Tuesday, 13 December 2011

....and we're back

First, a word on my hiatus from blogging: I decided last February to apply to law school, which, as it turns out, entails a rather grueling sequence of standardized testing, application writing, and anxious waiting for a final decision. Fortunately, said decision came last Friday - I'm going to Harvard Law School! I settled on HLS because of its excellence in environmental law and international legal studies, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited to be attending Barack Obama's alma mater. Here's to hoping the grandiosity of the place doesn't go to my head....

Anyways, last week's decision has freed up a lot of mental real estate, and it only occurred to me yesterday just how long I had neglected my dear old blog. Having just handed my papers declining Arida's offer to extend my teaching contract, it's hit me pretty hard that my months here in Japan are numbered. Fortunately, that number is 7,which allows me some time to cultivate at least a few more stories worth writing home about.

For now, though, please enjoy this snippet of conversation from the Fisherman's Bar in Arida last night:

Dramatis personae:

Master - the chef and proprietor of my favorite restaurant, Arida's Fisherman's bar

"R" - Master's bubbly assistant, a senior at a local high school, master of the fine arts of barroom banter and the management of drunk fishermen.

Katsuo - nickname ("katsuo"= a relative of tuna) of a Fisherman's Bar regular, speaker of the thickest, most unintelligible Wakayama dialect I've yet encountered

"C"- Yours truly

(Scene: R has just poured small cups hot sake for Katsuo and C at the Fisherman's Bar. Master is concentrating on slicing small slivers of fish flesh behind the bar.)

Katsuo: (jokingly) I expect an awesome souvenir when you get back from America. You're leaving next week, right?

C: Good of you to remember. I'm sure I'll think of something worthy of the great Katsuo.

R: Really?! You're heading back to America? Wowwwww..... That's, like, so foreign. I mean, Korea's a foreign country, but America's, like, super foreign. Wait?! So is Japan, like, a foreign country to Americans?!

C: Yup.

R: Whoaaaa! So can you, like, drive to America?

C: I'm afraid not, R. You see, America's......

Master:(interjecting) Y'know, R, cars are no good, but you can take a bus to America. (winks at C and Katsuo)

R: REALLY? like the one that runs to Tokyo?

Katsuo: Yep. Leaves right from city hall. You sure you haven't heard of this, R?

C: It's a hell of a lot cheaper than flying, though the seats are pretty cramped....

R: Huh... so it's, like, an all night bus ride? That must be pretty uncomfortable....

C: Twenty hours. Terrible.

R: I can't believe I'd never heard of it! Imma ask my mom about it when I get home.

Master: She's gonna laugh at you, R. It's super famous.

Katsuo: Yup.

C nods in agreement, stifling laughter. R takes a moment to make a mental note of this new fact. Five minutes pass, and she serves beers to two regular patrons after they enter the bar.

R: Y'know, I've been thinking about taking that bus to America that leaves out of city hall. (puzzled looks from the newcomers) You never heard of it? Well, I'm more knowledgeable about the world than i might look.....

Friday, 17 June 2011

Pomp and Circumstance

'tis the season! Or it was last month when I started writing this, anyways. Robes and mortarboards, friends and families gathered 'round, speeches and hors'douvres and farewell nights of revelry. It's a lovely time of year, and I'm especially sorry to be missing it now, with several beloved cousins and friends taking their well-earned, triumphal marches to their respective graduation podiums. (Instead, I sit here in my pajamas listening to the sounds of the year's first typhoon - spooky, humbling, and strangely comforting.) Sincerest congratulations to all those in Amherst, Oberlin, Brown, and elsewhere.

In honor of the occasion, here are some commencement-related readings:

The first is an article from the NY Times about American colleges and income inequality that prominently features recently ex-president of Amherst College Tony Marx. I sincerely hope that Amherst continues (and expands) the wise and generous policies that he championed, which allowed me and so many others to benefit from a great, horizon-widening education and graduate (relatively) unencumbered by debt. 

The other two are commencement speeches by two novelists, David Foster Wallace (a fellow Amherst alumnus!) and Jonathan Franzen. Both are certainly worth the five minutes it takes to get through them, and will hopefully be of interest even to those for not receiving diplomas this spring. I found them thoughtful in a sends-tingles-up-your-back kind of way. I read somewhere that Wallace's speech has actually been published in book form, one sentence per page. Silly to pay for what one can get for free, though.

I know that Wallace's speech has been in wide circulation for a while now, especially since his suicide three years ago, so it may not come as a revelation to many of you. Having just finished his mammoth novel Infinite Jest, though, I found myself rereading the speech and finding it just as interesting the second time around. His words on the effort it takes to go through one's daily life with presence of mind, not allowing familiar mental habits to cloud the immediacy and profundity of our existences, feel especially poignant in the (sometimes) grinding midst of the Japanese school year.

