Friday, December 30, 2005

Blind Dates

Hair neatly parted? Check. Nostrils and teeth free of debris? Check. Plentiful supply of invigorating Frisk peppermints? Check. It was time for my first goukon.

Satoshi’s friend had arranged everything. I would meet them outside of Shinjuku station, exit A13 (there are, after all, about 50). I had traded mangled text messages with Satoshi for the past two weeks, but forgot what he looked like. We only met once in passing at a party and exchanged numbers. Now we and two other guys were going to meet four girls for drinks, dinner and a possible first step towards lifelong romance.

Goukon is a Japanese-style group date involving equal numbers of guys and girls, often the type that struggle to find their own dates beyond a structured invitation from an equally desperate friend.

Maei, Maki, Mariko and Eriko were waiting in the basement-level restaurant’s private booth. I removed my shoes and climbed in. We began introductions as our drinks arrived. Aside from names, I understood and said very little. One of the guys spoke some English, but other than that I could only express common interests with Eriko by repeating hip-hop stars on her Sony mp3 player.

Maki had the looks and the piercings – 19 of them, in fact. Not all were visible. “I want to see them later,” I blurted out in Japanese. Sometimes I forget my audience is not always adolescent males. She looked older than the other girls, perhaps early 30s, but I wasn’t one to guess. I was surprised to learn that Satoshi, who looked 23, was actually 33.

He was also on his third glass of shochu (whisky and water) before I had broken apart chopsticks to sample the appetizing raw tuna slices drizzled with peanut butter and clover sauce, or that’s what it looked like.

Perhaps impairment caused Satoshi to call Maei “Maria,” who grunted at the affront. She was a piggish girl with an attitude, and scowled at him all night. She also divulged that her mother owned a restaurant in Tochigi prefecture where horsemeat was the specialty. It was apparently very cheap. I double-checked to make sure I interpreted correctly. Yes, the horsemeat came with egg and ginger sauce. I’m not sure if the eggs were on the side or in the sauce, but I was glad we weren’t eating in Tochigi.

While Japanese flew all around me, I dove into buta no kakuni ni boi, or boiled pork squares, which don’t sound much better than horsemeat, but were heavenly. With the girls nothing special, at least I had an endless supply of pre-ordered food arriving at the table.

Later in the evening a woman slid open our booth’s shoji, a paper door with wooden frame. She dropped off promotional cigarettes in green and pink packs. A nicotine-like rush came over me as I thought about owning my first pack. While I would never buy one based on principle, I’ll take anything free and targeted at me, even cancer sticks.

Satoshi, who smoked as much as he drank, had other ideas. He gave all of the pink packs to Maria, and kept the green ones for himself. He knew the American didn’t smoke, but where was his Japanese sense of obligatory hospitality?

The best part of the goukon was periodically changing places. This clever twist ensured a mixing of the group in case you initially sat next to Mariko, who had less to say than I did. Changing places also enabled me to devour the untouched plate of pork squares at the other end of the table.

Although all seven of us except Satoshi started off with beer, by the end of the evening I was one of only two such drinkers left. The others had switched to shochu or mixed concoctions. Warned about last call, Satoshi ordered an extra round. This happened twice more, with drinks coming before the previous ones were finished. Maria hoarded three full glasses, and was talking loudly across the table at Satoshi.

I was stuffed, but slid chocolate cake onto my plate. You can’t eat and drink this well for ¥6000 ($51)/person in New York.

When I returned from the restroom, I asked Satoshi where the girls had gone. I struggled to understand that they had left without saying goodbye. Satoshi wasn’t ready to call it a night, and in his thirst hailed us a cab to an Irish pub.

Students were keen to know of my Japanese experience. Perhaps next time I should listen to their suggestions. As one 9th grade girl advised, “Don’t go on a goukon. The girls are pathetic.”

Monday, December 26, 2005

Jam-Packed Road Trip

Japanese mass transit is predictable to the minute, and its workers don’t have pension issues (right, New York?). However, cattle cars are a predictably boring and hectic means of movement. I was eager to trade darkened tunnels with unpleasant odors for the freedom of an automobile with fresh air on the open road.

Shuichi, the English student of my American friend Michelle, would chauffeur with his own wheels. Would our getaway vehicle be one of the 10 I cited as having head-scratching names? The side door automatically rolled opened on the white 2003 Honda Stepwgn, which might hve mde my tp 20.

Michelle packed typical Japanese road trip fare: squid jerky, octopus bits, and sweet potato soft chew sticks. I had the foresight to bring two “international-style” CD mixes of top 40 hits. Otherwise, Michelle and I were poised to commit double suicide in the back seat as O-zone’s hit single “Ma Ya Hi” was stuck on repeat during the 45 minutes were circled around trying to find the Shuto expressway out of Tokyo.

The confusion was in spite of a GPS system onboard, an indispensable gadget for anyone daring to drive to an address in this city. While such systems in American cars display the nearest Six Flags or Burger King, Japanese GPS pinpoints soba noodle shops and ubiquitous convenience stores.

I quickly grew nostalgic for being pressed up against dark-suited strangers. Monday was a holiday, so you’d think that by Sunday morning people would have already headed for the hills. Not the case in a country where 7pm is early to leave work, even on a Saturday. I learned a new word on this trip: jutai. It means traffic, of which we faced 24 kilometers (15 miles) worth.

Not even purple Etc. toll lanes (think E-ZPass) could speed up the trip. Two mixes proved insufficient, and O-zone came back on with a vengeance. I love Romanian dancepop just as much as the next guy, but it’s best in small doses. Really, really, really small doses.

Traffic snarled again at the gateway to the Izu Peninsula, a popular getaway for its onsen, or thermal hot springs. Route 135’s one-lane roads hugging the coast were illuminated with red brake lights.

After a sumptuous feast (click right for a yummy close-up) and relaxing night on futons in a traditional ryokan inn and scenic sightseeing the next day, I anticipated a long haul back to Tokyo Monday night.

Night fell on the Shuto expressway, but all was not dark. Brake lights shined 40 kilometers (25 miles) towards Tokyo.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Very Jewish Christmas

At Kanokita, where the kids have no appetite for learning, Mr. Mochizuki passed the buck to me to answer more interviewing-the-foreigner questions to eat up class time. “How to celebrate Christmas in your home country” was first on a handwritten ditto entitled: “Let’s Enjoy!!! Mr. Jef retraces himself.”

Mr. Jef introduced the subject with skilled drawings in colored chalk. Students recognized the ornamented Christmas tree and gift-wrapped presents beneath it. So far, so good. But confusion ensued when they identified sleigh-riding Santa as a snowman. To clarify, I sketched a chimney and fireplace, and added directional arrows showing Santa’s path from the sleigh down the chimney to deliver presents under the tree. But further explanation was needed. The fireplace mantle was not adorned with a plate of rice crackers or pizza. The glass was not filled with coffee, juice, champagne, shochu or sake.

One dark Tuesday, I regurgitated this 50-minute lesson four times in a row. My holiday spirit soured by the fourth class. I lit the fireplace logs and redrew a cross-section of the chimney with a bulge and dangling legs. Poor Santa. While Mr. Mochizuki translated, I fanned the flames, which shot up and singed Saint Nick and ignited the “Christmas socks” hanging from the mantle. Soon, tree tinsel was ablaze. Some boys were giggling. I wasn’t taking any prisoners this holiday season.

I drew a reindeer. The girls whimpered upon learning that I had eaten one (yes, a kebab in Finland). Shock turned to horror as I drove home the point by sketching Rudolph’s forehead with a bite removed. I sliced open the body to add entrails spilling out in hastily rendered chalk. The bell shook me from my trance. The boys were still giggling. The girls hung their heads. I hung mine. What had I turned into?

That the day has religious roots was news to some. A few were surprised to learn that it marks Christ’s birthday, not Santa’s. One asked, "how old?" While Christmas is secularly celebrated in Japan, I sensed an opportunity to convert young minds to the joys of a new holiday. Not just one day of presents – but eight!

“Happy Chanukah!” I wrote on the board, emphasizing the guttural “ch.” Giggling resumed. “Hadaka?” one snickered. My religion’s holiday unfortunately sounds like the Japanese word for “naked.” I handed out a printout with images of menorahs, gelt and dreidels.

“Chocolate money [gelt] is delicious!” I cried, rubbing my tummy, hoping to jumpstart the class. Okay, Plan B: break out the games. “Do you know dreidel?” Someone echoed “jello,” another “judo.” For the 7th graders, I simplified the lesson into a Christmas dreidel game, dispensing with the whole Jewish thing altogether. The capacity of 13 year-olds to absorb a foreign topic in a foreign language is quite limited.

I divided each class into five groups, and distributed a dreidel to each. Familiar with Japanese koma counterparts, they only needed about 30 seconds of practice. Advanced dreidelers spun them upside down or on their foreheads.

I quickly switched to the competition phase where one member of each group spun his or her dreidel on the floor. The last one standing earned a pencil. Everyone gathered around to watch; students instantly took a liking to the Jewish koma game.

The release from textbooks, excitement of competition and promise of prizes turned class into a festive atmosphere. After the games, we merrily sang the dreidel song until time expired. Hook, line and sinker.

