Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Phi Phi Paradise

To coincide with the three year anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami,
I wrote an article
about my visit to Thailand's Phi Phi islands to evaluate how well Ko Phi Phi Don has gotten back on its feet following unspeakable loss.

For more photos of a paradise rebuilt, click here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

La Mucama Esmeralda

Mucama is the Argentine word for a female servant, but I like ama de llaves, literally woman of the keys. Whatever keeper of the house lingo you prefer, I am of course talking about my criada, the maid. Esmeralda comes Tuesdays at 10, a time I mark on my calendar as a reminder to leave extra early for Spanish class to avoid the awkward encounter between servant and master. At a hotel would you enjoy room service with your feet up and television on while the morning maids put your room in order? Since I’ve never met my empleada dómestica, I actually don’t know her name, but imagine that Esmeralda fits just fine.

Apartment rentals in Buenos Aires commonly include once-a-week cleaning. Although I keep neat on my own accord, I won’t pass up a free scrub of the scrum lining the toilet and sink. Ironically, if you want to find my apartment at its cleanest, knock at 9:45 on Tuesdays. I feel compelled to leave my place in good condition before hired help does the job for me.

I get Esmeralda off to a running start. Grocery bags full of trash are put out in the hall next to the garbage shoot. Boxes of crackers and granola bars are aligned. Apples are stacked. Dishes are cleaned and placed in the drying rack. Crumbs from tablecloth and hairs from bathmat are released into the morning air off the sixth-story balcony. Bathroom and bed-making duties, however, remain squarely in Esmeralda’s domain.

Spooked by tales of low-paid crooked maids, I lockdown the apartment before leaving. All electronic devices are stowed inside my suitcase, such as a MacBook Pro 2GHz laptop, Canon XTi DSLR camera and Oral B 7400 toothbrush. The last is done more out of concern that Esmeralda will knock the bristly vibrator off its perch on the mirror’s ledge, switching me to manual twice a day from here on out.

I vacate no later than 9:55, and walk 45 minutes downtown to my 11:00 class. When I return by 2 p.m., I can tell that Esmeralda has worked her magic. The balcony door is ajar; curtains billow in the breeze. But upon closer inspection – sink and toilet aside – the magic is an illusion. The bed smiles with hospital corners, but the floor is crunchy from whatever she kicked up underneath while making it.

Had Esmeralda bothered to sweep, she would have treated herself to the dollar’s worth of pesos I discovered when surveying the filth under the bed. Instead, I pocket the change as compensation, slipping golden coins into my bag to pay for tomorrow morning’s subway ride downtown.

Esmeralda has also failed other tests I devised following that first peek under the bed. The apartment has a mini moth problem – small in physical size and scope – not big enough to warrant redecorating with balls of naphthalene, but just annoying enough to make me give chase while clapping my hands.

For those unfortunate to have been caught up in my standing ovation, I use their powdery remains as checkpoints to evaluate Esmeralda’s thoroughness, or lack thereof. Yes, I deposit dead moths at strategic locations around the apartment: by the telephone, on top of the television, next to the nightstand lamp. Yet, there is no change come Tuesday afternoon. Just as moth remains lie undisturbed, so does Mel the (living, and usually sleeping) spider in his web-bed corner behind the bathroom door.

An army of Esmeraldas with buckets and brooms makes a small, hard-earned living cleaning up after foreigners able to afford to best of Buenos Aires by day and night. Where is the time or motivation to deep clean dozens of apartments in one day, all grander than hers somewhere out in Lomas de Zamora or Villa 31? The prism of cursory service casts a spectrum of valuations. For me, coming home and seeing sunshine strike the straightened comforter feels special that someone has been in while I’ve been out, no matter how helter-skelter the toiletries now are in the bathroom.

After hand-exterminating another moth fluttering around my closet (and laying it to rest on the stereo’s power button), I unlock electronics from my luggage and boot up the computer. I open the calendar and highlight the following Tuesday, marking it as Día de Esmeralda.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007



15. Making small talk with merchants about latest national football result.
14. Wishing I had a billfold of 20s instead of 100s for which nobody has change.
13. Listening to wistful tango tunes on Internet radio streams.
12. Navigating ankle-twisting sidewalks in stride, although not necessarily with grace.
11. Lingering in cafés over croissants and mint mocha lattes for three hours.
10. Showing up to parties two hours late, but still being two hours early.
9. Hailing the bus, and later, executing a moving dismount when it slows but doesn’t stop to disgorge passengers.
8. Kissing strangers hello/good-bye on the cheek.
7. Pronouncing double Ls like drawn-out Js.
6. Shaving four-day-old stubble in four more days.
5. Eating every edible part of a cow at some point during the week.
4. Doing day’s to-do list sometime this week…or next.
3. Getting home by 04:00 qualifies as an early night.
2. Caving into cravings for ½ lb. servings of ice cream at Freddo, Moretto, Persico, Un Altra Volta, that mom & pop shop on the corner.
1. Looking up at blue skies from palm-shaded streets lined with European-inspired facades. Absorbing uninterrupted sunshine. Pressing pause on the game of life to appreciate that I could have landed on a far worse level…and that it’s time for #2.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Celebration of Skin

