bathing is a huge part of the lifestyle in Japan; in some small towns (and island communities), the best way to socialize is at the neighborhood bath, not the bar. Seeing a father scrubbing down his young son. Letting the stress of a hard workday melt away in the near-scalding waters. But many westerners I've spoken with are opposed to the whole idea; they like their private showers and hiding their "shame"; unfortunately, I do think this stems from repressed Christian ideas instilled in these non-Asian nationalities (even if it isn't the dominant religion, the idea sticks) - showing your nakedness to another is seen as sinful. Or maybe it's just something else entirely.

The source aside, the fact remains no Japanese or Korean I have ever spoken to has a problem when I suggest an outing to a public bath or hot springs. In Japan, there are areas rife with mineral waters and upscale accommodation, a refuge for couples looking for a romantic getaway.

Take Hakone (箱根), just north of the Izu Peninsula. Less than 100 km from Tokyo, this place offers the perfect escape for international tourists and Japanese alike: views of nearby Mt. Fuji, full of hot springs ryokan (lodging), and anything but an urban environment. A limited express train called the "Romance Car" (ロマンスカー) leaves from Shinjuku Station several days a time, a testament to Hakone's popularity with those seeking a little privacy.

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But even foreigners who aren't traveling in pairs should take an interest in this side of Japan. A place that isn't so worn down by tourism like Kyoto that you might actually have to *GASP* practice a little Japanese from time to time, but still boasts English signs if you run into any serious trouble getting around. The image I want you to associate with Hakone is popular and traditional. A place many Japanese know as a good hot springs resort, yet whose name just doesn't resonate with most foreigners; you've all heard of Mt. Fuji (富士山) and the climbers it attracts, but have you any idea where Mount Takao (高尾山) is, a popular outing for Tokyo residents?

It all boils to the image of these attractions: you read about Hiroshima and learn of the floating torii and things to see around the city… most Japanese have a difficult time separating this name from any memory of the atomic bomb. You hear anything other than "Tokyo", "Kyoto", or "Fuji", and it ceases to form any kind of image based on what you know of Japan.

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In my mind, there will always be the experience of staying at Kiritani Hakoneso (桐谷箱根荘), a hot springs ryokan on Mount Hakone that took me in after a long day and night of climbing Fuji. Eating a full Japanese dinner in a private room with shamisen music playing in the background… I love how the Japanese separate each dish so you don't mix one food with some undesirable flavor. I love how such resorts are designed for comfort, with amenities like shiatsu massages, a full karaoke booth, and yukata provided to lounge around your room and dining area.

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And the focus of it, the purpose for creating such a oasis of luxury on this mountain? The bath. Always the bath. On Hakone, the waters are milky white from the mineral content with just a slight smell of sulfur to clear your sinuses. Flowing from the earth at 44 degrees Celsius, these waters cleanse you, in both a physical and spiritual sense. Time it right, and you should be able to manage five immersions before checking out the following day.

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Other information

Kiritani Hakoneso, 桐谷箱根荘
0460-82-2246

Kiritani Hakoneso (日本語)
English information


Access

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A series of twists and turns. By train, take the local or shinkansen to Odawara Station (小田原駅). From there, take the Odakyu Line to Hakoneyumoto (箱根湯本). Switch to the Hakone Tozan Railroad; this will take you past three switchbacks up the mountain until you arrive at Gora (後等). From there, either walk north or take the Hakone Tozan Cablecar (ケーブルカー) to Koen-Kami Station (公園上).

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Walk to the right of your direction of travel after exiting, then wait for the first "street". There will be signs marking Kiritani Hakoneso; turn left. Walk about 100 meters uphill and it will be on your right.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Climbing Mt. Fuji in the Off Season

I'm walking down the Subashiri Trail on the east face well after the sun has set. Unlike knowledgeable hikers, I hold no rain gear, nor a decent flashlight; fortunately, I planned my ascent around the full moon, and, being a clear night, this light is more than enough to guide me. My feet slide across the loose volcanic surface. For some reason, I imagine a fall to be nothing worse than a deviation from a slip n' slide water machine… the lie is better for me, truly knowing that one false step could lead to scraped hands or worse. Less than eight hours ago, I had been cautioned against this undertaking by none other those working in the tourism industry of Gotemba; how could they be so wrong? The skies were clear, the surface dry, the view one of a kind.

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Two years in Japan, and I never found myself hiking to the top of Mt. Fuji. It was always one reason or another: I didn't want to go during Obon in August, which was sure to bring lines of people all the way to the summit; nor was I entirely sure how safe it was just outside of the climbing season, in June or September. I had previously concluded that the best time for someone in good condition and pretty independent was mid-late September. The crowds would be gone, a few mountain huts would still be open, and, unlike June, there would be a lesser chance of rain.

This was my thinking as I took the train into Gotemba Station without much of a plan; I didn't know which trails would be open in September, if I needed a reservation for the few mountain huts that would be open, or if I could even stock up on supplies at the 5th station. Tourists generally start their ascent of the famous Japanese icon in stages: from the 5th station, where most buses run, to the 6th-9th stations for food, lodging, and medical care, to the summit, the 10th station. All I knew for certain was to have plenty of cash and water on hand.

