Thursday, September 20, 2012

Judo stuff

Today I rode the elevator with a 10th degree blackbelt.  There are only four of them in the world, 3 of them men in Japan and one a woman living in San Francisco.  But yeah.  I rode the elevator with one.  And he liked my shoes.

Aside from me becoming best friends with a celebrity, there's this blackbelt that spars with my class who I have named either Bucho, or Bowser.  I referred to him as these names in my head because for a while I couldn't read the kanji for his name on his belt.  I called him Buchou (japanese for Department Manager) because there's something about him that just looks like a Japanese manager.  Maybe it's the wavy gray hair.  Then I decided Bowser was a better name because he's probably 20 kilos heavier than me and he grunts like Bowser.  I don't refer to him by these names, and have since learned his real name.

Actually the hair here is strikingly similar if we just do a palette swap.

But he's kinda my sworn enemy at Judo.  There's a handful of blackbelts who train with my class and most of them are very nice.  Like the guy who informs he in English as we do mat-work, "I am choking you.  Are you okay?  I am choking you."  I would like to respond with something witty to the effect of, "Yes, I did in fact notice that you were choking me" but then I'm too busy trying to not get choked to think of something clever and/or speak.  But the point is, even though we're fighting and he's choking me, HE'S SUPER NICE ABOUT IT.  Not so with Bowser.

His favorite move is tomoe-nage, a sacrifice throw where you plant your foot on the opponent's hip and roll backwards, flinging him above and behind you.  We've learned it in class but the senseis generally tell us not to use it in sparring because it has more potential to injury the opponent if they're not expecting it and don't land properly.  My issue with tomoe-nage, more than being able to land it, is when he misses the foot placement and catapults me by means of my balls.  Being catapulted by my balls makes me unhappy.

I've been on the receiving end of what I think was a Dragon Suplex, which I had previously thought was only a move in pro-wrestling.  It happened so fast that I wasn't really sure what happened... I was on the mat grappling his legs, and then I was in the air upside down, and then I was on the ground again.  Getting choked.  I tapped out but the choke continued several seconds after I had clearly tapped out.
His favorite pin against me is not a pin, since my obnoxiously long legs give me a pretty good chance to get out of most pins (wrapping legs around the pinner means it doesn't count for points).  He instead just likes to crush my jaw until I tap out, which is not really an officially sanctioned strategy but pretty effective.  I've gotten a handful of nosebleeds and bloody lips from him, and today also a big mat-burn across my face, which is perhaps what prompted this rant.

Another blackbelt who spars in the blackbelt exclusive class saw me in the fight where I received the dragon suplex, and congratulated me for putting up a tough fight.  He also confided to me that Bowser apparently likes training with the mixed class because he's not really good enough to compete at the blackbelt-only class but likes fighting younger and less experienced guys for an ego boost.  Don't know how true this psychoanalysis is, but the more I spar him the more it seems to fit.

I've just recently become able to pin him at times, and I've thrown him once.  These are big deals to me, both as indicators that I'm getting stronger and as a first step towards my sworn vengeance against Bowser.

Me beating Bowser will be like this, but more bloody and less adorable.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My new favorite japanese commercial

The lyrics don't actually go like this, but I am putting my language skills to good use by ignoring what the lyrics actually say and re-imaging what the girl is saying in context.

I'm alone and drinking with my cat
Screw all you guys I'm drinking with my cat
There are no boys who call me up
 'cuz I'm the cat lady
I sing about the cat and booze
I'm drinking with my cat

Monday, August 13, 2012

Short and pithy cultural observations, visually

Yeah, I found Mt. Rushmore.  It's in Tochigi Prefecture.
Sharks exemplify unsafe driving.  Manatees urge Heartful Highways.
Sharks also smoke without first going to a designated smoking area.
Regardless, the Manatee advocates Heartful Highways.
Unclear if smoking and highways are connected.

It's a poster for Pro-Wrestling, but tell me "G1 Climax" doesn't sound a little dirty.