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Complaint

“Hey Jeff, do you have a sec?” It was Todd, the grey-haired jovial Australian head of my teaching placement agency. We were walking from our monthly teachers’ meeting to the company Christmas party at a nearby izakaya.

Meetings are a chance to compare notes, which for me means verifying that my students are indeed the worst in the ward. “Wow, none of my schools are like that,” Jon said upon hearing selected stories. “The craziest questions I get are marriage proposals.”

“Great, let’s walk ahead,” Todd suggested. Singled out, I tensed up. This wasn’t about a Christmas bonus or teacher of the month honors (both nonexistent at the agency). Thoughts raced as to what I had done wrong at school.

Masturbation sprung to mind. As the kids test out their adolescent vocabularies, I’ve worried that Japanese teachers have detected the dirty words and blatant hand gestures students greet me with, much to my embarrassment yet subtle encouragement.

For example, while checking on progress of blackboard copying, I moseyed over to one bad boy in the back of the room. “How big?” he said, pointing to my groin. Two erasers sat on his desk. I pointed to the jumbo one and said “American.” Then I pointed to the mini eraser and said “Japanese” before turning my back on the laughter and pacing down the aisle.

A class at Nubata the week after created more of a stir. It featured school pervert Ryoki, who has previously caught me off guard. Once morning bows were exchanged, the Japanese teacher, only two years my elder, asked me to recap Thanksgiving activities in New York.

I also had taught at this school the week of my departure. Once I passed pervert & co. in the stairwell.

“When are you going to New York?” Ryoki asked.
“I want a gift.”
“Okay, what?”

Pause. “Strawberry condom.”
His friends then clamored for lemon, grape, orange and Christmas (?) flavors.

Two sentences into my Thanksgiving shpiel, we made eye contact. Ryoki – sitting in the second row – flashed me the hand gesture for you know what. A snot ball flew out of my nose. Basting the turkey is one thing, but masturbation? I wheeled around to hide my laughter and use my sleeve as a tissue.

I regained direction and continued with less than perfect pronunciation while biting my tongue. “What did you eat on Thanksglivling Day?” the teacher asked in his normally mangled English.

“Pussy, pussy,” Ryoki whispered in Japanese. The teacher must have heard it, but didn’t react. Meanwhile, I was struggling to keep a straight face while listing the four kinds of pies I ate. “Oppai,” Ryoki moaned, deliberately confusing dessert with the Japanese word for breast.

The teacher quizzed comprehension about the pies’ names, and then asked if there were any questions. Ryoki’s hand shot up. He wanted to know what I had done in my house at night. In case I couldn’t take the hint, he made the gesture. I paused, falsely smiled, and said that I watched TV, which played right into his trap. “Oh, what kind of TV do you watch?” he snickered. The news. And no, not the Naked News. After class this brash boy approached me with one last question: where was his souvenir?

I digress.

“Jeff,” Todd began, “We’ve gotten an e-mail from a school saying that you’ve fallen asleep during class. Twice.” I shot him an are-you-kidding-me? look. “I know,” he continued, “I’ve been there in those over-heated rooms standing by waiting to be played as the human tape recorder.” Kenichi, the company co-head, caught up with us and flashed a nervous grin of stained black teeth.

“Honestly, Todd, I don’t know what they’re talking about.” Sleeping in class conjured up images of student heads buried face down in their arms on the desk. “I mean, I might have zoned out for 30 seconds, but I never fell asleep in class,” I added, leaving out the part about propping myself up against the back wall while fighting the weight of my eyelids. Damn gravity.

Todd’s tone was friendly; he was just checking up. Not that I’m worried if it happened. I’m confident I’ve been a good sensei and friend to the students in spite of the part-time salary and rent-an-English-teacher treatment I get from my Japanese counterparts.

On the other hand, who bothered reporting such a thing? Students get away with it all the time here. I narrowed suspicion down to two schools, and chose Ms. Shomatsu at Omiyada as the tattletale. Beneath superficial kindness lurks a history of her sweating the small stuff.

At the beginning of one such class, students nervously got her attention. This was unusual because they rarely break the mold and initiate dialogue with the teacher. But today they had something to show her. Something urgent. She walked over to where they were pointing at the floor and scowled in Japanese. My first thought was a mouse.

No, she returned to the front of the room holding a mini straw at the end of which was a hardened piece of chewing gum covered in dust. Back in the teachers’ room, she showed off the catch of the day as if it were a drug syringe. Somewhere, a report was written. Perhaps another e-mail.

I’m not here to make pals with the teachers. So long as the students are on my side, I’m happy. And if I did nod off, it goes to show just how boring teachers’ lessons really are.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Joys of Englisex

You know students are getting comfortable with you when they begin asking questions beyond the realm of grammar or “life in America.” Lately, hormones are at high tide in the 8th grade hallway of Nubata Junior High.

A wide-eyed boy ran over to me with two uniformed friends in tow. “Ohh Jefferee! Oh, ahh…do you know a masturbation?” I didn’t raise an eyebrow. I’ve now been asked this question more times than if I like natto.

It all started weeks ago. After lunch with the 9th graders, I followed some boys (see photo) onto the breezeway that connects the school to the gym. This is where the cool kids congregate to avoid post-lunch cleaning chores and kill time before fifth period. They just sit around, occasionally putting a shorter kid in a headlock.

A punky looking boy first popped the $25,000 question among middle schoolers. Immediately, all eyes were on sensei. How exactly was I supposed to respond? The line between mentor, friend and pervert is a slippery slope when you’re teaching minors. My response would set the tone for future interactions, and I didn’t want to open the flood gates of impropriety. So, how to respond without responding? Two years of legal assistant work had prepared me well for such a challenge.

Shiko-shiko?” I smiled. I simply translated “masturbation” into the vernacular. The boys fell over laughing. They couldn’t believe I had mastered the finer points of their language. “Yes, yes…can you do?” one asked. “Everyday?!” another piped up. “Sen-zuri manichi?” I fired back (literally, 1,000 rubs everyday?). Hysterics ensued. One boy demonstrated the international gesture with a jerk of his fist.

Unfortunately, addressing the subject in any form was grounds for further questioning — “Can you have sex?” “Is American wiener large?” “How big, how big?”

Also unfortunate was that three 9th grade girls had been drawn to the doorway by the noise. One girl wearing an eye patch and a toothy grin innocently imitated the gesture. “Oh, no, no no!” I said rushing over. Enjoying the attention, she pumped more vigorously while my mind raced for Japanese words to string together to convince her to stop.

Her friend – privy to its significance – shook her head, but left me to do damage control. Students were finishing up their cleaning. Another teacher might show up. I grabbed a broom and pumped it while sweeping the floor. “See, it’s a way to clean,” I said blushing with desperation. “Now cleaning time is over, so stop it.”

Although the 9th graders were the first to mention it, the 8th graders are the most inquisitive. A gang cornered me (see photo and hand placement of pervert on the right) in the hallway and tested out the English they didn’t learn in school. Behind their cherubic grins, Nubata School boys have dirty, curious little minds.

“Do you have any sex friends?…When do you watch adult video?…Sex machine!…Black penis man!…Do you have Christmas sex?…Christmas condom!” I swatted away the questions, but began to crack with laughter. A pimply-faced kid with a chipped tooth said, “My mom has a big penis!” I cracked. “Too young, too young!” I protested.

Another began, “Your mom….” I clenched a fist above his head in anticipation, but didn’t understand a word, and neither did the other boys crowding around me. The questioner scattered to the back of the group in embarrassment.

Another boy stepped up to face me. “Do you girl virgin, girl no virgin?” I lunged for his collar, but he ducked. A different one popped up like in that arcade game where you bop rodents with a padded mallet. He pointed to the one who had just disappeared: “He hair has just now.”

ENOUGH!” I roared, fighting my way out of the crowd that continued tagging along at my hip.

They’re a tough bunch to shake. One day a group of 8th graders were leaving school just as I was. It didn’t take long for the topic to come up. Their smiling faces were brimming with questions. I let them entertain me while refraining from becoming the uncomfortable educator.

I seek refuge from oversexed middle school minds on the fourth floor. The 7th graders don’t know enough English to verbalize adolescent sentiments. Or so I thought. The normally mild-mannered Subaru (the boy, not the car) approached me with one thing on his mind: “Ehh, do…ehh…you know ahh masturbation?” Send help. Word is spreading.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Mr. Nishono

Familiar shuffling approached my desk in Omiyada School’s teachers' room. I didn’t look up from my book. I knew what I’d see. Mussed salt-and-pepper hair crowning a man with a wrinkled work shirt two sizes too big for his wiry frame. Stringy hair failing to conceal the bald spot creeping forward. Bifocals sliding off the end of a freckled nose. If after lunch, forgotten crumbs clinging to the corners of his mouth. It was time for class with Mr. Nishono.

A fellow English teacher didn’t even know his given name when introducing me on my first day. The students don’t either; they call him hage (bald) behind his back. The hair that remains reminds me of a frayed steel wool pad.

I’m handed a “teaching plan.” It reads, “This class is full of underachievers.” However, Mr. Nishono adds that they are not all “in bad condition” like the class he once abruptly cancelled my services because of their misbehavior the day before. He always does his best to shield me: “First, you wait here while I prepare the lesson.” I read for 10 more minutes while he attempts to subdue the eighth graders.