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Equipped with my best mountaineering Japanese, I walked into the tourist information booth direction across from the train station. Unfortunately, I knew there would be trouble before I even started. For many Japanese, if something doesn't happen a certain way, it just doesn't happen:

- You were stung by a jellyfish? No you weren't! Jellyfish season ended yesterday.
- We can't turn the heater in the office on yet! I don't care if it's 10 degrees, it's not October 1st yet!

This is a bit of a generalization, but, judging from the reactions of the staff when I told them I wanted to climb today, I'd say it's not too far off; they acted as though they would be the last ones to see me alive. There was some information they couldn't withhold, namely that the only bus running to any 5th station from Gotemba was to the Subashiri Trail. The others had stopped in early September. And although the staff were capable of making arrangements for the mountain huts during the official climbing season, in the off season, they were astonishingly ignorant. I asked them which huts would be open on Subashiri, only to be told none were. Then I said I knew at least two were (Taiko-kan, 大陽館 and Osadasanso, 長田山荘), whereupon they spouted: "Oh, you knew that?" Ummmm… yeah…

It was almost funny. I mean, I understand them wanting to be concerned for the safety of those ignorant about climbing in the off season (high winds, snow, etc), but I was prepared, and I knew what I was talking about. They didn't even know which huts were open, and for the official tourism office, that's pretty sad. The reaction to my presence at the 5th station, however, more than made up for anything I felt at sea level.

If you are considering climbing Mt. Fuji, you should know there are four official trails to the summit:

1. Fujinomiya Route (富士宮ルート). Easily the most popular and most equipped for emergencies and less-than-perfect climbers. Also has the lodging closest to the summit (Mannenyuki-sanso, 万年雪山荘), if you want to see both sunrise and sunset.

2. Gotemba Route (御殿場ルート). I originally wanted to do this one until I discovered the buses to their 5th station had stopped running. Gotemba is usually less crowded than the other trails because it starts at the lowest altitude.

3. Subashiri Route (須走ルート). The subject of this blog entry. If you're looking for a bit of a forest hike before you want to be surrounded by nothing but lava rock, go with Subashiri. The biggest gap is probably between the 6th and 7th stations.

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4. Yoshida Route (吉田ルート). Like Fujinomiya, this trail is ideal for tourists with modern facilities en route. It runs up the north face of Fuji-san.


I was rushed getting out to the bus stop: the next bus left at 11:00, and the one after that, not until 1:30. It was a quarter to eleven: fifteen minutes to separate my luggage, stash everything I didn't need in a coin locker at Gotemba Eki, and buy as much water as I could (didn't want to pay absurd prices on the mountain).

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The bus takes you way up there, rising about 1400 meters and well past the first layer of clouds. Don't get discouraged if it looks overcast. Fujisan is a HUGE cloud-catcher of a mountain; one minute it may be completely surrounded, the next… clear skies.

At the 5th station, I was pleasantly surprised to see enough activity to warrant the two shops being open. Though I was less thrilled to discover the price of water had doubled, and bathrooms had gone from free to 200 yen:

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A few interesting characters here: the obasan (grandmother) in charge of one of the shops was quick to offer mushroom tea to any climber, including myself. She was also quite helpful in answering my questions:

"I'll probably stay on the mountain tonight. Will it be safe?"

"Of course. There might be a little rain… but no problem."

"What if I don't have a reservation, is that a problem?"

"No problem."


Now that I was among people who actually devoted their lives to Fuji-san and climbing, people much more in tune with the moods of the mountain, I was given anything but discouragement. Even ran into a famous Kendo instructor, Ajiro-san; he told me to throw his name around Korea and see if it opened any doors for me. Just might - I do have his meishi. In any case, the Subashiri 5th Station is a great place to relax with tea and ice cream before or after a climb. I timed my arrival so I could adjust to the altitude over a short lunch before my ascent.

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Between the 5th and 6th stations, the quiet was very unsettling for me. There was still greenery all around me, so I was a little confused (hadn't read up on the topography of this trail): was I making good progress? It wasn't until I caught sight of a fabric fish waving in the wind that I realized I was a good twenty minutes ahead of the recommended time. Ordinarily, I'd be quick to just ignore that "suggestion" and go at my own pace, but it's good to give yourself time to adjust to the altitude, especially on the highest peak in Japan.

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Prices on everything have doubled at the 6th station (六合目), but they do offer noodles, water, tea, and lodging. I'm warned by the old timer running the facility about going too fast, but I couldn't really appreciate what he meant (not until later that night when I found myself with a killer headache).

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Shortly after departing, the plant life became less frequent along the trail until I could notice some nice lava flows. Steeper and steeper, or at least it felt that way to me.

I didn't have time to appreciate the 7th station too much. It looked like a pretty good setup considering the altitude. Meals are available for outrageous prices (¥550 for a Pepsi), but the staff are nice and English-friendly.

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Nothing but pain from here on. I left the 7th station around 3:30, which gave me a little over three hours to the top according to the official climbing guide. Unfortunately, that station had the last available lodging on the mountain, leaving me with two choices: sleep outside one of the closed mountain huts close to the top OR climb in time to see the sunset, then hurry back to the 7th station to rest for the night. I opted for the latter, but that meant me keeping a pretty good pace the rest of the journey.