A Haiku urging us not to bring trash from our own houses to throw away in public receptacles, lest we corrupt the children with our ne'ver-do-well ways.

Your Child will see
the trash you throw away here.
Children's eyes cut deep.

Short and Pithy Cultural Observations, textually

Been back in Japan for just over a week, after a month at home chillin' with the fam.  Very little culture shock this time, and not even too much issue with jet lag.  But there are perhaps a handle of strange Japan'isms that stand out a little more in my state of not-really-culture-shock-but-still-a-little-new-after-being-away.  They are as follows:

~I had to get ID photos for part of my work visa application.  I went to a photo store and asked for the photo, and the nice clerk lady told me where to go to get that done for half as cheap as the service her store offered.  Thank you nice clerk lady.

~She directed me to a photo booths that specialize in just this kind of ID photo.  It has many features, including a "beautiful skin touch-up" (美肌コンシーラ)and will automatically detect the edges of your face to frame it properly.  The machine did not understand my beard, so it marked the bottom of my chin as above my mustache.  I can only assume this is because there are no beards in Japan.

~To the extent that I've watched Olympic coverage in Japan, the news networks unabashedly cover their own athletes more than anyone else.  This is true anywhere, I'm sure, but I feel like the NBC coverage in the US at least makes a pretense about being interested in other countries' athletes.  Japan only does this for Usain Bolt.  To that end...

~Not everything is about Michael Phelps!  Hooray!  I know he's a big deal and all, but I got kinda annoyed how everything on TV was swooning over one competitor.

~The other thing about Olympic coverage in Japan is how much coverage they give to their own TV personalities covering the events.  They do so in a way that's more obnoxious to me than anything about Ryan Seacrest or Katie Couric that Americans have been complaining about.  For example, they have long clips of some famous newscaster or TV personality in the stands watching.  As in, the cameraman sitting next to him at the event films him as he watches the event.  And they show all of his reactions.  And later one of the variety shows strings together all the moments of official event footage where you can see him in the crowd.  I'm sure a PhD could have a field day writing a thesis about the voyeurism inherent to turning the audience's gaze onto the gazer... but I just think its annoying.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Shimoda Black Ship Festival

More stories getting shared far too late after the actual event!  I'm at home in Spokane for a month so I have some time to catch up on stuff I've been meaning to share.

In May, a handful of students from IUC got the chance to participate in the Black Ship Festival in Shimoda, commemorating Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his black ships of the East India Squadron arriving in Japan, 1850's.  There was a "historical recreation" play recreating the scene of signing the Shimoda Treaty, and then we marched in a parade.

First off the history side of Black Ship Festivals (there's a similar one I did in Hakodate, one of the other port towns opened up early) is a little bit... off.  They all promote Perry as a hero.  He's a household name in Japan in a way that he's most certainly not in the US.  But the plays and the festival goodies always promote Perry as a great friend of Japan, opening up a treaty for mutual growth and friendship.  But the historical reality is that the treaty was very one-sided, pushed onto Japan with the threat of the US navy sitting on their shores, and the unfair nature of the treaties was a point of national resentment for the next 50 years or so.

This photo is actually a pretty good summary of how simplified and white-washed the history of the Black Ships tends to be in popular consciousness.  There were some samurai, and there was the US.  They met, and then they were friends, and then Japan was modern!  Yay!

Usually they ask for IUC students to fill in the navy roles in the play, although this year they were one short on the samurai side so I got to be a samurai.  I had professional costume make-up artists doing my wig.   I even had a line in the play, reading off part of the Shimoda treaty.  It was in a kind of semi-classical legalese, which everyone assured me that regardless of whether I said it right or not, most people wouldn't really understand.

Shimoda is in Shizuoka prefecture on the Ito peninsula, southwest of Tokyo.  And it passes for tropical.  Most tourist promotion photos for Okinawa, the semi-tropical island range way to the south of Japan, are actually taken in Shimoda.

