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 .

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