No such luck. Once permitted to enter the room, I’m instructed to make “daily conversation to each student.” I ask them basic questions like the date, weather or favorite color. These warm-up exercises prove too complex for some.

First up is a boy with a grating voice whom I try to avoid. When we pass in the corridor, he yelps monkey noises loud enough to disturb teachers down the hall. In response to “Hello, how are you?” he recited a list of fruit juices. His writing is no better. I pointed out that his a’s look like u’s. “Yes very much fine thank you!” he boomed.

The rest of Mr. Nishono’s lesson plan leaves less margin for student creativity:
“You Read (P 32) when I ask you to (students listen).
You Read new words when I ask you to (students repeat).
You Read (P. 32) when I ask you to (students listen).
You Read (P32) – students repeat (Phrase by Phrase).
I teach.
(Ending reading)
You read (P 32)”
I leave class knowing P 32 by heart.

Another week’s teaching plan is also prefaced with a warning: “They are very mischievous class.” I couldn’t wait. The textbook pictured an overweight, unmistakably American lacrosse high school player. Not being a lacrosse sportsman myself, Mr. Nishono decided that I should “please relax” on the sidelines.

I observed the girls paying some attention, but the boys didn’t even have their books open, except for one – a Japanese novel. Behind him a kid fiddled with rounded magnets to form a snake that slithered across his desk with polar attraction.

Others were fashioning fighting sticks out of rolled paper featuring a girl with an anti-drug message. They passed around tape and scissors, with one crafting a ball out of tape. I sat at an empty desk in the back jotting everything down.

Then suddenly sensei stepped out for a few minutes. I assumed control, and plucked a sword off a student’s desk. I turned from the protesting boy to face the student patching together the tape ball. “Batter up!” I cried, managing several swings before Mr. Nishono returned with dittos he had forgotten.

Recently, absent-minded Nishono embraced the holiday cheer with a class sing-a-long to “Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Heavily accented British children caroled on CD. The words completely stumped the Japanese children, whose vocabularies didn’t include “good tidings to you and your kin.” Figgy pudding stumped me. Mr. Nishono blindly hummed along, and pushed repeat to extend everyone’s confusion.

By the fourth go-around, a girl cranked up the volume and positioned her ears next to the stereo. I gasped as one boy jabbed a blunt box cutter blade into another’s uniform. On autopilot, Mr. Nishono just kept humming, his bifocals glued to a page of lyrics he couldn’t articulate. I moved away from the blasting Christmas music to spy on a boy drawing. It was a cartoon caricature of me.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

I Don’t Know What You Did Last Summer

Last year an unfounded rumor that Douyoto school was going to close spooked off parents who can send their junior high school aged children to any school in the district. As a result, half the usual number of seventh graders matriculated. Although the student body of 280 is the smallest of my four schools, it felt overwhelming when faced with correcting their English compositions about “My Summer Vacation.”

This was the first writing I’ve seen students do beyond copying down the board. The result was amusing on first read, but painful thereafter to correct. Sometimes the Japanese English teacher couldn't figure out what the students were trying to say in the accompanying Japanese. Here’s the best of the worst:

I was Yoyogi Park Festival play the drum.
Many people was Festival come.
I was rest yakisoba eat.
Last all play.
Play the rice eat.
Come back was confectionary.
I can tense a well good fine.

I was going to look the Festival
My friend a strike drum a festival
My friend a drum strike figure very fashionable.
After that going a stand food buy a lot of things.
I have very good time.

I was went to Hakone in July.
I was arrived at Hakone noon.
I was lurch at the lesterant.
After that going Hakone Sekisho.
After that a music box museum
I was a very have a good time.

I went to Aichi Expo on our school trip. The most impressive pavillion was Mitsubishi Future Pavillion.
It was a place, the earth without a moon. The place I can’t imagine, all day long was eight times end even hard wind blow even not forest’s and oxygen almost pass away, even human being wasn’t born. So the moon is very important.

I wasn’t able to go to the famous pavilions. Because Aichi Expo was filled with people. There wasn’t more interesting than I imagined. It was very interesting for me to play with my friends whole night. Hiroki, Tatsunari and Sachioweje my room. We knew whole night isn’t allow but we did it. We drank coffee, watched TV, talked about each other’s secret and made a noise. This trip made me happy, and it made my precious memories too.

Friday, December 02, 2005

’Tis the Season

for warm butts. On the way to work, I snagged a seat when the doors opened at Kinshicho station’s outdoor platform. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. And then one stop later, I noticed a pleasant sensation. My buns were roasting. The carriage’s air wasn’t noticeably heated, but the padded seats sure were.

But they weren’t yesterday, and I sat on the same train, in the same car. Outside highs remained mild – 50s and low 60s F. What had changed? The calendar. Now that it’s December and officially winter, heating is switched on in trains and in classrooms. School hallways and bathrooms, however, remain out of bounds, and freezing. The open windows don’t help either.

Outside temperature is irrelevant. The calendar guides dress code and indoor climate control. According to the government, summer starts on June 1. In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the “Cool Biz” initiative mandated that office air conditioning not be turned below 28 C (82 F), and suggested that suit jackets and ties be left at home. Summer ends September 30, and in October “Warm Biz” kicks in. Heaters are not to be cranked above 20 C (68 F).

Once the October page is torn off, Burberry-inspired scarves come out in force, coiled around the necks of schoolgirls despite it not being cold enough for a jacket (or pants – as the girls continue to trot around with exposed shins in their all-season skirts). Although an accessory, scarves have become an all but mandatory part of the fashionable winter work uniform for schoolchildren and many adults.

Inside the train, warmth radiated from my seat. I felt like cuddling with the two OLs (office ladies) flanking me, locking my arm underneath their elbow, nodding off on a shoulder, and riding the rails out to Chiba prefecture.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Rumors Were True

I was wrong. The kids were right (see previous blog). I was on TV Sunday night. My face was plastered on primetime, beamed into millions of tiny Japanese homes, including the bedrooms of middle schoolers mesmerized that their sensei doubled as a TV star.

A strange phone call from Kai at Jupiter modeling agency caused me to reverse my conviction that the kids had mistaken my identity. “Jeff-san, I need to get your bank information so that we can pay you ¥3000 in January.”

Caught so off guard, I almost played along. “Umm…actually, you don’t owe me anything. I never did a job for you.” I think I should know. I mean, how could I possibly have appeared on TV in absentia?

Apparently quite easily. All the network needed was a headshot that the agency snapped when I registered in August. Because there is no actors’ guild or modeling union, my likeness can be exploited like a cheap commodity. You play by industry rules, and this network required confidentiality as to which faces had been selected until after airing.

Kai explained that I appeared on TV Asahi’s popular quiz show “iQ.” Japanese contestants are challenged in a game of memory featuring pictures of foreigners. “For Japanese, cannot recognize foreigners – they look the same. Your face came after a German.”

I won’t have to imagine the pained expressions and wild gesticulations of Japanese contestants stumped when faced to recall foreigners. I hope to obtain a complimentary DVD copy of the program. However, part of me feels like a pawn used – without my knowledge or consent – as a means to an end: to boost ratings through humiliation of outsiders. On the other hand, that’s the most effortless $25 I’ll ever pocket.

Monday, November 28, 2005


Progress has been slow and all too painful. But seven months into my Japan adventures, I’ve finally found adequate back support for the hours I spend sitting on the computer. From a backbreaking wooden stool to its thinly padded Valentine’s Day kitschy cousin, meet the end-all, be-all: a plush yet robust wooden chair purchased from Muji.

Seat cushions have evolved, too. The latest and comfiest also hails from Muji, and fits squarely on the newest furnishing gracing my 140 square foot palace. This form-fitting foam padding and sturdy lumber chair hopefully spell an end to lumbar agony during lengthy blogging and e-mailing sessions. Now, if I could only do something about those curtains….

In unrelated news, my return to Tokyo after an enjoyable respite in New York was marred by an unusual bomb scare not far from where I work. I first found out about it from Yahoo! news headlines. Don’t miss the other latest national “news” links following the article.

And finally, I need to put an end to some speculation. No, I was not on TV Asahi’s quiz show Sunday night. I let down about a dozen excited Omiyada students today, including one who was “100% sure” that it was I. Perhaps the imposter is the one siphoning my lucrative modeling audition calls. I am placing a ¥1000 ($8.50) bounty for any information leading to his whereabouts.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Nikko IS Nippon

Like Kamakura and Kyoto, Nikko is a foreigner’s idealized conception of Japan. Ornate temples, traditional shrines, sculptural trees, and moss-covered statues make it a storybook setting of a bygone era – the early 17th century to be exact. The Nikko-San’nai area is one of Japan’s 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and in autumn Nikko’s structural beauty is matched only by the vivid landscape.

A scheduling error allowed me to ditch a day of policing Kanokita’s underachievers and instead tour Nikko’s tranquil temples in peak kouyo (literally, “leaves turning red”) season. Nikko was in full bloom in November, a month after the Lake Chuzenji trip.