 At college, it sometimes seems as if sheer intellect holds the key to all life's great questions - that all problems will yield if one simply thinks hard enough about them, that humanity's most persistent quandaries simply await someone with the brilliance to break through them by sheer force of thought.  Infinite Jest both alerted me to this assumption I didn't know I still had and shattered it. One comes away from the book impressed by Wallace's singular, self-conscious brilliance. A man of both encyclopedic knowledge and vocabulary and the urgent need to show it off. There is real wisdom in that book, especially in some of the parts portraying the main character's struggle to overcome his addictions, but there are also large helpings of solipsism, nihilism, and fatalistic pessimism as well...

....But before I ramble on too much about the book, let me get to the point - Infinite Jest gives one the distinct impression of someone trapped inside their own head, struggling to control the internal cycles of their fears and neuroses. That Wallace could convey this so well leads me to think that he probably experienced a great deal of this himself. His speech addresses this issue head-on, showing his characteristically productive self-consciousness, and he sounds almost buddhist in his exhortations to mindfulness. That Wallace ultimately lost the battle against his inner demons (which apparently included debilitating clinical depression, among other things), only adds another, terribly sad and poignant note to the speech.

Franzen's speech is a fine example of what a friend of mine likes to call the luddite argument against our increasingly 'plugged-in' lifestyle. He means this disparagingly, saying that Franzen doesn't acknowledge the mutability of human connectedness, but I think the point stands: Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, etc. etc., abet our congenital human narcissism, that this impedes the love of things outside ourselves, and that, somewhat ironically, it is by giving ourselves over to people or causes beyond ourselves that we attain happiness and satisfaction for ourselves.

That Franzen would probably include this blog as a part of that love-killing technological apparatus is an irony that does not escape me.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Me, the sentimental old man (plus some pics)

Clark Kent retires to his favorite swingy chair after a long day of good-doing. (Is it narcissism if the portrait is almost as old as you are?) 

I observed the passing of my 23rd year on planet Earth Thursday. Before I forget, sincere thanks for all the birthday wishes via various physical and electronic pathways. Some of the more Scrooge-like among us hold that a "happy birthday!" sent via Facebook somehow means less than a card or verbal congratulations because Facebook both reminds us of the birthday and provides a way to fulfill greeting obligations in approx. 10 seconds. I think that's bulls**t - there is something humbling and wonderful about the cascade of well-wishers that appears on one's wall. 

I've neglected this blog for over a month now, the longest of several unintentional hiatuses since starting my chronicles. I wish I had a decent excuse beyond simple forgetfulness or the usual cliches about how time flies on by. I don't, though. But (to paraphrase David Foster Wallace), it's often the case that the more banal the cliche seems, the sharper the canines of the truth behind it. Time flies so very fast when you're 22 in a foreign land, simultaneously learning how to be a grown-up and a foreigner in one of the planet's more self-consciously insular countries. This is mostly because it's so much fun. Every smoothly executed Japanese conversation with a co-worker seems like a grand accomplishment, every meal out promises new smells and flavors, every evening of moonlight and cicadas seems a living, breathing haiku.

Sense of wonder is another one of those cliches that will sneak up and kick your a** when you least expect it. This happened to me on the car ride back from the island of Kyushu last week after a week of sightseeing, eating, and generally good-natured debauchery. I dozed off in the passenger's seat, rousing an hour later to that pleasant, if disorientating, place between sleep and wakefulness as the Japanese countryside passed by at 80 km/hr. For what seemed like several minutes I groped in vain for something familiar to orient my sleepy brain: Highway signs in Japanese, the hum of my friend's ipod, the low green hills outside of Hiroshima - all contributed to a sense of profound disassociation. "Where am I? Who am I?"

Like the proverbial ton of bricks, it hit me. "I am in a country called Japan, with good friends I did not know 9 months ago. I am an English teacher. I speak Japanese. I graduated from Amherst College almost a year ago. My little sister is at this moment in Buenos Aires, my parents sound asleep in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.... Life is good." I felt for a moment like Cinderella, terrified that midnight would come and I would wake up a tired, pimple and angst-ridden 15-year-old to find that the past eight years had been but a dream, that the wonders of first love, Japan, and college would vanish. poof

But nothing happened. Chris, the driver, tells me we're close to Hiroshima, making good time. I smile. 

I don't know how I got to this place, healthy, college-graduated, employed, with a so many people I actually consider friends wishing me well on my Facebook wall.  And still occasionally wonder how this could be really, truly be my life and not some sort of somnambular wish-fulfillment. But I never seem to wake up, no matter how hard I pinch myself... 

Ah, to be so drippingly sentimental at 23. I can only speculate what my friends and family will have to put up with when I'm a nostalgic old man....