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I won't even begin to say how difficult it was… actually, not too bad, but I wouldn't recommend it if you're not in decent shape. The sun had already "set" over my half of Fuji by the time I reached the last set of steps:

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To be greeted by an overly enthusiastic crowd at the highest torii in all of Japan:

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One of the reasons to climb to the summit at sunrise or sunset is to catch the conical shadow over the blanket of clouds. Fortunately, as I had ascended the east face and was in time for sunset, it was a perfect sighting:

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I couldn't stay for too long, though, as I had to make use of as much daylight as I could to return to the 7th station (assuming I would even stay there). You might think me crazy, but my plans were still flexible; I was considering Taiko-kan as one option among many. By the time I did risk my life more than once in that moonlight descent, I was ready to call it a night, and enjoy an evening with the fringe of Japanese society. These are guys who could describe what breathing techniques I should use to combat altitude sickness IN ENGLISH. Guys who spend months of the year out of contact with the world (pre-recorded TV, no internet obviously). The managers of the 7th station. I salute you.

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Oh, and want to talk about fortuitous timing? I just missed the snow.

Useful information:

Water is a commodity on Fuji. Unless you want to end up paying ¥500/bottle, I suggest you bring 4-5 liters from town; food is also a good idea. This applies to bathrooms and washing up too.

Taiko-kan, 大陽館
7th Station (七合目)
090-3158-6624
¥6300 for lodging only (no meals)

Mount Fuji Climbing Guide


UPDATE 10/5/2010

I found this video by StreetEnglishTV on an off-season climb up the Yoshida Trail. I stand behind what I said concerning a September ascent, but I'm also glad I was "forced" into going up Subashiri; Yoshida just seems way too developed.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Why Japan?

My apologies for not having the writeup of my Mt. Fuji climb (in the off season, no less) up by now. I've been very sick this week and haven't felt like doing much besides eating and sleeping... sometimes not even eating. I certainly can't focus my thoughts without a good run.

This last trip, I fell back into my Japan habits as easily as slipping on an old shoe: slurping ramen noodles as loudly as I cared (drew the attention of one guy: 'I've never seen a foreigner eat ramen like a Japanese'), bowing and showing humility (also applicable in Korea), and discovering my language skills weren't quite as dead as I'd have thought. But one question kept coming up, from my time in Busan with Couchsurfers, to my stay in Shizuoka, to my night in a Hakone hot springs resort:

WHY JAPAN?

Why choose Japan? Why are you interested in Japan? Why not Europe, China, Africa, Canada, South America?

I've added a piece of this answer to my blog entries over the course of three years, but it'd be good to give a concise answer to those reading now. Japan has always had a place in the back of my mind, since learning of its existence while playing original Nintendo games in the 1980's; what place could imagine such marvels, I wondered. A place of magic (triforces), giant spiders, and heroes and demons. Of course I now know that's a bit of an exaggeration, but at the time, I would have sworn Japan was everything it represented in those 8-bit cartridges.

As I got a little older, I didn't sway too much from this view, besides being a little more grounded... didn't think magic was real, anyway. But the country still swayed my heart, and I knew I'd have to visit one day.

Between the early 90's and 2006, there was practically no exploration on my part: I had stuff to do. Homework to complete, tests to ace, ladies to woo. Japanese culture just wasn't appealing anymore, not that it ever really was. We're talking about Nintendo, not language, customs, or history. Still, that was enough to ignite a spark when I saw the notice by AEON in 2006. The rest, as you know, is here in writing.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Jaded With The System

If you're considering teaching English abroad, or are already there and have fallen into a nice routine, I'd recommend my latest Vagabondish article:

...the first selling points are travel and “no experience required”. Well, guess what, Asia? You get what you ask for. Travelers. I doubt more than 5% of the native speakers who go abroad are committed to teaching, in that they have a reasonable amount of experience, and they actually try to get the kids to learn. A rarity. Instead, they (we, rather) focus efforts on the next weekend trip, the next vacation, the walk around their Beijing neighborhood, the exciting chance to learn a language in the country of origin. That’s all well and good for the teachers, but what of the students? If men and women’s passions aren’t in educating these kids, progress will be slow, to say the least.


Back from my trip to Japan, and will have tales of adventure and daring in the next few days.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Living as a Foreigner in Japan Issue

Bobby Judo over in Saga-ken posted this video a while back. I wish I could say it was something new, but I found myself empathizing with most of what he had to say:



This response came from Hikosaemon, who has quite a few good Japan videos on his YouTube channel:

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Bungy Jumping in Japan

How do the natives in #Japan #bungy? #teepee #gunma #minakami #roadtrip


I had no clue there was a place to bungy jump in Gunma-ken. I had heard of skydiving jump zones, but this definitely tops. Best of all, a Kiwi runs the operation. I'd be tempted to add this to my Japan bucket list if the jump weren't a measly 42 meters... I'll just have to wait for a Nevis to open in Nippon.