The first night had a big fancy reception, with diplomats and navy representatives from both sides.  We asked in advance about dress code, and we were told no dress code, so we came just in what we were wearing at school.  We were the only people not in suits.  Oops.
We were a little embarrassed but enjoyed the diplomat-level cuisine, including fish cheeks and fois gras pudding.

The boys and Perry-chan.
The bigger roles with lines are always performed by Japanese volunteers.  This year, the volunteer for Perry happened to be the tiniest, most adorable size of Japanese lady.
The girls in kimonos.  There wasn't really a role for them in the play, but they got to strut around and be pretty with us in the parade.
I also love the incongruity of the coke cans here.  This should be a commercial.
After the parade, we got to wander the streets to see the rest of the festival.  We were stopped for hundreds if not thousands of photo requests, but this time we stopped someone else for photos.
We don't know what the group was, but one of the other groups in the parade was beautiful women in bikinis.  They were happy to take lots of photos with us.
Please notice the random old dudes who jumped in on either side.
Justin and me staying and our host family, the Matsuis.

Justin and I were staying at the Ryosenji (了仙寺) Temple, where the treaty itself was signed.  The priest Matsui-san (on the right) plays a big role in promoting Shimoda's history, as well as all sorts of community volunteering and is at some of the highest levels of the Buddhist organizations of Japan. 

This is me, in terrifying closeup.  This is from the second day, where they had to apply the eye makeup much more heavily to dampen the shocking effect of blue eyes with black hair.
Wig removed!

When people ask what its like to live in Japan, I really just want to show them this picture.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I know what you did last Golden Week

The actual write-up of my Hitchhiking Adventures in detail is very very late, but here come a few highlights.  Really really long, but there's just lots of good stories to share.

Blue dot on the right is where I live in Kawasaki - started by taking local trains to Kyoto (cheap and slow, but the weather was beautiful and gave many nice views of the Pacific Ocean).

Larger red dots are where we spent the night, and smaller red dots are we stopped briefly to get rides.  I estimate I covered about 600 km for Kyoto to Kumamoto covered via hitchhike, and including the return trains and the extra distance I did between Kyoto and Tokyo at about 2,400 km for the week.

Our first day we started late.  Very very late.  Partially due to an excellent night drinking polish vodka outside of Kyoto's royal palace.

But we also needed more preparation before we could leave, and finding the tent in particular was a hassle on short notice.  I tried 7 different recycle shops, but we finally sprung for a new tent - a 190 cm tall, 10 kg 4 person monstrosity that was a pain to carry.

We took a few stops on the train away from Kyoto to get closer to a higher entrance, and set up our first thumbing attempt.  It was already dark.  And raining.  No luck.  I stopped a random man walking by and asked if he had any suggestions on where a car might stop easily.  Surprisingly, he had hitchhiked himself (the only person we met who had, and suggested we try another spot further down the road.)

When we were about to give in, the Banana King pulled over.  (Our drivers rarely offered their names, so I will be referring to them as I see fit.  Photos of the drivers are sadly all on Ahmed's camera, although I do want to add them later)  He worked in something pertaining to shipping bananas, and was on his way back to Kobe from Kyoto.  It was a moment of ecstasy -- I was the designated talker for having the most experience in Japanese, but in my nerves and excitement all the keigo disappeared.  This was the first moment of hope when we were realized the trip had a shot at not failing.

In Kobe we then walked around late at night and sat in the shadows of a shrine until a security guard kicked us out.  (Ahmed, the devout non-drinker, took a nap and the guard thought he was passed out drunk, which was why he finally kicked us out)

Kobe is a pretty place, but also has its rough neighborhoods.  And also a lot of Yakuza connections.  So I was a little on edge sleeping in a park past an abandoned neighborhood and beneath the highway... probably didn't help that the trees were making spooky sounds by scratching on the side of the tent all night.

The next day, spent a long time unsuccessfully thumbing before we decided to find a parking lot near a big mall and try approaching and asking people individually.

A middle-aged couple from Osaka with a big van, involved in some sort of delivery business and on their way to Akashi, took us to another big outlet mall a little further west, somewhere near Akashi.