Selected scenic pics from my golden week trip (4/29-5/7) to Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands: 
Purported to be the most beautiful bridge in all of Japan (Iwakuni)

Also Iwakuni

Takachiho gorge, Miyazaki prefecture

This one's for you, Allan (and any other geologists out there fond of ancient lava flows)

800 year old cedar

Shrine to Ameterasu, sun-goddess (still Takachiho). Apparently she spent many dark years in a cave not far from this site after ill-treatment from her brother and other gods. That cave, alas, is off-limits to sightseers, its location a tightly guarded secret.

Aforementioned sun goddess

A stone pagoda we erected on the beach of Aoashima,  Miyazaki


Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Saidaiji Naked Man Festival, Part II: Snatched from the Jaws of....

I was quite literally in the middle of this. 
And now, the long-overdue conclusion of this sordid tale:

Having joined forces with my friend Bear and his compatriots from Kochi prefecture, we made our way to the center of town. A group of friendly volunteers in white robes passed out paper cups of warm amazake, a sort of watery Japanese rice pudding, by the side of the road. Wafts of grilled noodle and roast chicken drifted through the narrow streets. We partook of some tasty Japanese carnival food (think meat-on-a-stick) before dutifully heading into the night's first trial: the changing area. 

Within the large tarp tent about 100 men in various stages of undress and about 5 wizened, elderly women milled about. Fundoshi loincloth and tabi socks in hand, we stripped and joined one of the many lines to be... fitted. Motivated by altruism, sadism, or some perverse combination, the fundoshi assistants at Saidaiji spent many hours that day helping complete strangers don the traditional white loincloths , which begin the night as nothing more than long strips of fabric. Most were old ladies, but ours was a young, bored-looking man, who wasted no time in wrapping the fundoshi around our lower halves and sealing it with a sudden, eye-popping, squeal-inducing YANK. 

Properly attired, our group stepped back out onto the street....

We are running, shoulder to shoulder, flanked in front and behind by other, larger groups of Japanese revelers. "Wa-shoi wa-shoi! Wa-shoi wa-shoi! Wa-shoi wa-shoi!!" We enter the temple grounds, veer to the right - ahead is a murky pond with an 8-foot obelisk at its far end. The air is cold, but the water is so much colder, up to our chests as we loop around the obelisk. "WASHOI WASHOIIII! WAHHHHH!!!!!" Our tabi and fundoshi soaked and sandy, we ascend the stairs to the man temple. Two claps and a silent bow. Down the temple stairs and around to the annex, where we ring the sacred bell and pay obeisance once more. Back to the courtyard - "WA-SHOI!! WAH-SHOI! WA-SHOI!" - and out the main gate. 

.... We repeat this circuit four or five times. Our voices grow hoarse. The second lap, I notice the size of the crowd at the margins of the temple ground: Thousands of fully-clothed spectators littered with TV cameras and the occasional newscaster. We are ascetics, celebrities, Japanese peasants of two hundred years past. After our fifth or sixth bow within the main temple, we are told to stop: It is beginning. The crowd begins as trickle, wet, drunk men stumbling onto the platform and awkwardly standing in place. The air grows warm and I notice that I no longer have room to stretch my arms. The platform is packed, every face oriented at the inner balcony on which stand priests and photographers. "50 minutes!!" 

The crowd compacts.  I feel a formless pressure on all sides, unable to move a single inch in any direction. "Lift your arms!" Trampling and heat exhaustion are genuine concerns here, and the priests address the former by splashing buckets of water on the crowd. Steam rises. "Wa-shoi! Wa-shoi!" The horde heaves. A shove at its margins is amplified, releasing shockwaves of human motion in the center. 4 feet to the left. 3 feet back. I lift my feet to avoid being stomped on (having lost my left tabi in the pond) and am held several inches above the ground by the pressure of those crowded around me. A drop in a sea of flesh and sweat. Always moving. The lights dim. Silence. A priest steps onto the balcony clutching a large bundle, unceremoniously flinging its contents into the crowd. 8 or so rectangular objects fly above our heads. THE SACRED STICKS!!!! One makes contact with my outstretched hand and I swiftly pull it to my chest. The unwelcome sensation of fingers not my own, searching my torso blindly for the prize. Cradling the shiki in my left arm, I curl my right palm into a fist and proceed to methodically bash the hands of would-be stick thieves. Thank god for all those years of karate. Bear is to my right. I poke him with the shiki - "I have something." Bear uses his ursine bulk to shield my rear half as I make my way out of the main platform, concealing the shiki within crossed arms. We make it down the stairs and into the courtyard. Fresh air! 

