Monday, December 17, 2007

Why my school sent me home, Flu season in Japan, and PTA Ijime

Seasons Greetings! I hope everyone is planning for a very Merry Christmas.

With December rolling around to the new year the Japanese are giddy with enkais (business related food/drinking parties) and bonenkais (year end business parties) in which they'll party the night away, get very silly drunk, and make asses of themselves. Well, that's how it goes in a society which wears masks and keeps all of its feelings and personal thoughts under a rigid series of inhibitions. With a bit of alcohol most Japanese forget this artificial barrier and just act themselves. They might even be bold enough to shuffle up to the foreigner whom they've seen every day for the past year and just haven't had the nerve to talk to and engage in a conversation -or as they often call it here nomi-nication (a bad pun which means to drink-communicate). They may even know some English, or be interested in learning some. However, the daily rutine is quite different from the rare moments of inebriated liberation from social anxieties. It is this tightly clammed up inside attitude the Japanese take while interfacing with each other, and other people, often gives certain folks the wrong impression of Japanese. They often come off as seeming overly serious, unsmiling, and perhaps angry. The best example of this misconception would be by the case study of experiencing a theatrical film in the movie theater with a group of Japanese.

Whereas in my home country of America people will whoop, hoot, and hollar at the screen, they'll laugh at the jokes, and if the movie was good enough most folks will stand up and applaud the performances and art. In Japan, due to the aforementioned inhibitions, the complete opposite is true. Through the entire film it is dead silence (with the slight exception of that one old lady who never fails to turn off her cell phone and then can't figure off how to turn it off once it starts ringing). Mostly there is a very serious air about the theaters in Japan. People walk silently in, they sit there not talking to each other (as is custom in Japan to do -especially among older couples), and once the credits roll people silently get up and silently exit. With no hint of emotion sometimes it's hard to tell if anyone enjoyed the film at all. And as the one foreigner in the audience, I often find myself blurting out and laughing at jokes alone only to catch myself and look around at all the serious faces -which don't appear to be very entertained. Although, don't let this fool you, the Japanese love movies. I even saw a Monk in the "Transformers" film this past summer. Which was interesting -to see a Monk watching Optimus Prime.

School ends this week for most Japanese students. They will get a winter vacation and will enjoy a huge new years celebration. However, Christmas is not a Holiday in Japan, so everyone still works. I'm even scheduled to work, but I take Christmas off every year. This year Sayaka and I will hold our second annual Christmas party at her parents house in Kumamoto. After which we'll stay in Kumamoto up through the wedding.

With winter setting in it's frigid cold in Japan. Which means something entirely different than from where I come from. Growing up I lived in Montana and grew accustomed to a cold barren frost bitten winters, but you could always go inside, warm up, have a hot cocoa, and watch TV with your socks up. Japanese houses have no central heating, and worse, zero insulation. Which means, you walk out of the cold and into the cold. The only difference is the wind chill drops considerably. However, due to the thin single pained glass and other small gaps and air vents the house whistles with its own chilly breeze. Safeguarding yourself from the sniffles is nearly impossible. As it is now Sayaka and I are cranking on three electric heaters, one kerosene gas heater for when it gets really cold, electric blankets, and fleece blankets covered by down comforters. And this is just enough to make you feel only like you're camping inside your house. We still can see our breath at night. And my electric bill is like $200 -which sucks.

This past week I got real sick. I hurt my back again (an old injury) and was laid flat out for four days. I finally gathered enough strength to make it to work one whole day, came home, and then caught a flew bug. I then was out for five more days with a fever. And to make matters worse, the violent flemmy coughing threw my back out again.

It was a tough couple weeks. To make a depressing story more interesting, today I tried to go to work. I felt considerably better, and aside from a runny nose and a sinus headache, there's not much to complain about. I say tried to go to work, because once I got to work the vice principle cautioned me not to go to class. While he ran around with paper work I asked what was going on. He said that since I had had a fever that I needed a doctor to sign off for me to return to work. I should mention that in Japan they go to the hospital for every trivial ache, pain, or sniffle.

It's bad enough the hospitals are over congested with all the old people, getting an appointment means nothing because even if you are right on time it may take 6 to 8 hours of waiting before a doctor becomes available from the backwash of elderly. Besides, I've never been one to go to the hospital for minor things anyway, bruises and cuts I take care of on my own, and I'm even more reluctant to go knowing that my whole day will be waisted in a waiting room only to talk to a doctor for two minutes to tell me to take two aspirin and call him in the morning.

So there I was stuck explaining to my vice principle that I don't have a note from the doctor because I didn't go to the doctor. When asked why, I said it was a minor flu bug, and also that I don't like waiting around in the hospital with a fever when I could be at home snug in bed recooperating. He seemed to agree with this, but insisted I need to be checked up. He called the hospital but the check up would cost upwards of $50 just for the doctor to feel my forehead and tell me I'm fine. The vice principle looked at me and said that he could do that himself, and so it was pointless for me to go waist good money with everyone already knowing that I was fine. So I asked if I could go to class then, and he said no.