As soon as we got out of the car, we were stopped by a Japanese Christian Evangelist to talk about God.  Devout Muslim Ahmed and hardcore atheist Daniel had some choice words for him.  We finally ended the conversation saying we had to find our next ride (I was totally willing to bear the sermon if it meant we could get a ride from him, but he and his wife were going the other direction.)

Next, a youngish couple took us out of their way to a rest-stop just east of Himeji.  They also offered that if we couldn't find a ride there, the guy would drop off his wife at home (she had to go take care of the kids) and he would drive us further.  So they waited with us as I tried to catch a ride, which was awkward to be watched as I was turned down over and over.

Usually we wouldn't even ask women by the themselves (being approached by strange foreign men = scary) but one lady had a big SUV-ish car so we gave it a shot.  Her mother, the nicest granny ever, came over and explained that she and her daughter were on the way home from picking up the brand new car for daughter, and because it wasn't yet properly ensured her daughter couldn't take us but she would instead.

She decided there weren't any of good areas to grab a car in Himeji proper so she drove us well-past where she lived to the a rest stop on the Tatsunonishi interchange high up in the mountains.  Nicest Granny said she would take us further but had to start dinner for the grandkids, but if we were stuck the next day to call her. and she would take us as far as Okayama.  As she dropped us off, she left us with fancy boxes of senbei and pressed a 10,000 yen bill into my hand to buy food.  I tried to refuse but Nicest Granny insisted.

Here we got a ride from Chill Bro Dad all the way to Hiroshima.  He works in some sort of plumbing-related field, particular with doing maintenance on pool systems, and drives a lot for work.  His truck was full of pipes and at first he said it was too full to take us, but then reconsidered and moved things around to make it fit.

This was my favorite ride -- one of the longest, allowing Chill Bro Dad and I to bond.  The reason I named him Chill Bro Dad is that he's such a chill bro -- he he told me stories about drag racing in his youth.  But now that he has a wife and kids and house, there's too much at stake, so his wild days have been reeled in.  He ranted about customs of social propriety that make it difficult to establish friendships outside of your own limited group, and the fakeness of keigo.  (At this point I turned off the keigo).

Spent two nights in Hiroshima and had some pretty good shenanigans:

Our tent in a downtown park - please notice the proximity of the car on the left side.

This is why you will never starve while hitchhiking in Japan - 16 vending machines on the same corner.

Overly dramatic warning signs about pedestrians are my favorite.
Especially since the cyclist is not even riding his bike.

Went to Miyajima island and Itsukushima shrine, which are infested with deer.

The shrine is raised above a shallow tide

Shrine dog statue - makes me think of illithids?

And of course, the most famous part of the shrine, the Tori'i in the middle of the water, was under construction.
Lighting's not great but I loved this zen space outside of the shrine

After the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Itsukushima shrine, we decided to climb Mt. Misen on Miyajima island.  We started late enough in the day that we were warned it would be dark before we could finish, but we ignored that advice, and just went faster instead.

The mountain is covered in mini rock shrines -- something to do with Shinto animism?

View from the top -- very foggy

One of the most epic feats of setting a self-timer and running long distances to get in the photo.  Good work Ahmed.

Daniel and his rain poncho are so vogue.

This is probably the only time I've seen "anti-deer gates" on public bathrooms.
And then the real shenanigans started.  Daniel and Ahmed are both in the international student organization AIESEC, so they had made contact with the local chapter in Hiroshima to meet some of their members for Okonomiyaki dinner.  We invited them to come drinking with us.  (And by come drinking, I mean buy whiskey and drink in the park).  Everyone said, no, we really shouldn't.  But the next day would be Morippi's birthday, so we leveraged that excuse and we used peer pressure (GAIJIN SMASH) to make them do it anyway.

Before shenanigans, enjoying Okonomiyaki (kinda like fried cabbage pancakes, and adding grilled noodles is a Hiroshima specialty)
Drunk people decided to set up the tent so as to drink inside it.  But drunk people are not good at setting up tents.