We examine the shiki: A bundle of sticks and leaves from a sacred tree, wrapped in a paper inscription. But  it gives off no incense smoke. A "little luck" stick, its value measured only in intangible good fortune for the rest of the year. Before us, two great balls of human flesh and violence slowly advance towards the gate, shouting and swearing. Blood streams from scraped knees and smashed noses. The big luck sticks, worth several thousand dollars each. I recross my arms and head out the main gate as inconspicuously as possible.   

The Big Luck shiki

A Little Luck shiki

And so this tale comes to a happy end, the hapless hero somehow emerging from the heart of darkness with a goofy grin on his face, treasure in hand. I find myself struggling for words to communicate the primal nature of the Naked Man Festival. As if the higher functions of one's brain cede control to lower mammalian or reptilian dictates: Run. Shout. Grab. Protect. Flee. 

It was also a lot of fun, despite the various bruises and scrapes incurred. How infrequently it is that we engage in physical contest, where one's strength and animal wits are the sole determinants of the outcome. For most of human history (or rather, prehistory), I suppose, this was a primary way of engaging with the world, whether to obtain food or settle disputes. Nowadays we channel those basic urges, sublimating them, abstracting them. But, I think, It's good for the psyche, if not the soul, to embrace that side of one's nature every one in a while. 

Many, many thanks to Bear, Jacy, and Rachel, who kindly let me use her pictures! 


Sunday, 13 March 2011

Tsunami, or, "There's nothing left but to enjoy tonight."

At about 4:00 Friday, I had just sat down for tea and cookies with other teachers at Minato Elementary after a full day of classes when the tsunami warning came out. There had been a large earthquake off the cost, the principal told us, and though Arida is far from the epicenter, we had better get to the roof.

"Minato" means "port" in Japanese, and from the windy roof we could see the still, shimmering ocean. A half hour passed. The predicted two meter tsunami did not come. Some neighborhood families had come to the school seeking higher ground, but a sense of relief and normalcy soon returned. I helped the first-grade teacher post student artwork on the ground floor bulletin board. 

I had plans to see friends in Osaka that weekend, including a breakdance performance by the fourth-grade teacher at one of my elementary schools(!), so I went home, took a nap, and made my way to the big city blithely oblivious to the devastation in northeast Japan. It was only after I met up with some Japanese acquaintances later that night, at an Irish pub of all places, that I saw the footage of towns being swept away and factories set ablaze. Pangs of guilt for drinking Guinness at such a time. 

The next morning (yesterday, that is), I received a call from my sister in Argentina - "Are you OK? Have you talked to mom and dad yet?" Pangs of guilt for forgetting that, though Wakayama's distance from the quake and my own safety seemed obvious geographical and existential truths to me, they would be far from obvious to those who care about me back in the States. Sincerest thanks, and apologies, to all those who worried about me. 

A few hours before my breakdancing teacher friend's performance, I ambled through the streets of Shinsaibashi, one of the city's most debauched neon night districts. Young men in slim suits with strange hair asked me how my "search" was going,  groups of college-age friends posed for pictures, women in short skirts flirted with small herds of drunk businessmen. In a word, normalcy. I made my way to Ola, a Mexican restaurant run by a Japanese couple - the husband a stoic aficionado of salsas and tequilas, the wife a gregarious bartender who my friends and I immediately mistook for an actual Mexican the first time we visited. 

The conversation at the bar, naturally, turned to the ongoing disaster several hundred miles northeast. 

"Y'know, they say we're due for a big earthquake here in Kansai too - the nankai jishin." 
(Kansai = The Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe/Wakayama area of Japan)

"Really?" I blurted out, barely concealing the surprise and concern in behind it. 

"Yep. Like the Kobe earthquake." 

"I was here in Osaka when that hit. It split a crack right down the middle of the roof in our apartment...."

(Osaka is only a 30 minute train ride from Kobe and experienced strong tremors during that quake.) 

"We're screwed if it hits Osaka," the barkeep said as a half-smile spread across her face, "Osaka's one of the weakest cities when it comes to that sort of thing." 

"Why's that?" I asked, eyebrow raised. 

"Because Osaka people are damn fools."(osaka no hito wa minna aho yakara) Her face bloomed into a full, bemused grin. "If a building catches fire, you're supposed to evacuate, right? Not so in Osaka. This very building could be on fire right now, and we'd just say 'hey, you smell that?' 'fire? psshhh, don't be ridiculous!' We'd all die in the restaurant, beer in hand, laughing like the fools we are."

"Not such a bad way to go, I guess," I offered.   

"Not at all." 

"You can't predict these sorts of things anyways."


"I still feel bad about what's happening up in Sendai. I just wish I could do something." 

"Besides giving money, there isn't a whole lot we can do." 

"True, but... I guess you're right." 

"Like you said, it could be us tomorrow," the barkeep said, "No way to predict these things. And that's why, for us, there's nothing left but to enjoy tonight." With that she poured chilled tequila into a long row of glasses that had miraculously appeared in front of her. "On the house." 