People ask why I chose Buenos Aires, and not some other cosmopolitan Latin American capital where a strong dollar makes living light on the savings. One reason is that, well, Managua or La Paz aren’t home to an important Jewish Diaspora. Buenos Aires, on the other hand, has the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel. Although not observant by any stretch of the imagination, when starting from scratch (again) in another international city, I at least hoped to have religion as a common thread to tie me into local life should I feel too displaced. It turns out I didn’t have to go far to find it – religion found me.

Heading out for a midnight snack, I left my apartment wearing an Israeli Defense Forces t-shirt. I was just going down the block to Volta for a quarter kilogram (half a pound) of heavenly gelato flavors like dulce de leche con brownie, cream of almonds con caramelized almonds and tiramisu con real chunks of cake.

After crossing the street at my own risk at Junín and Peña (more on this later), a man on the corner with a black hat and bushy beard said something to me in what I guessed was Hebrew. Seeing the confusion in my eyes, he switched to Castilian (Spanish), but got the same look before making a connection with me in English.

After admitting I was Jewish, Rafael the rabbi asked me what I knew about Jabad Lubavitch. The blank looks resumed, so he tried making a connection to some famous rabbi in Brooklyn.

“Don’t you know Brooklyn!” he demanded, hoping I would say yes to something.

My ignorance prompted him to reconfirm my identity with questions like “Were you born in New York?” “Is your mother Jewish?” and “Did you have a bar mitzvah?” After I regained his confidence, he returned to the rabbi questions, digging into his wallet lined with large bills to find a creased black and white photo of a rabbi I still didn’t recognize.

“Without the beard and black hat, he sort of looks like the Pope,” I said sheepishly. Rafael inhaled a large breath of disappointment. But I wasn't totally a lost cause, just a work in progress. We exchanged numbers so that he could invite me over to temple sometime.

A week after the chance encounter my cell rang. I didn’t recognize the number or voice.

“Heyyyy Jeff man, what’s up?”

The hearty, American-sounding greeting caught me off guard. My first thought was a surprise call from a fraternity brother now in Zambia, but who didn’t have my number even if he found a working phone to dial South America.

Rabino Rafael wanted to see what I was doing the next night because there was some celebration at the synagogue. After greeting me in English, he had defaulted back to Spanish, a stronger tongue. I thought I understood him well enough, but sought confirmation of the odd, unexpected invitation.

“So, I can attend the event where they do the skin cutting of the dick?” I asked in suave Spanish, which turned heads on the express line at Disco, a supermarket chain I initially mistook for a record store.

“The boy’s father would love it if you attended,” the rabbi said as I stepped out of line to add to my basket, wondering what sort of gift would be most appropriate to mark the occasion – bottle of Malbec, jar of formaldehyde or Swiss Army knife.

Hanging up the phone, I felt strangely excited to attend my first bris (well, technically my second). Whereas growing up in New York I’d cook up any excuse to skip Wednesday night Hebrew school or marathon High Holiday services, here in Buenos Aires I couldn’t be too choosy with company, at least not at the outset. Having Tuesday night plans other than eating cold pizza in my apartment was comforting, even if I was only going down the street to temple to celebrate foreskin removal. There I could meet locals, practice Spanish and score points with Dios all at the same time.

Uncertainty, however, undercut excitement. I already grit my teeth when trying to communicate with porteños, most frequently when I present a basket of goods to Disco’s mumbling clerks. Discomfort would double at an Argentine temple where, with a yarmulke on my head, it would be expected that I'd be versed in hymns and traditions when the sad truth is that I’m all but illiterate unless Wikipedia is a click away. Worst case scenarios swirled in my mind. What if Rafael asked me to lead a prayer? To bless the wine. Break the bread. Cut the skin. All I could muster would a blessing for Chanukah candles.

The next evening as I made my way to temple, I paused where Peña intersects Junín in free form. Although not even a blip on the city’s grid of poorly controlled streets, I take no comfort as drivers speed up to these crosswalks like a finish line in their race to beat traffic. Barreling down Junín, a convoy of buses belches black smoke while cars shoot across Peña without so much as a stop sign to regulate right of way. When the screeching of tires interrupts my dreams, my mind flashes to this intersection where a black and yellow taxicab (no doubt driving without headlights) has stopped on a peso to avoid driving through the side of bus #101.