The tent was intended for 4, although turns out it quite comfortably sleeps 7.  Everyone missed their train and slept in our tent.  Except for Morippi, who decided to sleep face-down in the flower gardens.  He woke up, covered in mud and not remembering anything, and described it "like being reborn in the wilderness".

Ahmed was chipper in the morning.  Poor Dorai was not.
Once we finished in Hiroshima, we cleaned up in a internet cafe (they have showers for all the smelly NEETs) and decided we needed to pick up the pace if we were going to make it Kyushu.

We took a local train away from downtown to where we could find a highway entrance, which led to one of the more hilarious encounters of the trip.  We got off in this very quiet, very suburban neighborhood that probably never sees foreigners.  The station attendants were staring at us blankly.  We were reading a local map on the wall and discussing in English the best route to get to to the highway, with one station attendant standing nearby and looking deeply, deeply concerned.  But he said nothing and just watched.  When I finally spoke out to him in Japanese, explaining what we were doing here and asked about the highway, he had such a profound look of relief.

Took a long time to get a ride - I began to fear my increasing beardiness was scaring them all way.

Eventually picked up a ride to Yamaguchi, a pretty sizable trek, from Awkward Dad and Awkward Son.  They were on their way back to Yamaguchi but didn't offer much else than that.  In fact, they didn't really talk to us at all.  Usually the initial explanation about hitchhiking leads very smoothly to lots of conversation, but after we discussed the route Awkward Dad clammed up.  It seemed like trying to start more chatter would be a nuisance so I didn't push it.  But Awkward Dad and Awkward Son didn't talk to each other either.  Most of the drivers we had were incredibly nice for no reason, but this is the only driver that gave the impression we were putting a terrible obligation on him.

This also led to the closest brush with disaster of the trip - I explained we would like to be dropped off at any sort of highway rest stop instead of Yamaguchi itself.  He offered us a stop about 50 km before Yamaguchi, and I asked if there were any highway stops further west that might be an option.  I guess this was a failure of communication on my part, but he took us to a highway intersection just outside of Yamaguchi.  It was really just a juncture between the big highway and smaller local roads.  No sidewalks, no lights, NO CONVENIENCE STORES.  It was dark and raining.  I envisioned myself starving to death in Yamaguchi, the most uninteresting place to die.  Assuming I didn't get hit by a truck first. 

Daniel and I scouted ahead to see if there might be a more suitable location to flag the next car, while Ahmed stayed behind at the intersection.  Miraculously, he flagged down Guardian Angel Grandpa by himself.  But Ahmed speaks no Japanese, so he called me, and gestured for Guardian Angel to take the phone

GA Grandpa was going in the opposite direction, but turned around to get us to a real rest stop on the route we wanted.  I tried to reimburse him the extra highway tolls he went through, but of course he refused.  This place had warm food and running water and space to pitch the tent.  We were already hitting 9 pm so figured out chances of getting the next ride were slim to none, but we were happy to be not dead and not in Yamaguchi.

Somehow, within 30 minutes, we managed to grab a small car driven by young newlyweds on their way from Hiroshima to a festival in Fukuoka (KYUSHU!!).  They got such a kick out of us with our sign that they immediately uploaded it to facebook.
(My only regret is that the car of 3 hot girls headed to Fukuoka was too small to pick up 3 hitchhikers)
We arrived in Fukuoka past around midnight and I was overwhelmed.  Its glitzy, its shiny, its a city that parties all night.  Doubly so considering we arrived in the middle of the weekend-long Dontaku Minato Festival.  And we got off right in the middle of the party district.

As we wandered and looked for a place to pitch the tent, we started to notice the provocatively dressed women--standing as if waiting for something--stationed at regular intervals on the street.  And the men with the feathered hair and fancy suits handing out business cards for clubs.  When one of these women offered to Daniel "how about a threeway", it became very clear what kind of district we had discovered.  Whoops.

