Tuesday, November 28, 2006

White Heron

About 400 years old and 400 miles west of Tokyo, Himeji castle stands elegantly, white, and layered like a wedding cake (or a flying heron, take your pick). Being Japan’s best-preserved castle and a UNESCO World Heritage Site make it the belle of fortresses once protecting this feuding island. Unlike the recently reconstructed castle in Kanazawa (or Nagoya, Osaka, etc. take your pick), Himeji owes its longevity to being a virgin to fire and battle. Himeji somehow dodged WWII bombs that rained down on the rest of the town, and today exhibits its original and impressive fortifications surrounding the photogenic five-story donjon.

Himeji, however well preserved, is a one-castle town, so after a self-guided tour and a bento lunchbox on the sidewalk, it was time to fly.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Freaky Foreigners

Halloween. You get the feeling that the Japanese think they should be celebrating it because it’s Western and in the movies, but aren’t sure how to go about it. Pumpkin-themed things are available, and if you look hard enough you may find a genuine miniature pumpkin, which in central Tokyo looks lonely and lost from the patch.

“Happy Halloween” signs are just window dressing. There’s no substance behind the decorations. And without Thanksgiving as a buffer holiday, some stores launch into Christmas mode in mid-October. That's another Western holiday the Japanese don’t quite grasp, but have added their own twists.

Thank goodness for foreigners to set them straight. In addition to conversational English, we can prove our worth by teaching the joys of dressing up like freaks and gorging on candy until our stomachs explode (nowadays from liquor).

Every four years I’m due to celebrate in full gear:

1998. New Hampshire. Freshman year of college, hallmate Susannah persuaded me to cross-dress so that she could do my makeup. Thankfully those were pre-digital days.

2002. New York. My resort uniform (purple swimming trunks, white tank top, shell necklace) from a former job in Guam was widely mistaken for a marathon runner, an event held later that week.

2006. Tokyo. Having already purchased red wristbands, finger guards, headband, and bandanna to dress up for school sports day (think color war), I realized I could save money and be creative at the same time. The subway line closest to my apartment is coded red. Inspiration met originality – I would be the Marunouchi Line, Tokyo’s second oldest and my second most disliked after the Ginza Line. Sometimes it’s so crowded that I miss my stop because I can’t fight my way out fast enough. Carriages that smell like the men’s bathroom don’t add appeal.

After working a thankless 13 consecutive days at school, I was ready for a holiday, any holiday. The Halloween dance card was full: four parties in one night. The first required no invitation.

In the same vein as a flash mob, an expat Halloween tradition calls for a costumed convergence on platform 13 at JR Shinjuku station, the busiest in the world. Here we would catch (commandeer) a Yamanote line train. With 3.55 million riders daily, this line is the bread and butter of Tokyo mass transit. Famous for its light green color and cattle cars where the seats fold up during rush hour, Yamanote trains endlessly circle the core of Tokyo connecting the city’s major transit hubs.

Dressing in red wouldn’t be clear enough, so I spent two hours fashioning the Japanese for “Marunouchi Line” onto the back of my red track jacket. It’s the first and last time I’ll ever write kanji, but the result was striking. Two letter “M”s taped on the butt and thigh of matching sweatpants completed the look.

From the front, I looked like a bad 80s rapper. From the back, I was more puzzling. Who would embody a subway line? Again, Halloween is not a well-known concept here, so I simply looked freakish from every angle. Stepping outdoors, I quickly retreated back in – to a convenience store to pick up two canned cocktails (7%) to calm my nerves on the way to platform 13. I got the rare-bird-escaped-from-the-zoo look. Tropical plumage from head-to-toe was a magnet for attention. I became sensitive to sounds. Even busses rumbled by with laughter.

Powerless police officers puttered about platform 13, whispering distress into their radios. Open containers, however, were legal. And so were we, just waiting for the train.

The 21:07 to be exact. That was the pre-decided time to ride. I stepped on the yellow line, and aimed my camera at headlights growing in the dark. The conductor, aware of who awaited, put some serious juice on the horn as the train blew into the station. The crowd cheered. It was party time.

Without enough crazy foreigners to take over ten cars, only the last was targeted. Passengers were given the courtesy of exiting before the spirits of the night stormed the carriage to rile up the unlucky remaining ones. One Japanese woman, coincidentally in an orange sweater, looked like she had seen a ghost, so to speak. The doors closed, the gears wheezed, and we cracked open beverages and yelled “kanpai!” to toast our departure.

Shin-Okubo…Takadanobaba…Mejiro. Locals left and those in costume consolidated control of the car. At each station, boarding passengers received a rowdy welcome, whereupon they scrambled up the platform to find a tamer car. As usual, many commuters waited at Ikebukuro station (change here for the Marunouchi Line). They froze on the platform. The next train was only five minutes behind.

The mood inside was festive, but there’s really only so much fun you can have drinking aboard mass transit. The Yamanote loop takes about an hour, but my next party started in half that time, so I jumped train at Komagome station to retrace my tracks back towards Shinjuku.

According to someone who saw the evening news, foreigners were blamed for causing delays on the line because at each stop revelers would dance on the platform right through the closing door melody and jump back on in the nick of time (see footage below).

For more, check out these Youtube highlights. I guess I exited too early cause it looks like they had a lot more fun than I had.