Apparently the school has a new policy not to make (or even allow) students to get sick by direct contact with teachers or other students. The PTA graced us with such a new rule, as it was under a lot of pressure by some parents who threatened to sue the school because their kid got sick, and like all good obedient Japanese, they went to the hospital for some minor sniffles. Of course, this wasn't the problem either, the problem was the family kept going to the hospital for every trivial thing that they racked up a pretty large bill. What's worse is that the family is lower working class and couldn't afford all the bills, and so decided to sue the school for making their kid sick. Well, aparently some other parents in a similar situation thought it would be a good idea, and like all obedient Japanese people, followed suit -and so a whole series of parents sued the school for their children having the sniffles. They lost of course, but they insist their bullying until they feel satisfied.

Come back to my dilemma. I'm fully recuperated and without a doctors signature I have to wait and extended three days, or at least three days after my fever has broken, before they can officially let me back into the class room. I joked to the vice principle that if he wanted to call the parents so they could come feel my forehead just to make sure I was fit enough to teach, they were more than welcome. He suggested I go home until I'm better than good, and then told me he'd see me tomorrow.

So now I'm at home writing this blog. Although, I feel kind of bad for missing the the Monday of the last week of school. But what are you going to do in such a situation?

On a more even ended note, who sues a school system for their kid catching a cold anyway? Or even a flu? To juxtapose my culture for a moment, when I was in Junior high school and someone got sick, our parents made sure we went to class, then they threw that person in the same class room with us, rubbed them up and down on everyone, and told everyone to get sick too! That way the whole school would be sick one time, then everyone's immune systems would get strong, and nobody would be sick for the rest of the year. It's a big shock going from that type of -tough it out and don't be a baby mentality to this odd -rush to the hospital and sue the school over the sniffles type mentality.

Considering the above differences, I think the schools in Japan let the PTA boss them around way too much. The Parent Teacher Association has more power than in America. In America it's just a committee, but in Japan is a governing body which helps run the school systems. The problem is they bully the schools into kowtowing to every parent with a complaint -no matter how unreasonable. For example, since our school budget was cut this year we didn't have enough money to buy as much kerosene for the stoves to heat the classrooms. Just like my frigid igloo of a house, the schools are much worse comprised with their glass and concrete -worse insulators ever. So when it got a little chilly, the heated teachers room had to be turned off. During the summer we had the quite opposite problem, while it was scorching hot, the air conditioned teachers room had to be turned off so that it would match the smoldering outside heat. Why? Because one of the students complained to their parents that it was either too cold or too hot, and the parents complained to the PTA, and the PTA bullied the school in to making it entirely inconvenient and uncomfortable for teachers to have a good working environment.

Now I don't mind showing the kids I'll tough it out along with them, but when they're not at school in the early mornings, we teachers are. And when they go home at night, we stay and burn the midnight oil. But the school is still under the thumb of the PTA -and this PTA Ijime (bullying) is very annoying.

I shared my honest opinion with one teacher explaining that if children want more heat or more air cooling they can get a job and pay for it. That's the old Bill Cosby routine, get out and get a job. As long as you are a student, you obey, you learn, and you don't get perks unless you put forth a good effort. As far as making the educators suffer the demerits of civility for a few caterwauling hooligans (actually parents who should know better) seems to be catering exclusively to the squeaky wheel, no matter how unreasonable the demands may be. Frankly, I'm quite fed up with it, but the other teachers, well, they're all good obedient Japanese -and they fall into line and do as they're told. Which is sad... because it's only going to get worse. Next year someone may even loose a finger to frostbite, but I guess only time will tell.

I suppose every school systems has its fair share of problems. It just seems to me that these are very trivial and that mountains are being made of molehills to the inconvenience of everyone else, and at the sake of a good education. What do you think is more important? That your school have good teachers, or that they be allowed to teach? Well, I'm on extended vacation -so obviously allowing your teachers to teach is not the priority of current PTA. But hey, in the end I guess it depends on the parents to start acting like adults. Do they want well rounded intelligent children, or do they want stupid children and more sue happy money? Okay, stupid children it is then. It's not like they were going to learn anything anyway, they keep sending all the teachers home. Well, okay, it's just me then.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Random Thoughts on Japanese education, an anecdote about my students, and Christmas wishes

I didn't know what to title this blog. I haven't been talking about my feelings, because -basically- I see no place for it in my recent blog focus. Also I've been extremely busy, and I mean more than my usual 24/7 non-stop do or die pace, I've been doing the Japanese thing -you know, the insanity of overworking yourself because it's "quote/unquote" assumed of you.

Well, it's not assumed of me. I just wanted to see if I could do it for four months straight.