Bungy Japan

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Shinto Shrine Near Pearl Harbor

That's the title I'm going with, but this is more a forum on cultural sensitivity. As many Americans know, there's a raging debate going on in New York City right now, being enflamed by upcoming elections. An Islamic Community Center is being proposed, located two blocks from the World Trade Center attacks. As it stands, people are arguing:

A. America is a country built on the value of freedom of religious expression. Telling a particular group they should just move out of the way for a past incident that isn't necessarily indicative of their followers is bigoted, and narrow-minded.

B. Freedom of religion is one thing, but Muslims should have considered what effect such a building would have on residents of New York. It's a question of sensitivity.

And, naturally, people are getting fired up on both sides, seeing things in black and white... but many are informed and just have an opinion on the subject. After all, these are people who were around the city during 9/11; they have a right to just feel a certain way, without even considering the Constitution.

As for myself, I don't have a problem with this community center going up. Why?

1. It's NOT a mosque. And even if it were, I wouldn't have a problem with it.

2. I hate how some are assuming this center is going to a "staging point" for terrorist attacks in the US. That's... well... stupid. I mean, really, really, really stupid. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it best:

Whether you like a mosque or don't like a mosque, you don't have to go! There's already another mosque down there within four blocks of the World Trade Center. There's porno places... there's fast food places... I mean it's a vibrant community! It's New York!



If you stand beside the former, you might as well assume a citizen of any nation residing in NYC in which Islam is practiced is plotting something. By the same token, you could make an argument for Jewish people in Williamsburg... black people in Harlem... I mean, is the mere presence of another culture (my apologies to implying that those in Williamsburg and Harlem are not part of American culture... just showing the hodgepodge that is New York) threatening to you? Why? Muslims have been and most likely will always be in New York City. I, for one, would choose to believe in the best in people, even if that belief isn't warranted.

Sometimes, things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most — that people are basically good... Doesn't matter if they're true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.



As with any divisive issue, the idiots are out in force (thanks to JP). With the controversy of a group supposedly responsible for a disaster being allowed to "build a monument to its success", an analogy was made, that of building a Shinto Shrine at Pearl Harbor. A testament to the Japanese "victory"; they may not have won the war, but if they can have a religious shrine at the location where they dealt a striking blow to US forces... well... I'm not sure what the result will be.

Two things here.

Anyone who has spent any time in Japan can tell you they've probably never seen a nation more resolved to disassociate itself from its wartime actions (I also don't think they're teaching this too well to schoolchildren). Japan as a nationalistic society was probably never more gung ho than in the months leading up to August 6th, 1945. I believe they would have followed the Emperor's orders without question, gladly fighting to the very last man. Regardless of how you feel the US handled August 6th and 9th, it's more amazing just how the country was able to turn around following the Emperor's radio announcement to surrender. All of a sudden, that wartime ambition vanished. Japan was no longer the center of the universe. The flag and writing were changed. US troops occupied the country for years. My point is, the Japanese weren't seeking retribution or trying to create a stigma building a Shinto Shrine near Pearl Harbor; they had spent years humbled by the events of August 6th and 9th, and they definitely aren't using it to stage an attack.

Second, some who use this analogy on the building of the Islamic community center don't know what they're talking about:



Yes, the Japanese are Buddhist. And Shinto. But a Shinto Shrine is not a Buddhist temple. If you're going to use a flawed analogy, at least use it somewhat correctly, so it can be disproven on its lack of foundation alone... I think that makes sense. Well, at least do some fact checking.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ferry to Busan

IMG_1924.jpg


My plans to visit Japan over Chuseok holiday are underway. Best of all, thanks to my quick response to a ryokan owner, I will be able to stay in Nikko and Hakone with all expenses paid for two days.

So what's the plan?

September 18th
Leave Bugu by bus and head to Busan (부산), the second largest city in Korea. Should take about five hours and 21,900 Won. Stay in the city for two days enjoying the sights and chilling with a Couchsurfer.

September 20th
Take the Beetle JR Kyushu Jet Ferry to Hakata. I can't recall whether there's a ¥3000 fee for a visa on arrival. Regardless, clearing customs and immigration shouldn't be that difficult, and I've booked my favorite capsule hotel. I'm thinking late night ramen and partying in Tenjin.

September 21st
Shinkansen train all the way to Shizuoka. I have a Couchsurfer waiting.

September 22nd
Enjoy the hospitality of Ryokan Funamisou in Nikko in exchange for writing a review. Japanese food and hot springs... ahhh.

September 23rd
I have a similar arrangement with Ryokan Kiritani Hakoneso in Hakone.

September 24th
Head back to Fukuoka, possibly making a few stops en route to check out my old place, maybe see who's around Hiroshima.

September 25th
Return to Busan by ferry. Excursion to Japan is over.


Transportation

There are several ferries running between Korea and Japan.