An older Japanese man asked to sit beside me on the early morning Nikko-bound train that first stopped in Tochigi, his home. Eager to speak English, he shared a throat lozenge and stories from visiting New York five years ago. I asked what he was doing in Tokyo overnight. Apparently, his pension didn’t give him enough money to “play.” I raised my eyebrows when he told me that he drove a taxi in Tokyo “twice a day in one week.”

To come across a driver who speaks English is like finding a seat on the Yamanote Line. Not that I’ve ever tried asking around, as the meter starts at more than my bento box dinner costs – ¥660 ($5.60). The size and jumbled layout of metropolitan Tokyo has got to make it the world’s most challenging taxi driver job.

Yet, I broke free of this congested city for another refreshing outing in the countryside. The air was crisp, but the sun warmed my hands. The sky was blue. The leaves were red, yellow, orange, and green. Sunshine illuminated fall in its most colorful moment while I wandered around some of Japan’s most acclaimed attractions.

Rinno-ji. My first stop included Eastern Japan’s largest wooden structure, Three Buddha Hall, which houses – you got it – three large golden statues inside.

Five-Storied Pagoda. This is another postcard image of Nikko. I also saw a great marketing opportunity for Vodafone to increase its spotty coverage by converting the spire into a cell tower.

Futarasan Shrine. Nikko’s oldest structure (rebuilt in 1619) is dedicated to the area’s three holy mountains, including Nantai-san. The forest backdrop was especially peaceful.

Tosho-Gu. With 55 buildings, this complex is the largest and home to perhaps Nikko’s most famous feature – woodcarvings of monkeys above the Sacred Stables. The three monkeys that depict the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” principle of Tendai Buddhism are better known than the prime minister. Let’s just say that the hype is just that; I prefer their San Francisco counterparts.

Taiyuin-Byo. Tomb of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, is a damn good place to rest in peace. The mausoleum is a grandiose yet impeccably designed complex on the forested edge of Nikko. The afternoon sunlight percolated through towering cedars hiding this jewel. When my number is up, someone please dig a hole for me here.

Shin-Kyo. This vermillion icon, the Sacred Bridge of Nikko, is in reality a puny disappointment. Rather than pay to cross its 100-meter expanse, I opted to photograph it from the shoulder of the four-lane highway running beside it.

I quickly moved on to Kanman Ga Fuchi. This is an easy hiking trail through a Stone Park lined with weathered statues of Jizo, the guardian of deceased and unborn children, pregnant women, and travelers. The adjacent river completed the timeless setting.
Tourism posters proclaim “Nikko IS Nippon [Japan].” Nikko wo minakereba “kekkoh” to iu na is a famous expression that translates to “Don’t say ‘magnificent’ until you’ve seen Nikko.” Another dimension to this Japanese pun is “See Nikko and say ‘enough.’” I say, Juu-ichi gatsu no Nikko wa gen so tekki desu. Nikko in November is magical.

Blogger’s Note: I’m leaving all things Japan behind for one week to celebrate Thanksgiving in New York. Sayonara bento box, it’s turkey time! Expect the next entry to appear after 11/28.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Lake in the Mountains: Chuzenjiko

Nostalgic of New Hampshire autumns, I ventured two hours north of Tokyo to the temple-studded town of Nikko. Bestowed with UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999, Nikko is also a gateway to a large National Park.

Nikko’s leaves were still green in mid-October, so my Japanese friend Makiko and I pushed another hour west into the mountainous Lake Chuzenji region, about 1270 meters (4167 ft.) above sea level. The coach bus navigated Irohazaka winding road and its 30 hairpin curves. Trees ringing the lake, however, were only just beginning to bare their fall coats.

Nearby roared Kegon no taki, considered one of the three most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. Water cascaded 97 meters (318 ft.) into the mist below. Instead of taking the traditional leap like lovers with no prospect of marriage, we hopped aboard another bus to transport us 15 miles deeper and higher up into the woods.

Our pursuit of peak foliage ended at Kotoku Onsen. We followed a trail lined with birch trees. The air was redolent of wet bark. I inhaled the scents of fall. Finally, I had found nature in Japan, and escaped the endless urban landscape of concrete apartment buildings that matches October’s overcast skies.

The dirt path led to an elevated track through the woods. The trees thinned to reveal a field walled in by mountains ablaze in seasonal color. A cloud belt encircled the midsection of Nantai-san (2484 m., 8150 ft.). This sacred mountain is the topographical godfather of the region. Now an extinct volcano, its lava flows created Lake Chuzenji by damming up a river.

Sunshine pierced fast-moving storm clouds to ignite the dried pampass grass field of Senjogahara. The wheat-like stalks contrasted with the dramatic patchwork of color in the mountains. Birch trees rose from these alpine marshlands in the watchful shadow of Nantain-san. These shirakamba are known as “noble women” of Senjogahara plateau. Their slender, white figures make shirakamba a fitting description. I could have spent the whole afternoon soaking up a setting reminiscent of New England.

A school trip of spirited 11-year-olds was taking the same hike. For once, the kids were clad in their choice of mismatched sportswear, and not school uniforms that make them look like naval cadets. My passive serenity as a day hiker disappeared. The shift to energetic schoolteacher was automatic. We traded greetings in both languages, and I handed out a few high-fives. A boy wearing a Yakult Swallows hat grinned when I began rattling off their roster. “Now I know what you are like in school,” Makiko smiled.

Ryuzu Falls marked the end of our forest wandering, and the beginning of a late afternoon downpour. Ryuzu’s water flows 210 meters (689 ft.) and feeds Lake Chuzenji. The deck from a nearby teahouse provided views of the foot of the falls, where rocks split the stream of water. The formation is said to resemble the head of a dragon, from which the falls take their name.

The hike worked up an appetite. The local specialty of yuba, thin layers of coiled bean curd, was a meaty supplement to ramen. Makiko said the succulent skewers of yakitori were among the best she’s had. For dessert, it was blueberry soft serve and a bag of addictive potato chips for the train ride home. Flavored with rich Hokkaido butter, they are only available during fall, so I’ve begun stocking up for the long winter ahead.

Foliage is the best thing about fall. To seek nature is the best reason to leave Tokyo. It wouldn’t be long before I returned to visit Nikko itself.

Take a hike! Well, a virtual one.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Kids Say the Darn’dest Things

After about 50 self-introductions, I’ve finally finished introducing myself to all classes at the four junior high schools. It only took six months. I’ve compiled the top 20 questions they asked following my self-introduction. Their provocative queries and my honest responses are below:

20. What is your best time in the 100-meter dash?
19. What’s your salary?
18. Who is the prettiest teacher at this school?
Next question, please. [What I wanted to say: They’re all over the hill, so the prize goes to the principal’s 25-year-old acne-cheeked secretary who dresses in skimpy bedclothes.]
17. Do you own a gun?
No, but in Thailand I shot a crossbow at a jackfruit.
16. Is it true that it is prohibited to wear a hood in front of black people?
Unless it’s a white hood, you’ve been watching too much terebi.
15. Is English of black people different?
Hip-hop music video lyrics may not match vocabulary contained within your Let’s Talk textbook.
14. Have you met Arnold Schwarzenegger?
No, but does Bill Clinton count?
13. How did you get so tall?
By studying so hard, my brain grew and so did the rest of my body.
12. What are the positives and negatives of having a high nose?
Probably the same as having slanty eyes.
11. Have you ever seen a UFO?
No UFOs, but betcha didn’t know your teacher was an illegal alien.
10. Do you like our class more than your mother?
No, my mom makes me delicious smoothies.
9. Where was your first kiss?
[Ruled taboo by Japanese teacher.]
8. What kind of woman do you like?
[Scanning brain for PG-13 adjectives]…I like a smart woman.
7. At what temperature do you have your bath?
I take showers, but thanks.
6. Do you like whisky?
5. Chicken, beef, or pork?
Pork, but I try to keep kosher.
4. Can you eat five cakes in one day?
You know, not all Americans are pigs.
3. What is your blood type?
Unsure. [Blood type here indicates compatibility or personality, like a zodiac sign].
2. I want to go to New York. What is your telephone number?
In New York or Tokyo? 080-30**-**** [cut off by Japanese teacher].
1. Will you marry me if I become the Prime Minister of Japan?
Mochiron! Of course!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Halloween: Octopus, Medusa and Manslaughter

Holidays offer the chance to substitute the usual textbook drivel with creative lessons. In Japan, Halloween passes with little fanfare, except for at establishments catering to boozing foreigners. With some students only vaguely aware of the traditions, I kicked off classes by bringing the ghoulish cast of characters to life through colored chalk.

This created immediate cross-cultural confusion. After I sketched a ghost, a boy shouted out “octopus,” so I added feet, only to draw more laughs – ghosts in Japan don't have them. I guess that’s also true of their American counterparts. Students guessed “bones” for my rendition of a skeleton. I then explained the superstition of black cats, which happens to be the name and logo of a parcel delivery service here.

A witch flying on a broomstick by moonlight was easily identified, so I went a step further to rile up the crowd. Straddling a broom borrowed from the class cleaning closet, I hopped across the room letting lose a high-pitched cackle. Even the sleeping kids (there’s always one or two) awoke to see the commotion. One boy in the front row started crying because he couldn’t stop laughing.