I really enjoy my job at the moment. My students are wonderful and their English is improving by leaps and bounds. In fact, I actually have some first year/ichi-nensei who with a little tutoring will be fluent by their third year of Junior high school. Which is better than expected. Japans English education is moving along slowly, because they want to control the teaching environment and regulate what is taught while delegating time to one teacher over another. With all the higher ups butting in telling you how to teach... it really makes you fed up. After hearing one lady's three our lecture on the perfect English class -on how it should be done, what exactly to do, etc., etc., I was tempted to have her give a demonstration of the "perfect" class she spoke of, especially considering that she didn't speak any English. It's kind of like having an illiterate try and tell you how to read -not that they could teach you in a million years. But oh-well, right?

Such a waist of time. But as long as I'm getting paid it's not exactly like I can walk out of the meeting... also since it's part of my contract to attend all 'educational' seminars. To my great relief, I can sit there and doodle funny pictures in my note book and make twenty-some-odd-bucks an hour. But I'd rather hang out with my students instead of talking to a bunch of suits discussing how best to use English. My students seem way smarter than most of the people running their school systems -but maybe it's because they are.

I've got a lot on my plate at the moment. Getting ready for the big wedding, it never seems there's enough time to get everything done. I've been doing 5 hours of sleep a night for over a month now, and it's starting to feel like college again. I'm loosing weight just from the stress and my body always feels tired and sluggish. I try and eat as regularly as I can, but then the extra hours are making meal time difficult. The major difference between the good old cramming for finals days and this is how disorganized I feel. I lack total focus, because everything is pulling my attention in, what seems to be, fifty-thousand directions. It's nerve rattling to say the least.

On top of this I'm doing my darnedest not to neglect Sayaka.

Well, that's not really informative, interesting, or at all insightful. It's not really a rant -in fact, as far as blogs go this has been an entirely mediocre look at my life (which is wholly insignificant) although slight more interesting than other's, perhaps. Maybe, I dunno.

Luckily my shipment came, and I'm hooked up with some "Scrubs" season 6 and "Prison Break" season 2. That's one of the perks of being a home-body. I have no social desire to waist my brain cells on alcohol and bad conversation, I have no inclination to sit in a noisy as hell pachinko parlor and waist away my life to disgusting cigarette smoke as I simultaneously dwindle away my life's savings to a stupid game of chance, and I'm really in no mood to put up with people who want to do yet another ridiculously expensive Enkai (business dinner/drinking party) where everyone starts making jack-asses of themselves in front of their colleagues only to walk home and act like nothing happened all over again on Monday.

No, I'm happily intent to use my saved $$ (which I amounted from declining the finer addictions of booze, cigarettes, and pin-ball madness) and have gladly purchased some entertainment which I can enjoy -and so can Sayaka. And all those who borrow movies from me. My one escape from the madness seems to get lost in a few hours of good film or television. I still read two books a month on average, but with the mental stresses the vegging seems to be more calming than the reading.

Still, I can't believe I haven't written my Christmas list to Santa yet. Normally I have a simple wish list roughed out by now... but this year I'm torn between the desire for an iPod Touch or a Nintendo Wii. Sayaka wants the Wii... and I may have to go in that direction. Cuz I wanna' play like I'm a samurai, do up some Mario Galaxy, and get down with the groove and drum to a mean beat. I only wish Santa were real, because then maybe I'd get both. But as long as we're making wishes, I also want to be rich... so I could by those above mentioned and also a house. A house so that I could own a dog, and by dog I mean two Welsh Pembroke Corgis. I'd name one Ein, not after Albert but after the Corgi from the Anime 'Cowboy Bebop' which was named so appropriately, and the other one I'd name LIA (which stands for 'Love Is Action').

I want some tapioca pudding. Flavored pudding is hard to come by in Japan. You always end up getting stuck with "poo-ring" (how they pronounce it) and it's always a slightly vanilla flavored puding with a coffee sauce. Every single time. There is nothing else... and I miss good old J-E-LL-O Jello pudding packs.

And well, this has been thirty seconds in my head. Seriously, this it what goes on in my head in thirty seconds, every moment of every day, although it takes a lot longer to jot down. Naturally.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Japan Talk: Almost another Month in Pictures

Selections from September 25th through October 22nd.

As usual I'm up to my same old same old. In other words, that means nothing new to report other than having a bunch of new stuff to report. Mainly, I am able to manage this feat through staying extremely busy.

Just as this past Friday (19th, Oct.) I accompanied my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) to the 42nd Annual Hiroshima Prefectural Junior High School English Education Research Convention. I know what you're thinking, what a mouthful. I dare you to try saying that five times fast. Anyway, up in Chioda City, we had a fun Friday of enjoyable seminars. It was fun, because all the Japanese teachers, no matter their English proficiency level, were required to use English all day long.