Beetle JR Kysuhu Ferry is probably your best option. Two hours, fifty-five minutes on a high speed jetfoil, and the price is reasonable. The only problem is... it's a LOT cheaper to book this ferry in Korea; if you're willing to take the risk that you might not get a return ticket, see if you can buy a one-way ticket out of Japan for ¥13,000, then book the return on the website Miraejet Co. It is difficult to navigate if you don't read Korean, but the benefits far outweigh any inconvenience. If you book in Japan with JR Beetle, the fare is ¥26,000 (~304USD) roundtrip... though there are discounts available. In Korea, with an internet booking, the price is a mere 190,000 Won (~160USD), which must be paid in advance by credit card or bank account transfer; otherwise, it rises to 230,000 Won at the ticket office.

The Camilla Ferry is only 171,000 Won roundtrip with no reservations required for a discount, but it takes 7.5 hours for the overnight ferry (10:30 PM to 6:00 AM) and 5.5 hours for the daytime (12:30 PM to 6:00 PM), and doesn't run as regularly. When you consider the difference between the Camilla and Beetle is only 19,000 Won (~16USD), it's worth the effort to just book the jetfoil in advance.



Tsushima (対馬)

Tsushima Leopard Cat


Tsushima is another option if you're looking to island-hop. This one is situated precisely between Korea and Japan, and, like most Japanese islands... doesn't have too much excitement. Still, if you're looking for a good place to sea kayak, hike, or catch a glimpse of the rare Tsushima Leopard Cat, by all means, check it out. I'll stop by before I end my Korean residency.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Off to Korea

I realize I haven't posted in... well, weeks, but very little Japan related has happened. Tomorrow I fly out to Bugu-ri, South Korea, for a year to teach English. I will post any and all experiences related to Japan.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Freelancing in Tokyo

I've often wondered what life would have been like had I stayed in Japan for a third year, teaching students privately and making my own schedule. Here's a possible window into that life by ToLokyo (kudos to Matador for posting this first).





Lessons learned: in Korea, NEVER discuss Dokdo Island, the "Sea of Japan", or Yasukuni Shrine.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Another One Bites the Dust: GEOS Goes Under

When I came to Japan, there were quite a few options: teach with a private language school like AEON, NOVA, GEOS, or ECC, become an assistant language teacher (ALT) with the Jet Programme, or be employed directly by the school via a dispatch company...



Now NOVA is out for the count, and GEOS will be soon to follow; the language school giant recently declared bankruptcy, and many foreign instructors once again find themselves out of work. Salary payments are sketchy at best, and it's anyone's guess as to when the company will begin shutting down schools to limit expenses.

Based on the currency market, the cost of living, and the absence of a plethora of jobs, I would say it's not really a good time to teach English in Japan. Granted, there were plenty of warning signs with NOVA and GEOS, and we're not really seeing them with AEON or ECC, but when half of the big four are gone, I think it's time to consider other options. Not dispatch companies, that's for sure, but consider coming in on a tourist visa and arranging private students.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must sleep.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Getting a work visa without leaving the country?

I was interviewing with one of the many Japanese English schools not too long ago. This particular one was in Nagano-ken, in a rather small town well outside the shinkansen lines. The usual questions followed regarding teaching experience, previous time in Japan, etc, when the director mentioned that he would like to have me come to Japan on a tourist visa and work in the school.

Had I not already lived over there for two years, this might have held some appeal for me. However, let me explain to you Japan newbies why working on a tourist visa is a terrible idea:

1. You have no contract. No recourse if the school decides to set you adrift. You may land in Tokyo and find no one waiting for you, no assistance with anything essential: cell phone, housing, bank account.

2. It's illegal. You can be deported if caught.

3. It's next to impossible to work for a reputable company without a gaijin card. That card gets you a bank account, without which you cannot get paid; nearly all companies pay with electronic transfers. Without that card, you're really, really limited for places to live (no apts, only a few gaijin houses, hotels, hostels, etc). You can't join a gym. It's a terrible inconvenience and an impossibility outside of the big cities.

I mean, I was amazed the employer even suggested working illegally: he must have understood the problems I would face. That is until he mentioned there had been a change in the law, and foreigners could have their visa status changed from tourist to working without making the standard run to South Korea.

WHAT??? All that trouble I could have faced for nothing? Could this be true, that Japan changed a major immigration law in an attempt to bring more foreigners onto the workforce?

Apparently so. Such a change in policy benefits Japan, by allowing foreigners to come into the country without a job lined up to search for jobs, and start work rather quickly.

You’re not allowed to work in Japan without a working visa. But if you find a job and a company willing to sponsor your work visa, you can apply for the work visa and have it issued without leaving the country. A few years ago, this wasn’t possible; you’d have to apply in Japan, get some sort of form issued, and then leave the country and go to a Japanese embassy overseas to get the visa issued. Now it can all be done without leaving Japan...
Source: http://www.thunderguy.com/japan/work-in-japan/work-visa/work-visa-process/

So saddle up, job seekers. Take the first flight into Narita, enjoy a relaxing soak, then get started with the job search. Incidentally, if there is anyone doing this and keeping a blog on the experience, I'd love to read it. Also, does anyone know anything about the history of this new policy? Is it anything like the experience of non-citizens applying for US work visas (visum usa)?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Arizona is the new Japan

In the past, foreign residents of Japan have always made arguments like: "If we were in America, this wouldn't have happened..."; "They wouldn't treat us this way if we were Japanese!"; "Sure, Japan isn't perfect, but other countries have better policies". And not always to blow off steam - sometimes they actually have a point to these arguments. For example, the ongoing gaijin card check: a legal inquiry usually performed by police officers discerning as to whether a foreigner in Japan is there for legitimate reasons; i.e. show your identification or face imprisonment or deportation. Black and white, but correct in essentials.