Trick-or-treating posed a challenge to explain. I acted it out by weaving a garbage pail through the aisles of desks, knocking on a few to ask for chocolate and candy. I got only blank stares in return, so the Japanese English teacher stepped in to translate.

At Kanokita School, Mr. Mochizuki shared a grisly Halloween story from 1992 when a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student in a white disco costume rang the wrong doorbell in search of a Halloween party in Baton Rouge. The startled proprietor yelled, “freeze,” but the boy mistook the command for “please,” and approached the man wielding a .44 Magnum, which he unloaded into the trespasser’s chest.

This tragedy reinforces the Japanese stereotype of trigger-happy Americans. Mr. Mochizuki was always dredging up the issue of guns in America, and capitalized on an incident that hit close to home to prove American barbarism. Arms folded, I held back disgruntlement and leaned against the door, watching young grins turn upside-down. We all gasped at the story’s exclamation point: 31-year-old Rodney Peairs was acquitted of manslaughter.

I regained the floor and quickly shifted gears to build up anticipation for the unveiling of my Halloween costume, a Rastafarian wig friends purchased while vacationing in Jamaica. Scattered cheers answered my call for, “Do you want to see my costume?” so I excused myself and ducked into the hallway to throw on dreadlocks. I looked both ways to avoid embarrassment in front of Halloween-unaware teachers, or worse, district education officials on the lookout for signs of progress in the chaos at Kanokita.
What the heck was sensei wearing on his head? The puzzling costume produced amusing guesses, most commonly that I was a girl. Other mistaken identities included, Mexico, Medusa, and tree roots. One girl was in favor of the new look: “it suits you,” she said. The girls wanted to touch my locks while the boys wanted to try on the wig, which played perfectly into my plan of getting photo-ops.

The dreads shed and scratched, but I kept the wig on for the duration of the class for amusement’s sake. I tied the hair into a bun to get it off my shoulders. Sometimes I pretended to eat it. Sticking a dreadlock inside each nostril was a crowd pleaser.

In religious holiday news, on October 13 I informed Mr. Mochizuki that I would not be eating lunch with the children that day. I would not be eating lunch at all because of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

No, I was not on a diet, did not have a stomachache, and was not about to undergo a medical procedure. Explanation of why I was fasting was more difficult to translate than what the students surmised.

Although not religious, I make an effort on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. But neither Jews nor Judaism rang a bell with Mr. Mochizuki. Not even after looking up the translation in the dictionary. After I convinced him that Judaism was not a sect of Christianity, he asked, “Are you Islam?”

I groaned silently, and tried a different tactic. “Do you know the country of Israel?” No. “How about the Holocaust?” Curious stare. “You know, how Hitler killed 6 million people in Europe, and well, most of them were Jews?” “Ahh, okay,” the teacher said, as if recalling some trivial factoid from the recesses of his brain. “Please tell the children some information.” “About the Holocaust!?” Thankfully, classes last only 50 minutes.

Around the corner is Thanksgiving, which while my favorite holiday on the calendar of either country, is rather boring to explain to Japanese students. We consume truckloads of turkey and harvest vegetables in the company of our dysfunctional extended families. Scrawling a turkey on the blackboard invited creative interpretations of Thanksgiving’s iconic bird, but fortunately peacock, ostrich, and pigeon do not make the menu at my family’s dinner. Pigeon pie, anyone?

Monday, October 31, 2005

Around the World in 01 Days: Aichi Expo 2005

“Nature’s Wisdom,” the Expo’s environmental theme, was lost on most visitors, and perhaps the organizers themselves. Forests outside of Nagoya, home to the endangered goshawk and Gifu butterfly, were felled to pave the way for the sprawling 462-acre complex. 22 million visitors flocked to the Expo during its six months of operation. By comparison, New York City attracted 38 million tourists and Britain 28 million in all of 2004. On the Sunday I visited, it felt like all 22 million also showed up.

The hottest tickets were for corporate pavilions like Toyota, Hitachi, and Mitsui-Toshiba that showcased the technology of tomorrow: a robot music band, one-person concept car(“i-unit”), and movies featuring digitized faces of the audience. Never underestimate the patience of this race. The Japanese came prepared with folding chairs, picnic blankets, hand-held video games, and playing cards to queue up to six hours. I wouldn’t wait half that long to meet the Pope, president, or anyone else for that matter, and certainly not for a 20-minute show.

Plenty of alternative exhibits entertained this former geography major. From Angola to Zimbabwe, pavilions for 121 nations displayed Disneyified renditions of world cultures. A more authentic experience was possible when striking up conversations with staffers, often flown in from their native countries for the event. I treated the outing like a travel expo to plot my next intriguing vacation destination (Libya, Tunisia, Armenia, Vanuatu) or to rekindle memories of old stomping grounds. Despite the oversimplification in pavilion presentation, I wandered around feeling like I had traded Japan for somewhere more foreign, yet simultaneously more familiar.

In the Czech Republic, I met Marta, a fellow Charles University alum majoring in Japanese and foreign studies. I dusted off a few Czech phrases, and reminisced about the University neighborhood, trams, and the world’s best beer.

Further east, while not the only American to visit the Lithuanian pavilion, I was the first to have laid eyes on its capital Vilnius. A Cambodian worker approached me under a stone replica of a temple. “You are handsome man. You must make a lot of Japanese girls pregnant.” “Angkor Wat truly is a wonder of the world, isn’t it?” I replied before sailing off to paradise.

At the Pacific islands pavilion, I chatted at length with Marshallese and Palauan girls. I dredged up war stories of Guam’s super-typhoon. I watched meeting highlights of Kiribati’s Refuse Containment Committee, and noted the contradiction between “the drastic effect” of tourism being brought to a “stand still [sic] by the ethnic turmoil” on the Solomon Islands’ tourism homepage with their Expo exhibit claiming them “now one of the most peaceful countries in the world.”

In Tunisia, I most enjoyed the Expo’s hidden human element. The majority of visitors, 60%, resided in the surrounding region. Foreigners, mostly Koreans and Chinese, made up only 5% of visitors. On this given Sunday, I generously estimated 0.6% of the crowd as non-Asian. I got the feeling that domestic visitors viewed me as if I were on a lunch break from manning one of the pavilions. As it turned out, they were almost right.

Mustafa looked up from his necklaces. He was surprised to see a Westerner. Was I part Tunisian? No, but I enjoy Middle Eastern culture and cuisine. He reached under the table and produced a container of baklava and Arabian sweets, and offered me a seat behind the display counter. “Ikko ¥1000,” he chimed at browsers while confiding that most necklaces were made in India for a fraction of the $10 Expo price.

Mustafa, 28, ditched his job at an Italian restaurant for this enterprising opportunity. In fact, the whole family was cashing in. His mother, 48, stitched traditional dresses in the corner. She had brought many over from Tunisia to gouge Japanese tourists who will pay just about anything for anything. His two brothers, 24 and 17, had also made the voyage to staff the exhibition hall’s pottery studio.

We exchanged hardship stories about our common ground as foreigners in this strange, often unwelcoming land. Other pavilion workers I spoke to echoed this sentiment. Mustafa claimed to have a Japanese wife, yet in the same sentence admitted to “playing around too much.” Perhaps life here wasn’t so bad.

I began assimilating to this enclave of Tunisian culture, alluring images of which flashed on plasma screens. “Ikko ¥1000,” I called out, tidying up the selection of necklaces. I didn’t seem out of place. To the Japanese, all of us hairy-forearmed foreigners look alike.

Geography is great, but missing out on the corporate pavilions meant my technology fix remained unfulfilled. I’m not leaving this place until I see a [expletive deleted] talking robot, I muttered to myself. I would not be denied a face-to-face encounter.

Resolve paid off. An hour before closing, the robot station was deserted. Electronic friends were free for the making. I charged at the robots. Feeling a little frisky, I began stroking them. Oh, robots! The staff looked up from checking their watches, and saw a chance to practice their English. I met SuiPPi (“Sweepy?”) and Alsok who did their respective programmed tasks of cleaning and security in silence. Unimpressed, I was introduced to a childcare robot able to repeat two words, but bandying “konnichiwa” grew tiresome. We bid each other “bye-bye.”

I had read about robots proficient in 40,000 phrases in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and English. I extended my hand to Wakamaru, a 3-foot sunshiny yellow creation from Mitsubishi marketed as companion to independent elderly people. “Sumimasen, Eigo ga hanase masuka?” [Excuse me, do you speak English?] Nothing.

“No, no, no,” an assistant said running up to me before ducking behind Wakamaru to plug him (her?) into a laptop. He handed me a small microphone, and asked me to repeat what appeared on the computer screen. I guess this ’bot was still building its vocabulary. “Directions,” I had to say twice before Wakamaru asked me where I wanted to go. I looked at the next menu of options. “Maintenance yard,” I said, wondering myself where and what that was. Where I really wanted directions was back to the Tunisia pavilion, where I stayed until they kicked me out to close up.