The closest analogy I can think of to how people here in Kansai are experiencing the Northeastern Japan Tsunami is how people in Maryland felt when Hurricane Katrina first struck. Before the botched response added insult and compounded injury, before the justified outrage at "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!", there was that visceral mix of awe, fear, sympathy, and a sense of our own futility at what was happening.

 "Natural disaster" is an interesting phrase as such - besides the usual, literal meaning, "natural" also has the nuance of "in keeping with the order of things." We think of wars and other human-born crises as preventable, their occurrence the result of our failure to prevent them. Not so with earthquakes. All we can do in the face of forces beyond human magnitude is prepare best we can and respond when they do strike. But we are ultimately at their mercy: some people in northeast Japan had minutes between feeling the ground shake beneath them and the arrival of the tsunami. We call such things acts of god for a reason - before geology and meteorology, what could have possibly explained a wall of water thirty feet high but a wrathful deity?

If any place is prepared for such disasters, though, Japan is. I highly recommend Nick Kristof's essay on the disaster for those interested - he articulates something I felt strongly but could not put words to. I'd add one thing, though, to toughness and resiliency he describes, something in the words of that bartender at Ola: humor.  Osaka people are known for their raucous, slightly mean sense of humor, and I think it reflects a certain type of fatalism common to any people who have known misfortune ( this has been said about Jewish humor, but really, laughter is not so far from tears in many places.... here, the trauma of WWII has not entirely faded into history yet). Realizing that ceiling could quite literally come crashing down on one's head at any given moment, one is faced with a choice: to worry, or to laugh. Perhaps this is not the first response one feels at seeing a costal village wiped away, and certainly there are times when the sheer enormity of a tragedy precludes any response but stunned silence or inexpressible sadness. Once that initial shock begins to fade, though, the stoic resolve and stifled tears that Kristof describes will share space with laughter. Not simply out of bitterness, though there will surely be some of that, but because misfortunes of this magnitude are, in a cosmic sense, funny. They put into high relief the smallness of our selves, our ambitions, our problems - all suddenly absurd in this new light. Down at the bottom of pandora's box, just to the left of hope, the gods must have left us laughter too. 

I felt a sudden sense of solidarity with those affected by the tsunami in Ola last night, hearing about the nankai jishin and realizing that nothing but sheer chance separates me from someone on the northeast coast. But I guess that's the case with any disaster, manmade or natural, large or small. My prayers are with those in northeast Japan, as are much of the world's. We should do what we can to help in these situations - I'll go give blood Wednesday - but there's precious little most individuals can accomplish from where we live. For now, then, I guess there's nothing left but to enjoy tonight. 

Much love to all my friends and family. 

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Mapo-dofu: Because it's delicious

Mapo-dofu is delicious, and surprisingly easy to make. It's a shame that tofu gets passed off so often as a meat substitute back in the States, pressed and formed into all sort of unappealing shapes and textures. It's tasty in its own right, and compliments meat quite nicely, as this dish shows. I will mail-order Sichuan peppers next time I make it, but Blair's After Death Hot Sauce works well in a pinch ;)

Recipe here, lifted from the very useful blog appetiteforchina.com .

The Saidaiji Naked Man Festival Part 1: Into the Fray

First, a warning - There are no pictures of me in a loincloth in this post.  If I can procure one from a friend of acquaintance, I will post it posthaste.  I barely had time to snap the one above upon re-clothing myself after the main festivities had ended - a Japanese fundoshi loincloth provides NO extra room for accoutrements like wallets or cameras.  But I get ahead of myself. Before we don our loincloths and begin the semi-nude sprint around the temple, some background information is in order. 

The Saidaiji hadaka matsuri ("Naked Festival") is considered one of Japan's 3 most eccentric big festivals (seriously). Every year about 9000 loincloth-clad men descend upon Saidaiji Temple 45 minutes outside the little city of Okayama to participate. Most get very very drunk, and all assemble into teams to participate in a centuries old purification ritual that entails running laps around the temple arm-in-arm, including a brief dip into a sacred pond, and, most importantly, competing for auspicious little wooden artifacts called shingi thrown into the crowd by priests.  Many Japanese know it as a "fighting festival," in which the synergy of alcohol, testosterone, and a general carnival atmosphere unleashes the belligerent side of otherwise peace-loving participants. People have been trampled to death over the years in the ensuing free-for-all at Saidaiji, but most escape with little more than scraped knees and slight chill. (More information available here for those interested)

When I received word that Okayama JETs were organizing a foreigner contingent for the festival, something stirred deep within the dark, animalistic recesses of my mind: "I want a shingi," it said, "I must go." 

