Thursday, 16 December 2010

Utter Randomness

For your viewing pleasure, random fodder from my camera from the past two months: 

Ripe mikan tree just outside my junior high school. There are many many thousands of these trees in this valley. Overripe fruit rolls out into the street, into gutters, and every possible nook of the landscape here. The vice-principle at Bunsei Junior High admonished the kids at a morning assembly: "Taking mikans is shoplifting, and shoplifting is a crime!" I can hardly blame them, though - these are delicious.

One of my great loves in this country - Maximum spicyness Curry at CoCo Ichiban with spinach and cow guts.  

 The Culture Festival at Bunsei Junior High School. The banner reads: "A Culture Festival that will remain not in records, but memories." Even the tough-guy/sassy-girl third years are pretty cute when they all sing together. 

Kishu-kun: The traffic safety hound of Wakayama. 

Fresh-dried squid at a fish market in Katsuura. For when you feel like eating something that resembles a hideous space creature. 

Apparently this is actually a pretty nice hotel.... (Osaka)

The existential crisis section of the bookstore. Titles include "What am I?" "What is Death?" and "What is the Soul?". I'd post the answers, but alas, they were shrink-wrapped! Spiritual enlightenment foiled by plastic!

There are several city blocks of Osaka adorned with similar feline/pop culture themed flags. I have no clue why, but "why" is certainly besides the point here. 

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

God bless us, everyone!

In the coming weeks, thousands of Assistant Language Teachers across the Japanese archipelago will don Santa hats and festive sweaters for their annual Christmas lessons. I've been recruited as a Father Christmas for the morning assembly at Miyahara Elementary school next Monday, and though I worry that I'm simultaneously too tall and too skinny for their Santa suit, I am quite excited to ho-ho-ho for the wee ones.

Last week after a middle-school class, one of my Japanese co-teachers and I began chatting about the holiday season:

(In Japanese)

Carter: Did you do anything with the class last year for Christmas?

Japanese Teacher of English: Yes! We sent Christmas cards to Santa Claus. Did you know that he lives in Finland? We sent them to his address!

C: Finland? So there's be a man in Finland who pretends to be Santa... In America, we believe Santa lives at the North Pole...

JTE(matter-of-factly):  No, it's really Santa.

C: ....

JTE: We sent them to his address!

C: ....

A crush of rowdy first-years ended our conversation before I could enquire further about this mysterious Finnish St. Nick. Perhaps it's for the best that I didn't burst any bubbles that day - surely the world's a better place for every full-grown man who believes in Father Christmas.

As to be expected in a country where most people consider themselves Buddhists, Christmas in Japan is a more subdued affair than in the US of A. One still hears Christmas carols at grocery stores and spots wreathes on shop windows, but such mercantile festiveness is of a lower order of magnitude than the onslaught of "holiday cheer" back home. There are no qualms over losing sight of "the meaning of Christmas" here, no mention of baby Jesus or his manger, no "god bless us, everyone!" from Tiny Tim, no Gift of the Magi, no Grinch. Instead of eggnog, turkey, or gingerbread cookies, there's Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve, followed by a store-bought Christmas cake.

 The more cynical among us might see this as a purer distillation of the reality of Christmas - an excuse to buy some holiday-themed stuff, devoid of any pretensions of spiritual or moral significance.

Those people can kindly choke on a fruitcake. I love Christmas.  True, I don't miss the preening celebrities churning out terrible new renditions of carols like clockwork, the consumerist frenzy that inevitably leads to someone being trampled to death at Walmart, even the idea that idea that one needs to express one's love for family through the accumulation of generally useless stuff. Nor do I miss the renewed sanctimoniousness of those who take the season as an opportunity to remind us how great baby Jesus is. But for me, Christmas remains a special time, a holiday that becomes profound precisely because it moves so far away from its religious origins. Even the most hardened cynics (when they're done choking on that fruitcake) may admit there's something wonderful about hot cocoa (or eggnog...) with relatives around a fire, or the younger generation playing in the snow, or the magical smells of christmas trees and gingerbread. There's something vital in such traditions, in the way they pull families and friends together, even if they can't stand each other most of the time. Perhaps its not much more than nostalgia, but nostalgia ranks among the more powerful emotions known to man.

Japan has no shortage of home-grown festivals, so maybe it's not such a tragedy that Christmas is a Hallmark holiday here. Even so, I'm so so so happy to be going home for the holidays :)

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

JLPT and Ai-chan's Place

Though you wouldn't know it from my postings, I have in fact been studying diligently for the level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) for the past two months or so. ( as it's name implies, the JLPT's a standardized Japanese language test for non-native speakers, and level one is the top level.)  

Well, I HAD been studying hard until about two weeks ago, when a conversation with one of my JET big brothers reminded me that the test is completely optional, its results utterly inconsequential beyond "bragging rights". Nonetheless, I made the trek up to Osaka Sunday with my comrade and fellow masochist Terence to take what was essentially the verbal section of the SAT in Japanese. Bragging rights are important, right? 

The tests itself was just as interesting as, well, the original SAT. Except that the testing room was filled almost entirely with Chinese people, with a few Koreans thrown in for good measure and one dour-looking white guy in the corner. Upon reflection, I guess the demographics of the test are not all that surprising (there are a lot of Chinese people, and we are in East Asia...).  

The results of this optional, inconsequential test won't arrive until February. Even so, I feel a palpable sense of relief very very similar to what I used to feel back at Amherst after finishing the final exam before the long winter break. I suppose I remain a college boy at heart, and that the JLPT gave me that familiar sense of purpose (and low-level background stress) that I've become so accustomed to. It allowed me to postpone that great, somewhat scary sense of freedom that accompanies a life without deadlines. Many of my fellow recent college graduates will know what I'm talking about. One becomes accustomed to certain certainties after nearly two decades of schooling - a constant stream of assignments during the school year, a sense of the finiteness of breaks at Christmas, spring, and summer. Even for the hard decisions like if/when/where to go to college, I had a limited number of options arrayed before me and a definite sense of the expectations of parents, teachers, peers to push me one way or another. 

And now? A great, formless future lies ahead, one that (for the time being at least) offers very little in the way of guidance or pressure to choose one path ahead or another. It's liberating, invigorating, full of inchoate possibility, but I understand how it could also lead to ennui... ennui, of course, is a luxury of the idle and well-off...  

But enough of such tedious foolishness. It's time to head over to Ai-chan's place....  

 Ai-chan is the lovely lady on the left in this picture. She's the mama-san of an eponymous bar in Osaka's Namba district, which she has decked out in the memorabilia of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, and other stars and starlets of Hollywood's more glorious past. Plump, sequined, and a little surly, Ai-chan offers an unbeatable all-u-can eat/drink/karaoke special for the equivalent of about $30, whipping up tasty treats like clam pasta and kimchee pork behind the bar. 

As fortune had it, my friends from the MY WAY event (see post below), were having a get-together the very same day as the JPLT. Jill-chan, one of MY WAY's masterminds, led us to Ai-chan's place through the throngs of Namba, ever-crowded even on a Sunday night. 

Ai-chan maintains a fabulous costume collection in her establishment, and she proceeded to pass around outfits to our group after the first course. In my lap she dropped a polka-dot skirt and light-up Minny-mouse ears with a no-nonsense "here."

There is photographic evidence of course, and with this picture I give up any dreams of running for political office:   

Yu-chan seems to inspire my most incriminating photos. 

Needless to say, it was a good night despite the inconvenience of 'work' the next day. Ah, to be young and foolish...  :) (apologies for the poor quality of the photos, as my camera did not respond well to the mood lighting )