This is one of the fun things about living in Japan, because the educated Japanese really do enjoy learning language. There is an exotic thrill to learning a foreign language, and if you don't mind making a fool of yourself, learning a language together can be fun and culturally eye-opening. However, there are the occasional Japanese punks who will try and tell you that they have no need to learn English, as they are contented to watch the whole world pass them by in intelligence and skill, but these nationalistic Japanese pride filled types often miss the point due to their lack of education.

Sadly enough, this closed minded thinking wasn't improved by the last Prime Minister of Japan, who cut ALL of the educational spending in regards to expanding Japan's cultural understanding in an attempt to isolate and boost nationalistic identity. Abe decided closing off harmful educational curriculum such as "English" learning and replacing it with "Japanese" morals -classes where my children must go to learn about how to think Japanese about Japanese related subjects, and then apply Japanese reasoning to it was a good enough reason to re-root educational money and boost military spending. It's not my country, so I have no place to criticize, but it is reasons like this which might be why Abe didn't even last a year as Prime Minister before getting ousted.

When I get stress I go for strolls to my favorite local Shrines and Temples. The top picture with the red bridge is a beautiful aclove near a Japanese Buddhist Temple. A short walk down the hill you find a trail leading over to a Shinto shrine where, you might have guessed it, my friendly fluffy little pal lives. The Shinto Poochi! I really must find out what the little guys official name is, seeing as how we're practically best pals already.

The Shinto Poochi looking all wise. I think this pose was just for show, you know, he really plays to the tourism. The Zen place must have a Zen monk, or even, a Zen dog who casts his placid demeanor like a seasoned pro. and wise beyond his years too.

Meanwhile, when I'm not going for invigorating walks I am being worn down by the little munchkins I teach. Here they were playing a variation of Japanese style "tag" which is called 鬼ごっこ Oni-goko. Basically one child gets (involuntarily) volunteered to be the "demon" or in Japanese "Oni" and has to count to a given number before chasing the other kids. This version was played on the monkey-bars. However, it was quite a fun variation as it seemed like freeze tag. If the "Oni" touches you then one must freeze in position until the little chubby boy, too hefty to make a proper get away, was the designated un-freezer. I joined in with them after lunch and was exhausted by the third lap around the school. Oh, I should mention that big scary foreign teachers always get (involuntarily) volunteered to be the "Oni". Oh well, I needed the excersize.

Below is a nice shot of the bridge over to my apartment. I really liked the atmosphere of the day. It was a warm dry day, with a cool breeze. With the swaying grasses and a bridge spanning off into the distance, the Japanese landscape behind, along with the smells of a summer fading into autumn, I had a very "Wow, I'm in Japan" moment. So naturally I had to capture the moment. It's moments like these which make living in a foreign country totally worth this. The experience is unlike anything I can describe, it is for the lack of a better phrase, awe-inspiring.

And then back to work again. At the 42nd Annual Hiroshima Prefectural Junior High School English Education Research Convention the middle school students gave a wonderful taiko "Japanese drum" presentation. Chioda City is famous for its very traditional Japanese arts. It was a real treat to watch and a nice break between class demonstrations and afternoon seminars.

Of course I didn't get back until around 6:30 PM Friday evening, the seminar was educational. At about 7:00 Sayaka and I rounded up the boys, Rickie and Arend (the other two JETs in Sera) and headed into Onomichi city to hit the gym. We convene every Friday to get some weight training and exercise in, but more importantly, to speak in real English with real English speakers. After working out we head to Gusto (a Perkins style family restaurant) where we spend two to three hours chatting it up. It's a great change of pace before heading into the weekend. Sorry I don't have pics of Gusto, I'll have to get some in the future.

As for the weekend holiday Sayaka and I headed into Fukuyama city to do a little shopping. At night I accidentally took a wrong turn driving while getting to downtown central. I ended up on the other side of Fukuyama castle by about four blocks, but found this amazing (AMAZING!) replica of St. Valentines Cathedral. Oddly enough, this ceremonial wedding facility was built to scale. There is something strange about seeing an ancient Japanese castle, roughly a thousand years old, and then just a few blocks away being witness to the finest European architecture western civilization has to offer. The feeling is almost 'out of body' in terms of being disoriented about where you are and what you are seeing. But once you get over the strangeness of it you can't help but admire the Japanese obsession with 'Western style church weddings'. So much so that companies will spend millions of dollars to replicate the authentic Western European cathedrals just to make the 'appearance' of the wedding that more authentic. It's bedazzling to say the least.

Finally we found our way downtown and I got to the music store where I needed to be. After which Sayaka and I headed to a nice Izakaya restaurant where we ate some real tasty yakkitori and chicken nanban. After which we did a little shopping.