Though I could not convince any other male Wakayama JETs to risk serious bodily injury for a "sacred stick," the lovely Rachel and JC accompanied me to Okayama despite the temple custom prohibiting women from participating. We feasted on tasty ramen outside the station and saw the major sights of the little city (the Koraku-en garden is considered one of the three prettiest in Japan) before I joined my fifty-odd fellow participants on a bus to Saidaiji. Among them was Bear, my roommate from the JET orientation in Tokyo six months earlier (and one of the two most ursine men I've had the privilege of knowing). When we arrived at the staging area, Bear generously introduced me his contingent of JETs from Kochi, who welcomed me into their group for the next few hours as we descended into a vital, oft-repressed part of the Japanese, no, human psyche.... 

Alas, it's bedtime for me. To be continued..... 

Monday, 7 March 2011

Humorous dialogue with elementary school students # 23 : "Are there zombies in America?"

Dearest blog, I have neglected you so. Not for lack of material - there have been adventures aplenty over the past few weeks - but for want of time. (In addition to said adventures, I recently decided to hop back on the preprofessional treadmill and apply to law school, which for now entails studying LSAT books for a few hours daily.) I promise I will get around to the Saidaiji Naked Man Festival and Japan's largest bath house later this week. In the meantime, I'd like to share with you a reminiscence from last October:

Pudgy, Precocious 4th Grade Boy: Carter-sensei! Carter-sensei!! Have you seen Biohazard?! (Known in the USA as Resident Evil)

Carter: Yes I have. The movie about zombies, right?

PP4GB: Yeah!! (credulously) Are there zombies in America?

C: Nope. No zombies.

 PP4GB: (disappointedly) Really?..... oh.....

C: Well, there was that one time....

PP4GB: What?! What?!

C: (feigns pent-up sadness).... No..... It's too sad....

PP4GB: Tell me! Say it!!

C: My sister.... she.... she was eaten by a zombie!

PP4GB: No way!!! But wait.... doesn't that mean that she's a zombie now?

C: (frowns, nods grimly) I'm afraid so.

PP4GB: (seriously) Anyone who gets bitten turns into a zombie. I'm glad we don't have zombies here in Japan.

C: I guess you're right.... wait. Just before I got on the plane to come here, she.... she.... BLAWRRRRR!!!!   (cocks head to side, contorts face to lopsided grimace, advances towards PP4G in jerky, limping gait) BRAINS!!! I WANT BRAINS!!!!

PP4GB: AHHHHH!!!!! (flees up stairs, does a double take, faces C with hands folded together, index fingers in the shape of a pistol barrel) POW POW!!! POW POW POW!!!!

C advances towards PP4GB arms outstretched, receives imaginary bullet to the face, slumps against the stairwell wall. The chime rings and PP4G runs to class 

Monday, 7 February 2011

Humorous dialogue with elementary school students # 187

Heard this past Friday at Minato Elementary School, at the tail end of my self introduction to the fourth grade class:

(In Japanese)

Carter: .... well, that's all I have to say for now. Any questions, kids?

4th graders: Do you have a wife?

C: (Smiles) nope. Not married.

4th graders: What about a special someone that you like?

C: Well, that's a secret....

4th Grader: What type of girls do you like?!

C: Uhhhh.... I like... girls who are kind people.

4th Grader: That it? Even if she's ugly?


4th Grader: What if she's REALLY UGLY?!?! 

Precocious Nine-year-old: What about [co-teacher] Sakamoto-sensei? She's pretty!

(Sakamoto-sensei smiles embarrassedly)

C: Well, she's a very nice lady... Any other questions?

(five minutes later)

PN: (Whispers conspiratorially) Carter-sensei! Do you like Sakamoto-sensei?

C: (Smiles) She's very nice.

PN: And pretty!

C: Yes, and pretty too.

(PN scurries to Sakamoto-sensei, exchanges whispers, scurries back to C)

PN: The feeling's mutual!

C: (Smiles embarrassedly)

PN: (Bows deeply) Congratulations on your marriage! Yay!!!!!

Chorus of Fourth Graders: Yay!!!! Congratulations!!!! (applause)

(Sakamoto-sensei (who has a long-term boyfriend) blushes, C attempts in vain to distract kids with flashcards....) 

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Re-contracting, Egypt, and Daikon Curry (cont.)

One of the secrets of Japanese curry - grated apple
Apologies for the political turn with the last post - I try to refrain from the excessively political on Stinky Soybeans, not because it's not interesting or important (indeed, these are things we should talk about more often) , but because I personally get annoyed when others suddenly break into sententious rant mode out of the blue. But sometimes ideas build up with such force within oneself that they escape without warning through the nearest outlet. In that vein.....