But then we met The Demon King.  After a series of such misadventures, we ended up in Ohori park to sleep.  It was surprisingly active with late night joggers, but we found the perfect spot far away from main paths and secluded by trees.  There was a tarp construct nearby, but we assumed it must be for storing park equipment.  Ahmed peeked inside and saw nothing, so we figured it was okay.  I joked, that's where they've sealed away the demons.

As I unpacked the tent, Daniel tripped on a pipe, suddenly making a loud noise, and the tarp yelled "BLARHGSSPHFSHDFH".  We froze.  Tarp yells again, in a violent strain of Japanese.  Nobody dared to move.  I hissed at Ahmed under my breath to shine the flashlight on the scattered tent bits.  As silently as I could, I scooped up the tent bits and hoped I didn't miss any, and we hightailed it out of there.  Even after getting far far away with no signs of pursuit, everyone was on edge.  We set up the tent elsewhere and promised never to speak of the Demon King again, lest it invoke his wrath.  But all night, I could hear in the distance the sound of a park maintenance man sweeping leaves, sounding suspiciously like somebody shuffling ever nearer in search of vengeance.  Suffice it to say, I did not sleep well that night.

At 6 am, a park security guard cheerfully called out "ohayo gozaimasu" from the outside of our tent.  When my bleary-eyed and not-Japanese face popped out, he was a little shocked.  But he kindly told us we couldn't camp there--he had found us last night but decided to let us stay until morning, but we really had to pack up and go.  This was the only time we encountered an issue with camping in public parks -- I always read the lists of prohibited activities but not one specifically mentioned camping.

Our first plan for the day was the Moomooland Ranch.  The information at the booth gave us wildly inaccurate directions (the bus will take 30 minutes and get you there directly, she said.  The route and stop she told us took an hour and dropped us off a 20 minute drive from the ranch.)  And of course there's no street signs in Japan to figure it out from there.  We walked in the general direction, asking directions as we went.  But Guardian Angel Grandpa #2 overheard us asking directions, and offered to drive us.  So, we hitchhiked one more time without even meaning to.

Moomooland was lovely.  We ate strawberries and ice cream and fed goats and pet sheep and went down the slide and ate more ice cream and the goats did goaty things and it was perfect.
Japanese children study hard to get into hahvahd.
Made it back in time to see all sorts of performances and the parade for the Dontaku Festival.
I can't explain this but its actually a thing.

That guy blowing a plastic cone is my favorite member of that marching band.
We figured our remaining time was slim enough that we didn't want to gamble on getting a ride, so we took a local train to Kumamoto.  We had enough time to see Kumamoto Castle in the morning before jumping on a local train all the way back to Hiroshima that day and then all the way to Tokyo the next.
Our final camp site was perfect - quiet and secluded and overlooking the river.
The return trip was much less eventful, mainly a lot of time reading on trans.  I did continue to make friends with old people (my specialty) when Genkigenki Grandpa started talking to me on the train from Hiroshima to Kobe.  He was part of a club that gets together to hike alongside rivers up to their sources, and on the recent trip they had covered something like 50 km a day.  The average age of the group was around 60, and he was well over that, but didn't act it.

Before long I was invited to sit in the priority seats with them.  (I tried to give the seats to the elderly as I'm told you're supposed to, but they wouldn't let me.)  When I happened to pull out my notebook to check my transfer, he saw that I had written place names in kanji, and was so shocked/excited that I could read kanji that he had to show it to all the other old people.  This of course led to playing the "give written things to the foreigner and see if he can read them" game.  They showed some articles about their group and the trip they had been on, and they were most amazed when I could properly read 遡及 (although truthfully I only knew the reading for that word because the last article had included its spelling in furigana).  They then asked a random young person nearby if he could read 遡及, and he couldn't, and the old guys further celebrated how smart and awesome I was.  I love old people.

But in the end, the great thing about hitchhiking was the emotional intensity of everything.  In the long stretches when we couldn't get a ride, I would imagine how foolish this trip was, and all the horrible things that could go wrong.  But finally getting a ride would be the highest elation imaginable.  Its not something I could do often, and such extreme emotional swings were pretty taxing, but it made for a fine adventure.