In the video-game department of one of the larger department stores downtown I found this hilarious NINTENDO display totally covering up the playable X-Box 360 demo. If any of you were wondering how popular Microsoft's super next gen console is in Japan, look no further than this photo. It's popular enough to shove (un-played I might add) behind the latest Nintendo DS advertisement, and wedge it between the used Nintendo and Sony Playstation hardware and the Nintendo Wii rental stand off to the left. However, after taking this photo inside the store I had store security following me for about twenty minutes. I think he wanted to stop me and ask me to not take photos inside the store, but chickened out when he saw that I was a foreigner. Besides, he probably would have felt silly for reprimanding me for taking a photo of an unimportant thing like the X-Box 360.

I can imagine the conversation would go something like this, "Excuse me, but I'm going to have to ask you not to take photos in the store."

"Oh, I'm humbly sorry. I saw an X-Box 360 and wanted to document the Japanese reception and perspective of the console."

"An X-Box...what? Anyway, I can't have you taking photos in the store."

"Okay. Want to try out some Nintendo Wii with me over at the next display?"

"Oh sure! I love Nintendo!"

The End

The great news is Nintendo Wii is fully in stock for Christmas (at least here in Japan). Oh, Christmas wishes, I need to jot down. And that was my weekend. Until next time... the Japan adventure keeps rolling rolling rolling along.

Other things I did: Mini-movie marathon. I bought the amazing, yet loosely based, Spartan epic '300' (and wowza does it do a stupendous job of capturing the Frank Miller imagery of the comic), and I also purchased a super special mega deluxe four-disc special collectors edition of 'The Phantom of the Opera'. I guess I was in a Gerard Buttler mood, or something. I shelled out a whopping $60 (American) for this thing, but it comes with a superbly remastered sound, image, and black sued/velvet slip case with gold trim, containing photo postcards, 4 DVDs, and over 5 hours of bonus materials. Normally I don't like to re-buy movies unless there's a darn good reason, but as an avid film collector and all our film buff this was something I couldn't pass up. I only wish that they'd include all of the special collectors items on the high-def Blue Ray titles being released. I still refuse to buy hi-def, at least until the format war is substantially decided and when/and if they stop re-issuing new re-re-releases with only one minor re-cut scene or two minutes of alternate dialog. I really get tired of this whole 'double dip' contingency -especially when they neglect to include the special features I love to view again and again.

Next I rented 'Rocky Balboa' (or Rocky the Final as it is known in Japan), and Jackie Chan's new movie 'Project B.B.' (which in my opinion is the funniest Jackie Chan movie in ages).

Lastly, I rounded off the weekend with the horribly lurid and disturbing film 'Perfume' (right up there with the 'Passion of Christ' or 'Titus' for grotesquely intriguing, gruesomely beautiful imagery, explicitly enticing, visually disturbing, and all around upsetting cinematic art -none worth viewing a second time but interesting enough to warrant a one time screening).

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Things I did this Month

What did I do this month? Well, just for starters...

Picked some 'Japanese' pears. Yum!

Sayaka came too!

Practiced for the sports festival.

Girls did their special dance.

Guys did pyramids and games. Everyone ran and had fun getting ready for the big day.

Played with some of my other students at an elementary school during lunch break.

The sports festival came... but we got rained on. Canceled early, yet only after having spent four hours in the rain. Getting drenched was a disappointment, but everyone shined and did their best!


Went to Fujimoto-san's 'Hawaiian 'Aloha' Dance' competition. It was the most relaxing sporting event I'd ever been to. (I look like a giant next to these tiny Japanese ladies. Don't mind the giant! Me no eat you!)


Ate some delicious Chinese food.

I also saw a beautiful wedding. Lovely couple too, wouldn't you agree?

Wasted some time down by the dock of the bay.

Sayaka and I made some senbei 煎餅 (which are traditional Japanese rice cracker/cakes).

Took some pictures of some beautiful wispy clouds. It was a blue-sky holiday.

And... that was just the regular stuff.

I also did some 'my personal time' things.

Read: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and the new issue of Shonen Jump!

Watched: Rush Hour 3 (theater), Unfair: The Movie, The Shooter, Sunshine, Casino Royal (again), My Super Ex-Girfriend, The Lucky Number Slevin.

Wrote: An original comic book proposal and pitch for Moonstone Books (am anxiously waiting for my rejection letter).

Practiced: My Saxophone for an upcoming music recital.

Made: Wedding invitations by hand (almost finished!)

Taught: Tuesday Night English Conversation Class, School, and Pro-bono Tutoring

Exercised: At the gym (pumping up!)

((Can you keep up with me?))

And last, but not least... I posted this blog for all of you! No time to catch my breath though, the Japan adventure rolls along and waits for no one. So jump on board and kick it back, enjoy the ride. Have a good weak, and remember, take deep breathes , clear your busy thoughts and as you gain insight via retrospect... have an experience or two. Or three. Learn something new, keep your chin up, and push forward taking it all in stride. Finally, don't forget to enjoy every single moment life has to offer. Peace out.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Nashi 梨 Picking! And Shizen no Mori 自然の森

Nashi 梨 means 'pear' in Japanese. But really, it's more like a giant yellow apple in texture, shape, and size. It tastes like a pear, but otherwise, consider it apple-ish. To cut back on the confusion I'll just refer to this tasty fruit as a "Japanese pear." Which, basically, is exactly what it is. Problem solved!