....I'm encouraged that President Obama seems to be doing the right thing and pressuring Egypt's President Mubarak to step down. Even if bleeding liberals like myself occasionally feel frustrated at his tactics - his acquiescence towards tax cuts for rich people, his general tack of conciliation in the face of lies (google "birthers")  and bigotry from his opponents - Obama does seem to have his heart in the right place. For most of the United States' history, our presidents have usually embraced the view encapsulated in FDR's famous quote about a Nicaraguan dictator: "Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." God knows our government still endorses sons-of-bitches besides Mubarak, but at least Obama is setting a good precedent. Of course, one could always be cynical and...

.... but enough of such foolishness. Food awaits!

This is a daikon. (Alas, I peeled and chopped it before realizing how photogenic it was...) "Daikon"(大根) translates directly as "big root," a very apt description of the vegetable.  My good friend T received a bundle of these beautiful tubers from a grateful farmer who attends his English conversation class, and he was kind enough to share the bounty. The major difficulty of daikon consumption, naturally, lies in its size. What do you do with that much plant matter? Typical uses include shredding it to garnish sushi and grating it to top steak, but there was no way I was going to eat enough sushi or steak to use even a small fraction of the root before it became a giant petri dish. The solution? Curry! 

The Roux!

The delightful food blog http://justhungry.com/ , my most dependable source for Japanese food wisdom, had a tasty recipe for Japanese style curry stew. This should not be confused with curries of the Thai or Indian persuasion, to which it bears only a passing resemblance. Unlike Koreans or people from the Hunan and Sichuan regions of China, the Japanese in general have an extremely underdeveloped appreciation of the broad and beautiful palette of spicy flavors available to mankind. Whereas I love a good, scorching vindaloo or green curry for the little inferno it ignites on the taste buds, the chief appeal of Japanese curry lies in the pleasing textural combination of savory, viscous stew and warm rice. Many supermarkets contain an entire aisle devoted to curry in its various incarnations, from ready-to-eat metallic pouches to little brown bricks of roux for the soup base to spice blends for those who opt for the purist approach. As Just Hungry points out, the roux (composed of butter, flour, and curry powder), is actually very easy to whip up and contains none of the dubious industrially engineered fats that give most pre-made mixes their appealing mouth feel.   

 Besides daikon, water, and that roux, I added carrots, shiitake mushrooms, a half kilo of beef tendon, 8 onions, spices, and, of course, a heaping spoonful of Blair's After Death Hot Sauce. 3 fellow ALT's and I managed to polish off the entire pot that night, save a little tupperware-full. It was the second time I've hosted a curry party in my little apartment (alas, no photos). How wonderful to live in a century when it's socially permissible for a man to cook a big pot of stew and share it with friends.

More food pictures, because I have too much free time:

Sesame Fried Spinach a la Mark Bittman

Bok Choy in garlic and white wine sauce

This here is a takoyaki, the bready fried octopus balls that are a specialty here in the Kansai region. A wonderful, adorable local family (relations of a teacher I know) invited me over for a takoyaki fry-out last Monday. As with many of the best Japanese meals, the cooking apparatus sat in the middle of the table as the entire family took part in the meal's preparation. In the case of takoyaki, that apparatus is a griddle indented with little 1-inch hemispheres for shaping the balls of fried goodness. Besides octopus, we added spring onions, pickled ginger, bits of fried tempura batter ("tenkasu"), and american cheese to the mix. They were delicious.

Fried Rice two ways: Shiitake sesame, red pepper and pork.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Re-contracting, Egypt, and Daikon Curry

Hello friends,

I'm afraid I've neglected this here blog since the auspicious start of 2011. Perhaps its the sheer quantity of New Year's resolutions I've been trying to keep (I jotted down 8 during a lull at school), ranging from the mundane "keep apartment clean" to the more edifying "learn to read music/play the harmonica" and "take concrete steps to realize secret plans for world domination."  But perhaps it's poor form to bring up New Year's resolutions in February, when many of us are just coming to terms all sorts of persistent flaws in ourselves. Entropy will remain a major force in my apartment, no matter the earnestness of my resolutions, and world domination will have to wait until I get sick of my new kindle (a godsend in a town where the nearest English bookstore in 2 hours away).

Anyways, here's the latest dispatch from Arida:

I've officially signed up to stay here for one more year! Another year of skewing the dodgeball teams of Arida playgrounds, of bags of free citrus and compliments from cackling old ladies, of talking world politics with inebriated and wind-burned fishermen. And of course, helping the wee ones distinguish their R's from their L's, always tactfully deflecting questions about the meaning of "sekkusu" and "fakku you!"

I could ramble for a very long time about my warm feelings towards this place, but I have something else on my mind at the moment, as do many millions of news-watching people the world over. Egypt's revolution-in-progress rivets us for many reasons - it's geopolitical implications, the flood of striking photos from Cairo, the hope and optimism undergirding such spontaneous, collective action, the menace (and recently, reality) of brutal government reprisals. I'm not a religious man, but I suppose that in my own way, I'm praying that those hundreds of thousand of people in Tahrir Square succeed.