Cyber companions may be the wave of the future, but while in their prototype stage they make for better photo ops.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

C’mon N’Ride The Shink

Model trains. Visitors of Japan marvel at its advanced rail network, the pride and joy of this punctual and technology obsessed nation. Wherever it is you’re going, you can get there from here. Mass transit. Fast transit. In transit, expect to ride in cleanliness, depart on the dot, and – depending on the size of your wallet – arrive in record time. Express trains 15 to 30 minutes quicker than limited express trains are twice as expensive, underscoring the premium the Japanese place on swiftness. Sure, express trains are faster than limited express, which trump rapid service, which out-chug slow-poke locals, but behold the all mighty bullet trains – the queen bees in Japan’s railway honeycomb that fly along continuously welded tracks.

I tested the ease and speed of Japan’s intercity transportation system with a trip to Nagoya, Japan’s fourth largest city 230 miles west of Tokyo. The journey played out like a SimCity commute: walk eight minutes from my apartment to the subway, hop off two stops later, dash for five minutes – including into oncoming traffic – to reach Tokyo Station, board a Shinkansen (bullet train) 30 seconds before it departed, arrive three stops and less than two hours later, and check into a hotel above Nagoya Station. Beat that, Amtrak.

Although the seats could have been comfier, the Shinkansen proved to be a quintessential Japanese experience. The inaka (countryside) blurred by at 168 mph. Inside, only faint purrs and whirls interrupted a stillness that reminded me of an airplane, but with less turbulence and more legroom. Revving noises of the engine pulsed through the carriage like a Nintendo character grabbing power-ups. The shink was at full throttle. Any faster and we’d be traveling back in time.

Popularly labeled a characterless industrial business city, Nagoya was the gateway for the 2005 World Expo in Aichi prefecture. On display was a MagLev train, the future of rail travel. Magnetically levitated above the tracks, these trains hurtle at more than 311 mph, a world record for a manned train. Read about my close encounters with the Expo’s cast of talking robots and other cultural attractions on Monday.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

F is for Fashion Faux Pas

After another week of trying to work miracles at Kanokita Junior High, I looked forward to a relaxing Friday night playing basketball. Then my keitai rang. Could I make a 5:30 p.m. audition for a fashion show to be held next week? The 3:06 p.m. Yoyogi-uehara-bound train was pulling up to the platform, and I was still an hour’s commute from home. Time was short, and my sacred basketball schedule would be compromised. “See you there,” I said as the doors shut.

I instantly regretted the decision upon seeing those who also had answered the call. For the first time in Japan, I felt short. Many in the crowd seemed to know one another, and joked in European accents. Some clutched “books” – a portfolio of professional pictures. Some had the same cover.

Oh great, were these the contract boys? Imported from Europe to be models in Japan, contract boys lived off the land, roaming from audition to audition and leaving threads for the amateurs to vie for. Smiling for a camera in the afternoon, partying at night, and raking in the ¥en. Sign me up.

I wouldn’t have paid them a second glance on the street. Mickey Mouse trucker hats, purple tank tops, designer jeans, and Italian accents spelled Eurotrash tourists to me. However, knowing that they were contract models, I sized up the competition. Their arms, legs, hair, and cheekbones were elongated. One could have been a stand-in for Jesus. It was just the physique that could make leopard print furs and big-buckled belts look fashionable.

Next to me stood a shorter Frenchman with a buzz cut to disguise his receding hairline. It wasn’t long before he asked me where my book was. He was freelance, too. “I would tell you this after the audition, but it doesn’t look very professional not to have one,” he offered. I wished him luck as he went into the dressing room.

“Jeffrey-san, your turn,” the man in charge said, holding snapshots the agency supplied him from when I had registered there in August. He looked up and laughed through his nose. Right about then I wished I were playing basketball instead.

The changing room and audition space were one in the same – dressing, undressing, photographing, and practicing catwalks. Measurements were called out like numbers at a bingo game. Torso, hips, inseam. Guys were stripping down to their briefs, and putting on whatever the Japanese assistants handed them, a hodgepodge of articles plucked from racks lining the walls.

In my bare essentials, I accepted a size XS red and grey vest. It wouldn’t have fit my students. I zipped it as best I could. Did I get a shirt to go underneath it? My assistant, Makoto, read my mind. I unzipped, and layered with an ill-fitting white t-shirt with maroon sleeves. I then poured myself into a pair of black jeans. My thighs protested. Only the top button of the fly closed. Fashion was painful. I slid on a blazer with sleeves covering my knuckles. I felt like a stuffed sausage.

Makoto added the garnish – a white diaphanous scarf that he tucked into the blazer. There was no time to lace up the oversized sneakers. I was pushed into the center of the room having the dexterity of someone in leg casts. My knees were locked while feet slipped out of the sneakers. I must have looked like Frankenstein taking a walk. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. A downright unfashionable Frankenstein at that.

Fashion isn't for the faint of heart, human or otherwise.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

E is for Earthquake

Last night I met up with my neighbor, Melo. He’s lived next door since August, but only recently have we interacted, after he tacked a note on my door apologizing for late-night noises. He rightly assumed that paper-thin walls betrayed the fact that he did not sleep alone.

About my age and height, Carmelo is an Aussie of Italian decent. He’s a minion for the infamous Nova corporation where he spits out cookie-cutter English lessons to those with ¥en to burn. Like me, he’s been in Japan for six months, but unlike his neighbor, he has picked up more girls than words of their language, so I did my best as a novice translator at Daruma.

Walking home, we passed a local dive bustling with energy that spilled out onto sidewalk tables balanced on plastic Kirin beer crates and rusting oil drums. Bright lights and a jovial crowd seemed inviting, but intimidation had always prevented me from walking in and standing up (inside are only counters to lean on). I needed someone to hold my hand, and while at it, order off the Japanese-only menu.

A female waitress stationed on the sidewalk to recruit passersby was the perfect opportunity. Although most izakayas have generic decor, this was a quirky spot. Advertisements for olden Japanese and Western products decorated the walls. The enormous steel bathroom door was of meat locker origin. Boxes of curry rice, spices, and other products dating from the 1950s lined bathroom shelves while jazz gently pulsed from an ancient radio.

At the counter, we took spots at the end by the kitchen, staffed by three energetic males sporting “retro style” Japanese headbands rolled tightly into the thickness of an udon noodle. One served us obligatory beers, and asked something I didn’t understand. I just said yes, and ordered two. Skewers of mushrooms and scallions arrived just as a salaryman leaned over to test his English idioms.

He asked whether we were newcomers. “Ahh,” he said, lighting up. “This your virgin time!” I nearly coughed up a shitake mushroom. I shook my head, and noticed that naked bulbs above the counter also disagreed.

“Earthquake, earthquake, EARTHQUAKE!” I wanted to yell like the first person at the beach who spots a shark, but nobody else looked concerned. Nobody except the waitress outside, who wedged herself in the doorframe as the shaking continued. Melo and I stared at each other in that way foreigners do when an earthquake hits. “It’s still going,” he said, eyebrows raised. “What has it been, like 40 seconds?” I replied. By now the natives had begun to acknowledge the strong tremors.

The staff switched the channel from a moronic game show to a news agency’s EarthquakeCam of swaying office buildings. Footage inside included jumpy workers at their desks with rattling monitors. After a few instant replays, a map appeared with intensity numbers and a big “X” at the epicenter offshore. “Ahhhh Ibaraki,” the crowd mumbled, noting the prefecture shaken the hardest at 6.5 on the Richter scale. Everyone fixated on the screen for reports of injury or damage except for the waitress who remained cowering in the doorway looking skyward in anticipation of structural collapse.

My interest in the setting waned until James walked in. A 31 year-old Chicago native of Irish descent, he reports financial news for Reuters. He’s spent six years in Japan (but only 5 months at the wire service), and not only had to master the ins and outs of finance, but learn so in Japanese. He reads local newspapers and conducts interviews in Japanese. This is an entry-level position. I took advantage of his fluency to order lamb skewers, and spoke to him in English about freelancing.

On Tuesday we’re going to The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan’s open house so that I can learn more about membership and the opportunity to network with reporters, perhaps as another step beyond the blog to pick up freelance assignments.

Monday, October 17, 2005

D is for Delinquency

Monday morning. I pop three Advil. Starting the school week is as tough for teachers as it is for students. And when my schedule reads “Kanokita,” I down another three by lunchtime. At cooperative schools, the week’s first lesson is spent trying to revive zonked out students, who even on a lively day barely register a pulse.

At Tokyo’s worst junior high school, however, the challenge is greater. The unrestrained freedom of the weekend hasn’t worn off. Screams befitting a haunted house echo down the hallways. Metallic clanging comes from an unknown source. Mondays are like managing a prison riot.

A pack of 8th grade girls roams the hallways like dingoes in the Outback. The din outside drowned out responses of students’ weekend activities. The girls pressed their faces against the window of the sliding classroom door. When that didn’t garner enough attention, they took turns crashing into the doors, hoping to incite commotion. When that failed, Seiko flung open the door, paced around the back of the room, and stripped off her gym shorts from underneath her uniform dress. I was in for a long week.

How bad is the mischief? Well, at first I mistook two late-20 year-olds as extra gym teachers because of their affinity for warm-up work clothes. It turns out that these Adidas-clad “cowboys,” as I call them, function solely to patrol the halls and round up delinquents who have lost their way to class.