Sayaka and I went with a group of older Japanese folks for some pear picking excitement on our weekend. Although they often smell funny, older people are fun too. We really have no choice in the matter since there are very few if any young people in our area to hang out with. Let's just say you can count all the young adults in my town between twenty and under thirty with just your two hands. If you're looking for a date you'd be hard pressed to find anybody between high school teenagery and elderly decrepidation.

In an unrelated tid-bit: If you want romance, you'll have to resort to all kinds of twisted perversions (depending on whether you prefer barely legal or extremely old and wearing diapers -that's none of my business), or otherwise import a wife. Which many have done, in my area too, apparently. Just as a side note -many of my students (at least a few in *every school) has a Filipino-mother. And judging by their fathers' very traditional "Japanese" way of speaking, thinking, and doing things... I highly doubt they were at all international business entrepreneur types. More or less catalog online order of they wifey types. But that's just my guess (although it's statistically improbable that they all met via true love accidents).

As such we hooked up with a brave buckeneering bunch of elder explorers and ventured into the hillside to pick the produce which has made my city famous. In fact, when you drive into the city limits you will see the highway sign which has a little yellow pear cartoon caricature wearing a marathon headband and sachet. Sera town is notorious for having the best long distance running team in the country, and also for growing pears, thus the cute little icon. I'll try and get a photo of the little marathon pear for a later post, after all, it's worth seeing and will get a laugh.

Above is the famous European style Shizen no Mori "Nature's Forest" Youth Hostel.

After our pear-picking we went to a famous gelato place called Dona which sells home-made gelato ice-cream. Made fresh from the tit of a plump round Sera-cow. The Japanese are fond of claiming their 15 minutes of fame. If there is something worth bragging about, or just mentioning as a conversational piece, they never forget to inform your of why or what their particular region is famous for. Every region is famous for something, and after that is established the city governments of those regions dumb huge funds into sponsoring the project.

In the case of my town they've made their Japanese pears a 'tourist trap' for summer travelers. People from all around Japan can come to pick the pears. You basically go the the orchard and pay to rent a tree for an hour and pick all you can eat. You box the rest and pay for it on the way out of the park.

Japanese towns must resort to this sort of exploitation of their countryside just to get people to circulate and invigorate an otherwise dormant economy. Japan's self-sustaining mega-cities (i.e. Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, etc.) act like blood clots which cut off the cash flow throughout the country and causing local governments to resort to such tactics in an attempt to invigorate and stimulate the overall national economy. The sad thing is, more often than not, the tactic fails and the city goes bankrupt. Sera made the Hiroshima news for going bankrupt this year, but not too shocking considering that at least ten Japanese towns go bankrupt a week. I my opinion I think Sera held out as long as it could. Now it becomes a political game to see how the national government lends its loans to increase local government spending.

Across the nation of Japan are tourist trap 'ghost towns'. Large theme parks, monuments, and flower gardens abandoned due to budget restraints. This creates interesting and exciting opportunities for adventurous types to take advantage of a situation unique to Japan.

In a nearby area, of one such tourist trap there is youth hostel tucked away on the mountain side in the old Samurai town of Joge 上下. Now if you didn't have a map, you'd never find it in a million years. But due to its secluded nature the Shizen no Mori 自然の森 youth hostel is popular among backpackers (MG YH Address: 470-1 Yano, Joge-cho, Fuchu-shi, Hiroshima, 729-3423. Tel: +81-847-62-3244)

As if pear picking and gelato ice-cream eating wasn't enough we stopped at the Shizen no Mori hostel for a traditional Japanese lunch, or wa-shoku 和食. The above picture is of a portion of that meal, which was very healthy as you can see.

At the youth hostel I found a little Buddha cuddling his little Buddha-girlfriend outside. It was such a cute statue I had to snap a picture. These Buddhist statues, not of the Buddha himself but of other various iconographic religious figures within the folds of Buddhism, litter the Japanese landscape. Each one has a special 'power' to invoke if prayed to. This one happens to be romance! Oh the joy.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Superficial Japan: Polite but ever so Rude

Service in Japan is super-extra-duper-nice/polite wherever you go. If someone isn't being extra-special-unbelievably-nice to you... one complaint could get them fired. Everyone works with the most pleasant of pleasantries... and believe it or not it is one of the bigger culture shocks about Japan.