Two things have irked me persistently since I started paying attention to the story a few days ago. The first is the inevitable reaction against the wide-eyed wonder and admiration in much of the reportage from Cairo. "It threatens to destabilize the entire region!" "The Islamic Brotherhood could take over the country!" "Egypt's alliance with Israel/America is jeopardized!" "Economic consequences!" etc. etc.  All these caveats certainly articulate possible, even likely outcomes of the uprising. But just how scared, how jaded does one have to be to not feel a pang of awe and inspiration at the idea of millions of people organically rising up against three decades of repression and stagnation at the hands of a brutal autocrat? Seriously!

But perhaps that's enough political ranting for now. God knows there's plenty of self-righteous bloggers and reporters churning our pages by the minute on this story (I recommend looking up the stuff Nicholas Kristof has written from Cairo for the New York Times if you're interested).  Now it's time for bed - I'll finish up with the rant and get to the daikon curry soon. Sweet dreams to us all.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

cold cold cold

Memories of warmer times: The Kumano pilgrimage road in early Autumn.
Today I will use this blog as a forum to practice one of the most important staples of social interaction here in Japan (or anywhere, for that matter): Complaining about the weather. From the from the atsui, na? ("hot, isn't it?") of summer to the samui, na? ("cold, isn't it?") of winter, at least half of all polite conversation here in Arida begins with some sort of sympathetic bemoaning of the sadistic weather gods.  While the temperature here in Wakayama rarely dips beneath freezing, several factors contribute to making winters here frigid and miserable.

1)For some unfathomable reason, few Japanese apartments have decent insulation, so any heat built within a living room soon dissipates. A friend from Hawai'i recently discovered the source of a persistent draft in her apartment: After checking every conceivable window and door opening, she was shocked to feel a faint but unmistakable winter breeze coming though her wall.  

2) Neither home nor school has central heating. Presumably this stems from a desire to conserve resources on a crowded archipelago, a worthy goal, I must admit. It also has the side benefit of building a certain camaraderie in suffering, in those millions of cups of hot tea, coffee, and cocoa offered in solidarity to shivering coworkers.

3) The wind. Arida, like many Japanese towns, lies on the Pacific Ocean. Cold landward winds buffet the town at all hours, at times so strong that peddling at anything less than full force will only keep one's bike in place, leaving rider with a comical and confused look of exertion on his face.

In response to this state of affairs, there are two schools of thought. The first, advocated by my neighbor T, entails puttering around one's apartment in full winter wear, warmed only by the thought of yen accumulating in his bank account, unmolested by seasonal heating bills. The second entails sitting beneath air conditioner or kotatsu, worshipping these sources of electronic warmth with monthly offerings of hard-earned cash. (A kotatsu, by the way, is a low table equipped with a small heat lamp and and bedecked with an oversized blanket - the traditional Japanese solution to blustery winter days.) I've attempted to split the difference between the two, bundling up in sweatshirts and setting the AC to the lowest warm setting possible for minutes at a time.

Behind my shattering teeth, I comfort myself with the thought that my shivering somehow brings me closer to nature, that there is perhaps something unnatural about the excessive warmth of my Amherst College dorms in the depths of winter (which led many student to open windows to let heat out). Bears hibernate, amphibians even freeze through - winter is a time to conserve motion and heat. Perhaps one should shiver a bit in winter in humble acknowledgment of elemental forces greater than ourselves. With that in mind, I now click off my AC and put another cup of water on for tea...

Monday, 10 January 2011

Happy belated new year, folks

Happy new year from Riblet, the handsomest dog in the world. 

8000 miles and 26 hours later, I'm back in Arida after and all-too-brief jaunt back to the US of A. Naturally, the jet-lag has left me too discombobulated to even think about writing a full post right now, so I'll let the pictures do most of the talking.

Krispy Kreme invades Osaka, takes no prisoners.  

 Disembodied sushi hand (also Osaka, of course.)

Unfortunately, I neglected to take pictures for almost the entirety of my two-week stay in the States. I was inspired, however, to finally take my camera out of its case at the Sackler Gallery (which, along with the Freer next door, is one of the best, most underrated museums in DC).  The last paragraph is in the picture below is a quote from the 10th-century Persian epic Shahnama, several centuries-old editions of which were on exhibit at the gallery. These words seem as auspicious as any to contemplate at the beginning of the new year:  

For those who have a tough time reading the small, yellow print: 

"There is nothing in the world so terrible and fearful as the fact that one comes like the wind and departs as a breath... Whether you are a king or a pauper you will discover no rhyme or reason to it. But one must act well, with valor and chivalry, and one must eat well and rejoice: I see no other fate for you, whether you are a subject or a prince." 

May the year be one of good eating and rejoicing for us all.