The cowboys can’t catch ’em all. Discipline here is a revolving door. Teachers turn a blind eye. That was all I could do from a second floor window when I spotted two students fleeing the coop. One must have sensed my gaze because as he swung his leg over the top of the gate, he glanced up. Our eyes connected. A guilty grin crossed his face. I outstretched a hand in powerless protest. He completed the gymnastic descent, and took off down the road to catch up with his friend.

Desktops are a good barometer of a school’s discipline level. At Kanokita, they are covered with permanent black ink. Japlish graffiti artists sometimes outnumber English note takers. If students spent as much time completing handouts as on desk drawing, their proficiency might be marginally passable.

At Kanokita, the 7th graders are good, the 8th graders are bad, and the 8th grade girls are ugly. Behavior-wise, that is. Out of approximately 1,100 students at four schools, the two biggest delinquents are girls. Seiko’s brazen disregard for school rules intimidates even teachers.

Maki follows Seiko’s bad example with obedient disobedience. She is shorter but prettier than the ringleader, who at times attracts a few other otemba (naughty girls) to join her rebellion, which spurs the cowboys into action. If I were a scout, I’d offer Maki a modeling contract as soon as her grades improve. Even Taro, one of the cowboys, gives me the nod and grin when Maki passes.

While Maki is toothless without Seiko, unfortunately both are in the same English section. I was relieved but not surprised to see neither of them when I walked into class. I hoped they were terrorizing another floor or smoking off-property. Ten minutes later the sliding door rattled open, and in barged the twin terrors, carrying on a conversation that had nothing to do with the target English.

Maki plopped her knapsack on her desk, and used it as a pillow. Seiko proclaimed the window ledge as her throne, and peered out of rain-streaked windows. Wind pounded on the glass. Seiko answered nature’s call. Woooosh! English worksheets took flight, and mechanical pencils rolled off desks.

Seiko abandoned the ledge and walked around the classroom to inspect her territory – marked desktops. The wind fanned Mr. Hirogashi’s ire. Seiko remained cool, calm, and defiant. The Japanese English teacher barked. Seiko snickered. The exchange escalated. I didn’t need a translation of the unfolding brinkmanship. “Get out! GET OUT!” Seiko for once obeyed, probably wondering what took so long for the invitation. Maki grabbed her bag and followed.

Later that day, I went to the principal’s office. There, the girls would make amends, but Mr. Hirogashi remained skeptical: “They will pretend to apologize, and we will pretend to forgive them.” The twin terrors sat beside Mr. Kyobashi, the white-haired principal turned peacekeeper. I spoke first, striking a conciliatory tone: “I hope next time you can stay for the whole lesson and learn some English.” Maki smiled at the translation, but when Mr. Hirogashi spoke, Seiko looked away. She mumbled an apology to the wall.

Days later, the school counselor invited me to her office. “It’s nice to meet you,” I said. “You sure must be busy.” She wanted to chat about schools in New York that she had observed on a training program. “Do you know the South Bronx?” I answered with my eyes, and then laughed, “So you’ve seen worse.” She had visited a second chance school for juvenile delinquents that made Seiko seem like a teacher’s pet.

Tokyo is no SoBro, but the counselor picked out a similarity in that students “were not proud” of their schools. Without discipline there is no respect. And without respect there is no chance of learning. And in Tokyo there is no second chance.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

You’ve Got Mail

For a change, I’m sitting back and letting someone else do the writing, which is lifted out of e-mails and text messages from Japanese friends and students. Material below is republished without permission.

From: Fellow partygoer
Re: Tonite
Message: Are you coming defenihtely? Do you wanna go to club after the party or change the place for more alcohol?

From: Mid-20s P.E. teacher and part-time sushi chef
Re: Hanging out sometime
Message: I'm sorry. I don't know English.I can write English a little.I study English very hard! Let's play together recently.Let's go sushi store!! ¡¡Cheers, Tsuroshi!

From: Private student
Re: Why haven’t I made money off of you in two months?
Message: I'm sorry not to reply to your email. I have slept at once when I return from work because it is very busy, and I very ill. I came even for his amount to have to work because the colleague had pulled the pin suddenly. I'll send email when it settles down busy of work, and wait for the report, please. ~Kaori

From: Friday night basketball teammate
Re: Basketball
Message: Tomorrow’s place is the Nakagawa sports center and time will be from 6:00 in 9:00! I am looking forward to it! Mail with Jeff becomes the study of uncanny English!

From: My landlord
Re: New building - Nishiogikubo Guesthouse
Message: 5 rooms opened in "Nishi Ogikubo" (Shinjuku area) on 1st October. Newly renovated building, with a name of "Wallnut Hill". A nice blend of Japanese wood and western concrete style. Can't imagine ? Then, come over and have a look.

From: Another private student
Re: Proper greetings
Message:Hi!!! Jeffry!!! Thank you for sending my vocabulary lists. I had been a little busy this week. so I printed it out now. You gave me nice lesson last time. I had fun with you and want to hang out more.My English is getting worse, because of Japan.I have to keep and improve my English in order to live in NY again.

and I have a huge favor,Jeffry!!! Could you give me a hug instead of a fucking bow??? I like the way when people greet somebody. I don't like just bow bow. See you Tuesday. same time and place!!!
Regards, Yuki

The following e-mails are from Atami, a 9th grader. He asked for my e-mail address, and we’ve corresponded for a few months. The first e-mail is from an exchange that went on until after 3:30 a.m. I told him it was wayyy past his bedtime (and mine), but he seems to talk to his friends at all hours anyway. “Sensei” and “ALT” refer to his assistant language teacher.

Is America very different? No. I haven't any English books. So, I want to buy English books some day. Thanks, Jeff-sensei! I don't see you until September too. That's very sad. Yes! I studing¡¡to be high school student.

Oh! You go to bed very late too! Do you like chat? I like chat. Sometimes I play chat very long times with Net friends. Have you how many Net friends?

Good night! Jeff-sensei. Today, Thanks for e-mail with me¡ See you next e-mail!

In this e-mail about his classmates, I’m a little worried about Shintaro’s summer activities.
Oh. I have be very busy too.
Yes! I'm very vigor! And you?
Keisuke is play computer every day.
Shintaro is triping now.
They are having a good summer vacation!
No, they are in class D-3.
They are in class D-1!
Yes! They are like Jeff-sensei!
Yes! You are very fun ALT!
So, your class is very exciting for me!

Over the summer I felt a tremor while dining out. Did he feel it too?
Is "TGI Friday's"American restaurant?
I felt an earthquake when ate cornfrosties!

Some of Atami’s tennis pals attend another school I work at.
My friends are Misawa, Masuda, Matsuda, and Yamazaki!
They are boys!
They are tennis friends!
They are know you.

Yes! The students love you! Honto desu!
Oh! Tomorrow is your first day at Omiyada! Ashita gambatte kudasai!
I will have fun at school tomorrow!

As you can see, Atami’s English isn’t perfect. And neither is my Japanese. But we are both studying hard, and the in process keeping each others entertamed.
Your Japanese is great! you can have expressed the past sentense in

In response to dad’s surprise bday trip: Oh! It's great! Your father was funning?

Thank you, Jeff-sensei! The students are very happy!

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Green Retreat: Trip to Hakone

Ninety minutes west of Tokyo is a mountainous sanctuary disconnected from the capital’s sprawling concrete. Hakone’s crisp air and onsen (natural hot springs) make it a popular day or weekend getaway. Highlights included rickety cable car rides over mountain ridges, a boat trip on a pirate ship, and a stroll through the renowned Hakone Open-Air Museum. The museum features hundreds of sculptures and paintings from the 20th century in a picturesque setting. Prominent artists include Henry Moore, Picasso, Rodin, Brancusi, Calder and my new favorite, Carl Milles.

Find out more by viewing my Hakone pictures.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Take Me Out to the Yakyu Game

Scratching out a combination of remedial Japanese and English, Omiyada students arranged to meet me at 17:30 at Shinanomachi station’s turnstiles. In a rush and taking an unfamiliar route, by the time I realized that Suidobashi was not the same as Shinanomachi, I was stuck on a Sobu line train in the wrong direction.

It wasn’t my first Japanese baseball game, or even first at Jingu Stadium. In early July I visited the Tokyo Dome, home to the famous Yomiuri Giants, to see the Chiba Lotte Marines take on Hokkaido’s Nippon Ham Fighters. Which was the home team? Last year the Ham Fighters (sponsored by a meat packing company) moved to Japan’s northern island, but still play token home games in Tokyo to please fans that didn’t migrate.

Loyalty divides the two $14 bleacher seat sections. Having no attachment to either team, but finding myself in a sea of Marines’ supporters, I cheered for Chiba. I didn’t want to stand out like a big white thumb more than I already did.

The Dome’s drab interior is peppered with ads for all of your favorite Japanese companies: Casio, Canon, Nissan, Kirin, Fuji Film, and Showa Gas. The Ham Fighters struck for three runs while I was in the subway en route. The crowd’s flag waving and tomahawk chops initially proved more interesting than the game itself, which featured what had to be a record for double plays and only one extra base hit until the 9th inning.