The politeness level increases so drastically that it seems annoying and unnecessarily inefficient... at first. The first time a lady asked me what I wanted at McDonalds, only to question my order by asking, "Are you sure that's what you want?" I was thrown for a moment. I had to think if I had ordered wrong in Japanese. So I reiterated by pointing at the picture. She asked me the same thing a second time, "Are you sure that's what you want?" She didn't look stupid, I thought. But why does she keep asking me if what I ordered is what I want? It was so foreign to me. Anyway, I again confirmed and she, finally, typed in the order on the register. This was back in 2003 during my first trip to Japan, and it seemed to really slow the 'ordering' process down, but now that I can look back on it I can see that I'd take an extra few steps of courtesy over the rude arrogant behavior of the American fast food industry --which by the way has NEVER gotten an order of mine right.

Once you get used to the Japanese way it's wonderful. When I go back to the States... I dread going to any food service place... actually any food place period (with the exception of grocery stores which are all automated and I can do 'self-checkout' without having to worry about the grumpy 52 year old grandma still in shock that she is working at Wal*Mart, or wherever, because her knocked up daughter is on her third child and she and her jobless fiance had to move in with the grandparents).

I never been to a place in the U.S. that is even half as friendly as your standard Japanese McDonald's service. Which is very sad, for America. But American's are too self absorbed anyway. Hey, I should know, I am one. If we notice someone being extra polite in America, we'd probably consider it dubious behavior and likely insult the person and greedily grab our food and run away. But that's the American way. Take what's yours and... well... screw the rest. To each his own. (P.S. A friendly reminder from my pal Patrick, "Don't Mess with Texas!")

Japan, however, has a totally different sentiment. In Japan 'to each his own' is the most foreign of foreign concepts. That is until you get on the tollway and onto the Interstate. That's when I think the Japanese homogenius harmony and politeness that exists within the culture goes right out the window --of their cars.

Driving in Japan is unlike anything you could ever experience, and the only word I can think to describe it is: DENSE. Not only literally, as in the traffic is so dense it gets jammed, or the smog is so dense I can't see the road, or the smoke inside the car is so dense because all five of my Japanese friends are heavy smokers (oddly the majority of them women --double oddly, which is normal in Japan), but the most literal sense of the word *dense applies to the unique driving manners of the Japanese, or lack there of.

For work related purposes I must drive every week to my distant Japanese Elementary School which are randomly scattered across the countryside. Some of which aren't even near any towns. In addition to that I enjoy taking road trips (more or less). Sayaka and I car pool making it cheaper than the trains and buses, but just by a little, like ten dollars or something. As you can guess, I drive a lot... and I've driven all over Hiroshima, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Kumamoto --just to name a few of the big and challenging cities I've driven in. I've been on roads so narrow that my tires have scraped the curp --on both sides! And yeah, that's the easy part. But the shock I can't seem to get over, because it's a shock that continuously reminds me of Japanese society's double face, or "MASK," is the explicit rudeness of self-serving-drive-for-your-life and get there no-matter-the-cost mentality that goes on here.

Now you're probably thinking that's not so bad, after all, being American I should be used to that by now, right? Right. But the problem isn't anyone's attitude, it's the fact that society in Japan acts one way --very specifically and intentionally acts in this peaceful, respectful, actualization of conformity for the sake of harmonizing. Which isn't a bad things, since it's necessary in such a crowed and heavily populated culture as Japan's, but other than saving yourself a few hurt feelings by thinking of others first (before you speak and act) it really does nothing in lessoning the already unusually high societal stress/tension. Thus the manners of Japan are more or less a form of "conformity" aided by various cultural and linguistic elements which allows the Japanese to 'interact' smoothly and prompts an air of super-mega-ultra politeness. At least to your face. The truth is, the moment a Japanese person gets into their vehicle --it's no holds bard against the world-- and traffic rules... they might as well not exist.

When you think about it, this is a complete attitude swap, i.e. a personality change. One mask comes off --and the hideous truth comes out. People here are just as self serving and petty as anywhere else, especially when it comes to 'having your way' and telling everybody else to jump off a cliff. Which is perplexing to me for a couple reasons, 1) it seems not only double-faced but goes against the already instilled societal requirements of politeness and respect, 2) it is contradictory to the vigorous training everyone goes through in the strenuous driving education courses. Courses which make sure you take every extemporaneous precaution and step of learning the road rules before you qualify for taking the actual test --which you most likely will have to take six times before you pass. Not to brag, but the good news is I passed on my third try --proving I've got what it takes to join in the insanity. It also puts me in an extremely rare percentile of very good drivers in Japan.

On a side note, I've been driving 15 years without incident, which makes me 3 times "Golden License" according to their rules. Of course only 3 of those years have been time driving in Japan. The "Golden Menkyo" is the herralded trophy piece which proves you are an 'ultimate driver' and everyone wants one. Including me. The problem though isn't my driving... but everyone else's. Try going five years without an incident here... it's not easy.

