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.