Now, it seems Japan isn't the only nation to jump the gun when it comes to keeping tabs on foreigners. In the US, the state of Arizona is considering a law allowing the police to:

1. Detain people they reasonably suspected were in the country without authorization
2. Charge immigrants with a state crime for not carrying immigration documents
3. It also allows residents to sue cities if they believe the law is not being enforced
(Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/22/us/22immig.html)

With the exception of number three, this law reads almost word-for-word that of current policy in Japan.

New to Japan? New to this blog? Never been the object of discrimination in your life (if so, lucky you)? Let me explain.

If you look foreign, police in Japan (and Arizona) have a right to stop you in your tracks, demand identification, and detain you if such documents aren't available. I glazed over that first clause, but let's come back to it: looking foreign. In a relatively ethnically homogenous country like Japan, this is pretty cut and dry: you're not Japanese, you're subject to interrogation. It's been criticized heavily in recent years due to the growing numbers of new Japanese: Korean and Chinese descent, children born into interracial families, naturalized citizens, to name a few. Police still feel confident that if it looks like a foreigner, talks like a foreigner, and isn't Japanese, hey, it's a foreigner!

Not imagine how this would go down in Arizona. The US is diverse. Period. I took the liberty of examining the state's demographics from the 2008 census:

White persons, percent, 2008 (a) 86.5%
Black persons, percent, 2008 (a) 4.2%
American Indian and Alaska Native persons, percent, 2008 (a) 4.9%
Asian persons, percent, 2008 (a) 2.5%
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, percent, 2008 (a) 0.2%
Persons reporting two or more races, percent, 2008 1.8%
Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, percent, 2008 (b) 30.1%
White persons not Hispanic, percent, 2008 58.4%

30% Hispanic. Every time the police use their authority to stop someone of Hispanic descent (and I'd love to hear the reasons for this; should make for amusing and racist reads), they're targeting one third of the population of their state. About two million people given another reason to fear the police. I already do, and I'm a clean cut white boy.

Your Japanese is so skillful!

As someone who has lived in Japan, I don't find this particularly funny, but what the Japanese guy said rang true.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Ten Festivals in Japan

Long time, no write. Entirely my fault. Let's just say for the months of February and March, I held a job which sucked my inspiration completely dry. Fortunately, I was able to get a few articles out: Fire, Flowers and Phalluses: Ten Festivals in Japan.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Omakase: My Sushi Go 55 Experience

"We're just watching you; this is better than Survivor."

The two men and single woman sitting at the end of the bar to my right had a point, I thought. After all, I had eaten many strange things in my line of travel work - semi-poisonous blowfish, octopus with mayonnaise and fried batter, the smelly durian of Thailand - but had yet to encounter one of the true tests for the seafood connoisseur: the eyeballs. Morishita-san looked at me with anticipation, standing beside the somewhat ignorant trio and probably half expecting me to act like the foreigners she must have read about in Manga, who gag on tako, avoid sushi bars like the plague, and never try to expand their palette when it comes to ordering omakase from a seasoned chef.

Not wanting to disappoint my audience, I raised the chopsticks with my right hand, the small grey dish with my left, and popped in the fish eye without a second to lose.

...

I didn't really frequent sushi shops during my years in Japan. For some newbies to the land of the rising sun, this may hardly be surprising. After all, the average "foreigner out of water" tends to stick to comfortable foods, and thinks of raw fish on rice as something exotic reserved for the natives.

When I was living in New Zealand and running on fumes as far as my Japanese experience was concerned, I poured over texts on expats teaching English with the JET Program, which eventually led me to a reference to Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi and quite the authority when it came to obtaining that most coveted of experiences (for sushi connoisseurs, anyway): an authentic Japanese omakase ("please decide for me") meal from a Japanese sushi chef, with the nigiri packed loosely and the soy sauce tucked away, completely unnecessary for this direction in dining.

So what would you do if you learned of an author whose book you liked? Naturally, you'd Google him, discover his Twitter account, and send him a message letting him know your appreciation of his fine research, and how it has affected your life for the better. This I did. And also, I started eating sushi. Lots of sushi. From Blue Fish in Dallas to Tanuki's Cave in Auckland, I learned to see the different styles of sushi chefs, notice the quality of the fish they brought in, and determine who could provide the best dining experience for me as a quasi-Japanese eater. Corson was spot on about the most important thing: you can spot a good sushi chef by how clean he keeps his station (no other bits of food getting mixed in with the fish or rice).