My friend Delphine, uncostumed but accompanied by a Columbian suitor, also reversed course. Pabo seemed a little spooky himself, a hunch that she confirmed at lunch the next day. Apparently he had a thing for the French damsel, which he subtly conveyed by trying to force her hand down his pants to prove just how small it was. Over instant messenger he once sent her an unsolicited picture of his toothpick.

“He goes on three or four dates a week,” Delphine said. “And he takes girls to love hotels and films it. He’s showed me. ‘It’s small, isn’t it?’ he asks me.” Delphine said that while he’s kooky, he’s no liar.

After Maria’s birthday and Halloween party in Shibuya, I cabbed it to DJ’s place. Rain began to peel away my letters, so I skipped the fourth party to crawl home to bed.

Meeting up with Delphine for lunch the next day, she took one look at my clothing and said with a smirk, “I like you in red better.”

* * *

A week later was Jackson’s birthday, which he rolled into a post-Halloween bash on a boat cruising around Tokyo Bay. Ever the crazy Canadian, I like Jackson because he’s that guy. Check him out here lounging on the Yamanote line’s luggage racks.

Once again I dressed up in the color of embarrassment. Halloween was so last week, I thought. No sooner had I locked my door than I heard English voices echoing down the corridor. Crap! It’s my neighbor Mike whose name I’ve seen on the mailbox but hadn’t met in person. He and three friends turned the corner before I could unlock the deadbolt and hide inside.

“Uhh, hi?” I said, clutching my keys.

“Hi, I’m your neighbor” Mike said, doing his best to act casual.

“I don’t usually dress like this, I swear.”

“You’ve got a party to go to, I see,” a friend said.

“Yeah, it’s a post-Halloween thing. I know it’s over, but….”

“Hey, it’s been happening all week,” the friend said, bailing me out.

To get to the pier, I caught a ride on what else but the Marunouchi Line. On the platform, a Japanese man came up to shake my hand and call me a “cool guy.” I felt like a traitor transferring to the Ginza Line, where a drunken salaryman also stopped to shake my hand with a giggle, but fortunately not a grope.

Party pictures can be viewed here.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Train Bingo

How well do you know your fellow commuters? Play the game and find out. I'm behind the concept and text. My co-worker labored on the illustrations. Disclaimer: some squares may only apply in Japan. Click to enlarge.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Pinch Hitting

Teaching intractable junior high kids without basic English skills, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to take on elementary school ones rawer in behavior and ability. In February I found out.

Subbing in the suburb of Funabashi required a 5:40 a.m. wake up call. That was the easy part. To earn some extra income east of Tokyo, I had to transfer from the safety of a train with English signage to the unpredictability of a Japanese-only bus.

Figuring out the right stop was like solving a math problem with only two known variables: travel time from the station depot and the cost of the journey, which every now and then increased with distance. The kanji of stop names flashed up on the screen like scrambled squiggles, and I couldn’t catch the driver’s announcements. A wrong guess would leave me, the functional illiterate, late for school and freezing alongside unknown empty fields.

Students of this elementary school (where I arrived on time) had one 20-minute English lesson per week. That’s in addition to their Spanish class. Two things struck me about the English classroom: no chairs and no board. Before I could reformulate my lesson plan, by twos in marched the first class – seven-year-olds with mucus-streaked cheeks and curious eyes fixed on the giant white alien. I stared at them, and they stared at me.

Nametags dangled from their necks, and one began whimpering about something. Others intently picked their noses or smiled with mouths full of misaligned teeth. I was not accustomed to students out of uniform. Their hodgepodge sweatshirts and overalls included mangled phrases like “Life Is Like A Music” and “Somewhere I Have Never Been. Sometimes I Am.” Yet their clothing was as colorful as their eyes were warm. They were clearly surprised to see a new teacher half the age and weight of their regular Tuesday instructor.

The great thing about elementary school is that it’s game time all the time. Their cooperation and enthusiasm put my junior high misfits to shame. We first reviewed vegetables by splitting into small groups and playing memory with flash cards. No blackboard was necessary because they couldn’t read English let alone much kanji (just like their subbing sensei). So they memorized English words based on picture associations. Spinach, sweet potato, and spring onion, their vocabulary made me hungry for lunch until I thought I heard them recite “toilet paper” when holding up a picture of a bell pepper.

“Stormy Night” played over the PA during lunch. When nobody in the teacher’s room noticed that the song got stuck, I politely pointed to the ceiling speaker and then to my ear while bowing my head with a smile.

With winter approaching again, I think back to that cold day in a new place. Inside, the miso soup for lunch and extra servings of smiles warmed me up. Just a one-day job, by the end it was still hard to say sayonara. The little buggers tagged along in the corridor as I walked to the stairs leading down to the entrance.

Changing into my outdoor shoes, I heard footsteps and looked up. An Adidas tracksuit bounded downstairs to send me off with a hug. I gave the boy a final sayonara, and made my way to the bus stop.

Outside, the sidewalk abutted the playground where recess was in full swing. Two girls kicked up dirt while balancing giant orange cones on their heads. Then I spotted the tracksuit jumping off the jungle gym. The next thing I knew, the boy slid through the gate. He attached himself to my leg and wouldn’t let go. I forget what I said to him in Japanese, but I’ll always remember that firm grip of appreciation.