Down 3-1 with two outs in the top of the 9th, Chiba’s tying run stepped to the plate. The crowd chanted “home run” in English. Down to his last strike, Lee Seung Yeop harnessed the cheers and smacked the ball into the bleachers filled with stunned Fighters fans. Trumpets blared. (Yes, fans bring musical instruments to games). Chiba completed the dramatic comeback with three runs in the 10th. Final score: Marines 6, Fighters 3.

A month later I watched the Hiroshima Carp battle my now favorite Yakult (“Yak-a-loot-o”) Swallows at Jingu Stadium. The Carp seem to have stolen a page out of the Cincinnati Reds fashion playbook. These imposters struck for four runs while I was still in the subway. Minutes after I settled into my front row bleacher seat, the Carp doubled their 4-0 advantage with a single swing. Greg Larocca’s (not a Japanese) grand slam was Hiroshima’s second in as many innings. This one was over before it started. Final score: Carp 10, Swallows 0.

Despite the Swallows’ anemic performance, I enjoyed Japan’s most historic ballpark, its brick walls dating from 1926. On a pre-WWII exhibition tour, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth played here. Although room for 48,000, Jingu’s humble confines felt more minor league. Absent were luxury boxes, extravagant concession stands, and corporate promotions that are staples of Major League parks.

To be sure, Yakult Honsha Co., manufacturer of a fermented milk drink, owns the team. Uniformed “Yakult Ladies” peddle these probiotics on bicycles throughout Japan. So, why Yakult? Well, as someone who swallows such a supplement daily, my affinity truly comes from the gut. Furthermore, the Swallows are avian kin to my favorite MLB team, the Blue Jays. They’re also Tokyo’s underdogs, overshadowed by the Yankee-like Giants with their bloated payroll, aging players, high expectations, and huge fan base. Case in point: Swallows games are only televised when playing the Giants.

This brings me to my most recent game, in the shared company of two Omiyada baseball pals as our team hosted cross-town rivals the Kyojin (Giants). We spoke a little Japanese, filling the silences with mouthfuls of squid jerky. No Cracker Jack or peanut vendors in these here parts. Their jaws dropped when I jokingly tried to order three drafts beers from the Asahi lady with a keg strapped to her back.

Although forecasted typhoon remnants threatened to disrupt play, the clouds parted for a brilliant sunset. But Swallows fans tote kasa to the ballpark even on sunny days. For every Swallow who crosses home plate, fans recite a team cheer and pop open their umbrellas as a not so subtle gesture to the opposing pitcher that he should hit the showers.

Even though the rain held off, our umbrellas were in constant motion, starting with the first pitch of the game that Norichika Aoki sent into the Giants’ bleachers. Team cheers, and those personalized for each player, build community for a common cause. Unity, loyalty, and sacrifice are the Japanese way. Male cheerleaders stand on plastic crates armed with whistles and flags. Some grow hoarse before the balloon release during the 7th inning stretch.

When American Adam Riggs (“Rig-a-sue”) is announced, Old Glory appears. A Venezuelan bandera is similarly flown for Alex Ramirez (“Rami-chan”), formerly a Cleveland Indian and Pittsburgh Pirate.

Riggs homered in the second, and the Swallows scored in all but one inning to topple the mighty Giants. The game became such a farce that benches emptied. Swallows fans fell silent when one seldom-used player stepped to the plate. Everyone looked at the cheerleaders for direction. Did a chant exist for this guy? It hardly mattered. Final score [with pictures]: Swallows 14, Giants 3.

Friday, September 23, 2005

First Week at Omiyada School

Summer vacation ended early this year thanks to the board of education’s splurging on ceiling air-conditioning units for every classroom in the ward. As a concession for such cool technology, the board tacked on an extra 10 days to the school calendar, now possible in late summer with climate control. The ward’s low testing scores didn’t help either. That additional classroom time automatically increases aptitude is Japanese conventional wisdom.

Although cooling systems are becoming standard across Tokyo, I perspire just thinking about teaching inside a technological holdover. August humidity attacks my flesh as soon as I step outside. Sweat pools in the small of my back by the time I reach the subway eight minutes later.

Jack hammering and paint fumes greeted me at Omiyada’s entrance. Tarps blanketed floors; scaffolding obscured windows. Cranes sat parked in the clay-top schoolyard ringed by an industrial fence. Instead of students, construction workers walked the halls. Were they still on vacation? Did I need to remove my outdoor shoes when a patina of plaster dust coated the indoor floor? I climbed a flight of stairs. Concrete around a windowless frame had been chiseled away, giving the stairwell a Chechnya schoolhouse feel.

I met with three English teachers to exchange lesson plan information. After the meeting, I inquired about the construction to Ms. Shomatsu, perhaps the most kind-hearted English teacher I work with. Her motherly disposition is perfect for instructing the young ones. These weren’t routine renovations. The school dates from 1975, before earthquake codes were feasible. In addition to a/c, the board is upgrading the buildings themselves, two or three every year. Hopefully all 24 junior highs will be completed in time for The Big One.

Despite it being almost halfway through the school year, this marked my first visit to Omiyada, the last of four junior high schools I rotate among on a weekly basis. For week one, the lesson plan would be back to basics: self-introduction. They broke me in easily on Monday, teaching only a 9th grade advanced English class. A typical course load is four or five per day. The same schedule was in effect for Tuesday. By Wednesday classes doubled, increasing to three on Thursday. I was sent home after lunch every day. I could get used to teaching here.

In fact, I almost enjoyed the hour-long commute, which is varied and scenic as far as Tokyo is concerned. I transfer trains in the heart of the sumo district, where I spot wrestlers riding bicycles groaning under their tonnage. Later I walk from one ward into another, and then along a river to reach students eager for their monthly dose of foreign interaction.

Unlike the three other schools, the oldest students (9th graders) at Omiyada warmed right up to me. My fail-safe recipe for popularity includes Puma sneakers, a cool belt, and love of baseball, in particular the Yakult Swallows. I emphasize devotion during self-introductions. Although rival Yomiuri Giants is Japan’s equivalent to the Yankees, Swallows fans remain enthusiastically loyal no matter how outnumbered.

I high-five any fellow fans in the classroom, easily distinguishable with team pencil cases, key chains, or laminated folders. After class, I flip through a pack of six Swallows baseball cards. The next day, "teammates" bequeathed additional cards. Touched by their thoughtfulness, I offered American pencils in return. The day after that, I eagerly accepted an invitation to attend a game with them.

In addition introducing myself with sports, I chalked up a scaled outline of the continental U.S. Brave students circled their best guess of New York’s location on the board. This exercise turned into pin the tail on the donkey. Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Maine were the most selected, perhaps because they “stick out” just like how New York sounded familiar. An alarming number landed on South Carolina and New Mexico while others honed in on Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. Bold strategies, such as circling wide swaths of the Midwest, also failed. Only one student – at any of the four schools – got it right on the first, second, or third try. Even for Omiyada’s low track English class, I felt the first priority was a geography lesson, a subject I majored in.

Ignorance of New York’s world-famous landmarks was more appalling. One girl thought NY and DC were the same city. However, she wasn’t typical, the teacher explained. “This student is a strange girl, and she has strange pets,” which included six turtles, two snakes, and an iguana. One boy asked if I liked to gamble because New York was known for it. That would be New York-New York, Las Vegas, I replied. A timid girl thought the United Nations was headquartered in Okinawa. And wasn’t the World Trade Center in Japan? Still standing are Tokyo’s Akasaka Twin Towers and the 37-story WTC in Hanamatsucho. I thought I had heard it all until one brain-dead boy mistook the Statue of Liberty as a gift from North Korea. My eyes spun in their sockets.

For lunch I dined like an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) superstar. The largest portion was set-aside for the hungry American, as were any leftovers, like extra shrimp and vegetable tempura to top my udon. I waited with my tray in the teacher’s room until Ms. Shomatsu sent the “two prettiest girls” to escort me to their classroom.

Shades of Kanokita J.H.S.’ notorious disobedience appeared during recess at Omiyada. Like any proactive teacher, I investigate the source of odd noises. This metallic banging wasn’t coming from the construction outside. In an 8th grade classroom I stumbled upon unsupervised cacophony. A rusty freestanding cabinet housing white uniforms students use to serve lunch was transformed into a cell. A gang of boys barricaded one tormented classmate inside, using a metal lunch cart to block egress. Frenzied pounding from inside was answered by ramming the cart into the cabinet doors. The game continued until a jailbreak – when the jail broke. One of the doors unhinged and clattered to the floor. The boy repelled the cart and set himself free, collapsing onto the floor in exhaustion.

After lunch the next day, I caught students lobbing insects and fruit from the school garden into open second story windows. The cicadas flew away before landing inside, but a Japanese nashi, or pear, hit the target.

From what I could understand from the half dozen teachers and students on the scene, this green pear was not ripe and was not to be eaten – not now and maybe not ever. It changed handlers like a hot potato. Nobody knew what to do with it or how to explain it – in any language.

It had the hardness of a rock, and its now breached, dry interior smelled like pumpkin flesh. An electronic dictionary translated it as a “quince”, which I only knew as Spanish for “fifteen.” The second definition read “superphosphate,” so perhaps something got lost in translation, which wouldn’t be the first, second, or fifteenth time that’s happened.

Up Next: evening at the ballpark with two Omiyada Yakult fans.