But despite everywhere I ate, no place could live up to the promise of what Corson said was available to the average American willing to shell out a few bucks: good Japanese sushi as the chef decides. Enter Little Tokyo, a district in Los Angeles that is probably the closest one can get to Japan without flying into Narita: sushi bars, grocery stores... I understand they even have a few decent hostess bars, though it's perfectly understandable them not wanting to advertise to the general public (what layman would believe beautiful Japanese girls are only available for conversation?) Combine that with a business trip out west, and I had my solution to the penultimate sushi problem; I would contact Corson for recommendations on the best, most authentic, sushi restaurant run by Japanese in Little Tokyo, have my omakase night, and leave with my stomach swimming with sake (酒) and sake (鮭).

Sushi Go 55 is owned and operated by the Morishita family, who have been running sushi establishments in LA since the 1950's. Amazing; only ten years after Japanese-Americans were being held in work camps following World War II, some Morishita in Japan was planning to move to the states to start a business. The chef I spoke with at Sushi Go 55 has been in the US for thirty years.


"Little Tokyo, Los Angeles", josewolff
Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, josewolff



But I digress: THE OMAKASE. I navigated my way through downtown LA to arrive... in what appeared to be a regular shopping mall at the outskirts of Little Tokyo. No mistake; Sushi Go 55 was just two short escalator rides and one noren curtain away. Having never been there or met anyone in person, I responded with my best Japanese to the hostess:

"Morishita-san ga imas ka?"
"Ohhh, she may have gone home for the night. Please wait a moment."

Ohhh, I sure hope she didn't. I had had to contact Corson to put me in touch with Eji Morishita, son of the owners, and arrange a time to meet this Tuesday night. If she didn't show, I would have to explain to the chef exactly what kind of omakase I wanted, and I certainly didn't trust my fading Japanese skills to that level. Not to mention apologizing to Eji for failing to meet his mother and enjoy the sushi she was offering to arrange. No siree.

No worries, though, as she appeared from the kitchen after only a minute or so. Going through the formal introductions (giving her one of my few remaining genuine meishi), we made small talk about why I wanted such good sushi, and how I was willing to try whatever she would throw my way. Here it is, my experience, dish by dish:


"Salmon Belly Sashimi!", Noeluap
Salmon Belly Sashimi!, Noeluap



Sake
Your standard-issue salmon sashimi, although, even in my excited state, I swear this fish was more delicious than any other salmon I had eaten. Merely an appetizer.

Cooked Uni and Mussels
I've had uni (sea urchin). I really don't care for it. It's still not my favorite, but cooking or searing it makes it far more desirable in my book.

Sashimi Platter: Toro, Maguro, Tai
Ahhh.... toro. The fatty bluefin tuna. The most expensive and delicious fish of them all. Toro is usually listed in sushi restaurants next to the letters "MP", meaning "market price". If you have to ask, you won't want to spend it. Even an order of two toro nigiri can be over $20.

Chawanmushi
An egg dish filled with vegetables. I seldom ate chawanmushi in Japan (or eggs, for that matter), but found this little dish to be surprisingly tasty.

Tamago
Eggs are usually a good test of a sushi chef's cooking ability; sure, many can cut fish properly, but prepare tamago to the epitome of sweetness and filling? That takes skill.

Hamachi Nigiri
My first stage of nigiri after nigiri began with yellowtail with a dash of salt and seasoned with lemon juice; both accentuated the flavor perfectly.

I wasn't exactly sure of the proper etiquette between dishes in an omakase order: should I ask for the next dish, or would that make me appear rushed and greedy? Any sushi bar worth its weight will present you with a geta, the wooden platform on which to place ginger and wasabi to use with the piece of sushi. Thereupon the chef will lower dish after dish until you declare "ippai!"

Saba Nigiri
Ahhh, the mackerel. I didn't know what this was at first, and my stomach was already bulging from the 15+ pieces of delectable fish.

Tai Nigiri
Red snapper with hot mustard.

...

I think that brings us back to the eyeballs. Appropriately after such a large serving, I declared I was too full to continue, requested the okanjou, and devoured the palette-cleansing pickled plum. The end of meals in American-based Japanese-run sushi restaurants has always been confusing for me: should I tip? These are Japanese people, therefore tipping is annoying and insulting. But.... these are Japanese people working on American wages, which require tips, so therefore tipping must be welcome. Well, the latter is correct, but I didn't discover that until Morishita-san "reminded" me with a friendly verbal nudge.

And overall? A great Japanese experience in the heart of Los Angeles. Sushi Go 55 is the way to go. Check out Sai's review too.


Total Price Tag: $70 + tip

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

90 Day Geisha

I'd finally unlocked the key to karaoke's heart; it wasn't about showing off, being good or bad. It was an impersonal group activity that allowed emotional expression behind the safeguard of someone else's words. Hidden behind a song familiar to everyone, you could be as personal as you wanted. That was why it was never an issue whether someone sang or not. It wasn't about yes or no, but rather it depended on the mood.

Chelsea Haywood, 90 Day Geisha


The story of a foreigner trying her luck in the hostessing world of Roppongi. I tip my hat to her describing 90 days' worth of experiences in such rich detail. In fact, I'm amazed such a "transformation" could occur in such a short period of time.