Every day (every day!) I get cut off. At least three times a week (at least!) an impatient person breeches the in-town speed limit to pass me in a 'No Passing Zone' because 50 Kph (30 Mph) is just too slow for them. In town, what are they entirely inconsiderate? To drive my point home I've been passed twice in front of the Police Station! This proves they're not thinking about the consequences, or just plain not thinking at all? Where'd all their consideration go, I wonder?

At least once a day (everyday!) a person zags and cuts diagonally in front of me making an illegal right hand turn across oncoming traffic (oncoming traffic! What, do they have a death wish?) -causing me to break hard-and-heavy. Obviously they're in such a hurry they can't wait their turn... apparently, they are in such a hurry they forgot all of their manners back at home.

Every single day (everyday!) I will dash through a yellow light (as we all do) on my way to work only to see in my rear view mirror the car immediately behind me dash the red. And then the car behind him. And also, the two cars following them. I'm NOT exaggerating. Just two weeks ago I counted seven cars running a red. Where are the police? Donuts don't mean the same thing here. It's all very puzzling.

And finally, unique to country roads is the infamous 'go around' which, due to a lack of turning lanes, or lack of space altogether, cars will cut inbetween the sidewalk and the parked car signalling to turn and dodge around them. In American where the roads are wide enough for a Jumbo Jet to land, it's not such a risk. But in a tightly packed country like Japan, with every little country road criss crossing and intersecting the next, the danger is obvious. If there are people trying to cross the street just in front of the car you are going around --then sweet dreams folks. I hope you had a good life. I've seen bicycles and scooters get taken out by this maneuver. Completely flattened. It's not pretty. And this is just the in-town driving. God help you if you decide to go onto the freeway.

Although, from their point of view this drive-or-die mentality is the norm. It's odd to note though, that it goes directly against their everyday efforts toward maintaining a 'peaceful, non-stressful, politeness' which exists everywhere else in Japanese society.

Being jolted between the two faces of Japan's social extremes, one of social grace and the other so self-absorbed it's hazardous to others, is extremely perturbing. One day I will be thanking people for taking their time to consider me and be so gracious with their generosity, and the next day I'll be cursing the rude sonuvabitch who just about wiped me out on the free way endangering all the passengers (in both vehicles) and everyone else on the road. At least in America you never have to worry about the 'jolt' from one to the other extreme. In Japan though, you get the sense that there is something very superficial to this 'perfect harmony' and the realization of which is only something disappointing, it's merely a mask they wear on the face, and constantly makes you wonder if anyone is really as polite as they pretend they are?

Of course, in the end who am I to take such generosity for granted? Even if they change their mask when they get on the road, at least they're wearing the right one when they engage and interact with others on a day-to-day basis. And that's what counts.

Have a good one!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Japanese Drivers License, Domestic Squables, and Warding off Typhoons

Sorry for the lack of interest in my Blog this month. I've been busy getting my Japanese drivers license (which is a major pain and hassle), busing back and forth between Hiroshima City and my home town an hour and a half away for work related meetings, seminars, English camps, and tomorrow the Orientation for newly arrived JETs. Between all this and battling typhoons I've just been bogged down by work in general.

Sayaka and I also hit a rough patch in our relationship this month, our first truly volitile situation in four years of a wonderful and loving relationship, and whether the extra stress is due to my hectic work schedule or other things... I've been neglecting my blogs in lieu of the matter to try and smooth over and amend our difficulties. That's about all I can share for now, but I hope you continue to check for updates in the near future.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Fireworks in Japan! 花火祭り 


Just in front of a McDonald's I ran into a bunch of gorgeous young ladies. They were about Junior high school age, maybe freshmen in high school. They were dressed so sweetly in their traditional yukatas 浴衣 (sort of a light cotton summer kimono) that I asked them very politely if I might be able to take a picture. Before I knew it they were all coming together in a pose and laughing.

Obviously it's fun to pose for the foreigner... but I couldn't help but wonder if I was a regular Japanese guy on the street stopping a bunch of girls and asking for their pictures... yeah, they'd probably shoot down and ignore any typical Japanese photographer. I guess this is one of the many perks of being a famed gaikokujin.

Ka-BOOM! Here are some shots from the fireworks show.

Finally we met up with the rest of the gang. Here's everybody enjoying a quick snapshot together.

Since it was Ayed's (far right) last night in Japan we gave him a nice sending off farewell. I hope he makes it back to America just fine.

Above and below shows how densely crowded it was along the river front where we went to get the best view of the show. It was crazy packed with people. And with the hot hot hot weather, the black top was actually acting like a sauna.

A bit blurry, but a nice shot of the dense crowds buying traditional Japanese snacks along the string of vending booths.

Can you guess what the little boy is getting money from his mother for? He's going to buy a nice treat, here's a hint, it cost 600 yen and there is a picture to help... still not sure? Roast squid on a stick! Yummy!

A pretty rain of fire.