Most of the foreign hostesses working in Japan come from eastern Europe and other Asian countries, but there are a handful of Americans, Canadians, and Brits who are as intrigued as Chelsea was by the idea of a "paid attractive conversationalist". She starts out with the intention of staying and working as long as her tourist visa allowed her in Japan, and develops a better understanding of the Japanese male psyche than any English teacher could hope to reach. Follow along with her experiences wrestling with her feelings over one particularly appealing customer while considering her own husband, and discover just what it takes to be a modern-day geisha: do you know? I sure don't.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Old School: Mr. Baseball

I'm in Dallas for a while, and my dad loves his movies. Anything with lots of blood or lots of baseball is fair game; if Rambo had had the brilliant idea of rescuing his friend from the Russians by distracting them with a barrage of fastballs I think he'd be in heaven. Looking over his shoulder one time too many, I noticed an usual sight: Tom Selleck talking to Japanese ball players... in the early 90s. Of course this happened a lot twenty years ago: American player is considered "washed out" or "wants a change", and sends himself over to Japan to try a different club. In 1992, I was ten, and not exactly paying attention to the latest Selleck movies (Alladin, I believe). Now, I have a second chance.

"Over here, I'm gaijin, same as you."
"Gaijin?"
"It's like being a black guy back home, only there's less of us."

A movie that echoes You Gotta Have Wa almost word for word":

- The Yomiyuri Giants have their own rules
- The interpreters choose what's best to save face
- The press don't appreciate ups and downs over a season
- Japanese teams have pre-game routines and drills most foreigners find completely unnecessary

And other Japanese truths:

- Don't underestimate a masseuse. She can inflict considerable pain.

I kind of like Mr. Baseball because unlike many movies of the day, it doesn't really throw out any big stereotypes of Japan. Tom Selleck's character is the one making the big adjustments, and the Japanese around him do a few of his "gaijin tricks" for fun, e.g. lighting shoes on fire, chewing sunflower seeds. One big thing: I really doubt someone would scream at chopsticks being placed up in a bowl.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Better Know a Language School: Gaba

I'm stateside for a few months after spending the last of my money in New Zealand. Therefore, what else should I try to do but return to a country with a high cost of living (but probably more jobs, too)?

Back to Japan and Gaijinpot job searches. Ideally, I'd like to be placed in Hokkaido or Tohoku, but something in me wants to try life in Tokyo. Maybe it wouldn't help my Japanese skills, being in a big city clearly so used to dealing with foreigners, but in terms of employment, I'd have more flexibility with freelance jobs, and a better chance at staying connected with my other interests: international travel, acting, and writing.

There still remained the problem of a working visa.

I had given up my Japanese residency in June 2008, when I disembarked at Osaka International Ferry Terminal (how many working visa holders have left by ferry, I wonder?) for Shanghai. No chance of simply picking up where I left off. I'd have to find a new company, interview over Skype, and begin the ritual paperwork process. And where, one might ask, is my attention focused?

Gaba One-to-One English looked appealing at first; they seem to be one of the only language schools that let teachers set their own schedules and still offer visas (as sponsorship requires 250,000 Yen/month salary and a minimum number of working hours). I did a preliminary interview via Skype this evening after sending in my resume and came up with the following:

1. The school is more of a tutoring company. You post your profile with your interests and specialties, and students sign up for one-on-one "classes" of their choosing. This is an advantage to students: they get exactly what they pay for.

2. Gaba is not for those who enjoy playing by the rules. They place teachers as independent contractors (itaru gyomu) and thus "circumvent" certain areas expected by those wanting to work in Japan.

- Transportation is NOT paid
- They do not provide Employee Health Insurance and Pension; of course, you need to sign up for the National Health Insurance and Pension as a matter of law
- No paid training
- No paid holidays
- Housing is your responsibility (in other words, key money)
- If a student cancels within 24 hours, you are still paid for the class, but you must wait in the designated area rather than leaving or working in the office. In other words, they want you to waste your time for money.

Check out this table on the Gaba Union page for comparisons with eikaiwa.

3. Despite what you see on other forums, Gaba does offer visa sponsorship. They usually have working holiday visa holders come in on 6-month contracts, but when an American comes in, they can offer consecutive contracts to fulfill the government requirement. Still a little sketchy.

4. I'll probably still opt to work there. Gaba is the only place I know that will offer both flexibility and visa sponsorship. Since I'll be listed as an independent contractor on my work visa, I can legally work anywhere else (though I heard the company asks you sign a contract stating they are your primary source of income... would probably be true in any case). I can completely understand job seekers not wanting to apply here, though (one man's interview). Are there any Gaba teachers reading this who took the company up on their offer, ditched, and applied to a more stable eikaiwa? Just curious. I'd love to hear from some Gaba teachers currently in the Kanto region.



Gaba General Union

Sidenote
Read this blog and thought the school had a good point on taboo topics in an ESL class: War, Religion, Age, Politics, Sex, Culture.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Tokyo Vice

Happy new year! Thanks to my new Amazon kindle, I have successfully completed Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein, an American reporter who was on the police beat in Japan for nearly twenty years. Threatened by yakuza, taken into the underbelly of Japanese society, exploring the darker side of kabukicho (well, I suppose it's all pretty dark if your eyes are open), this is a great read.

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Washington Post story on the liver transplant


Los Angeles Times story on the transplant, with additional details

Adelstein's blog