An elderly man stood at the corner, looking dapper but apparently not seeing much. Sensing that someone was beside him, he spoke up. Before I could process the translation, he hooked his arm around mine and marched us across the street. I threw up my free arm in hopes of slowing a cab and Fiat running neck and neck to the finish line.

It turned out that the gentleman and I were headed to the same place. The bris, minus the baby’s robotic wails from a different dimension of pain, was a festive event followed by an appetizing spread of finger food and sweets. Rafael introduced me to the head rabbi, and we all did a shot of Smirnoff. For someone who can’t remember the last time he had been to temple, I look forward to making it twice in one week for Shabbat dinner.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

La Vida Nueva

The New Life.

Author’s note:
Three months after saying sayonara to Japan, I began a new chapter on another continent. Hurdles previously cleared were resurrected to adapt to a different language at an opposite latitude. Japan was truly a mystifying experience, through which writing helped me better understand. The urge to share vagaries of another life abroad – seemingly less foreign than before – has waned. So too has the conviction to chronicle. However, rather than remaining silent, I hope to occasionally write vignettes on universal themes. Think more along the lines of neighbors and universities instead of adventures of fishy dinners and naughty school children.

Fresh musings will be posted here on Tokyo Tanenhaus, but under the label of “Argentina.” I do not wish to uproot an identity cultivated in Asia to sow a distinct South American one. These feet will never forget the maze-like streets and subways of Tokyo, even if they learn to tango. As my virtual fingerprint, this blog charts growth like tree rings, each line detailing an adventure or achievement. There is no need to plant a new tree in Argentina; new will sprout from old. As tales from the Far East remain in the works, expect a mixed species.

For now I’ll begin with the soggy day when I touched down in Buenos Aires. Will la vida nueva become la vida Buena? I have six months to figure it out along with everything else that comes with unpacking in another end of the world.

EZE did not live up to its hassle-free-sounding airport code. Ezeiza’s terminal felt like a further step down from the illogically designed Miami International Airport where I had stopped en route from New York to Buenos Aires. Expecting a light dinner at American Airlines’ Admirals Club for which I had a free pass, I instead washed down dry carrot sticks and stale mini-pretzels with cold tap water. This spread was a far cry from the airline’s Narita lounge that served up smoked salmon sandwich squares, wrapped rice balls and self-serve draft beer and liquor free of charge. I hoped it wasn’t a metaphorical sign of the transition to come from life in Asia to that in South America.

A squat security guard blocked the staircase down to immigration where a crush of people were already corralled towards rubber stampers inside glass booths. The man held back a growing tide of sputtering passengers deplaning from two 777s. The other had arrived from Berlin, home to tongues that always sound sputtering to me. In line for the better part of an hour gave me time to dream of a hypothetical childhood as a soccer-loving youth in the squalor of Asunción. Carrying a Paraguayan passport at least would have qualified for the Mercosur speed line.

Unlike my once jittery arrival at Tokyo Narita, there were no probing questions about my intentions or intended length of stay in Argentina. The agent actually asked if I wanted a tourist visa; maybe I should have inquired about the alternatives.

The untiled, unlit baggage claim felt like a flea market. People shouted from behind wheeled carts piled high. I salvaged two bags, one weighing 58 pounds, and queued again. Customs’ x-ray machines were the size and speed of dinosaurs, combing for contraband but eliciting only deep sighs from already harried passengers.

Transfer to a prearranged apartment downtown was smoother thanks to a prearranged taxi service. Francisco, an amiable porteño in his 60s, seemed eager to chat. He encouraged me, despite my rusted Spanish, to ask him any question about anything in the city. I was pretty good at Spanish in high school, but that was ten years ago in a classroom with a teacher paid to praise. Now in the real world, I started slowly by asking his favorite place in the city. He responded, “everywhere,” but singled out the botanical gardens for being particularly pleasant.

Airport cab rides slowed in traffic tend to kindle the usual 20 questions. Among my answers riddled with grammatical errors were a few blatant blunders, such as introducing myself as “a desk” instead of “a writer” and admitting that I looked forward to meeting “little girls” out in the city’s vibrant nightlife.

Francisco thought my Spanish was good enough for only learning it in school. He said that kids study English here, but can’t string together much of a conversation after exams. I told him I was acutely aware of this reality having taught English in Japan for two years.

We drove past a barricaded National Congress where the asphalt was sprayed white with political messages to Argentina’s elected leaders. As balconied facades assumed more European elegance, Francisco said that my address in Recoleta was in the nicest neighborhood of the city, which affirmed what every guidebook had said about this Parisian-inspired area with doormanned lobbies and shaded sidewalks smeared with poodle poop. Francisco pulled up to a door (sans a man) on Peña Street. We wrestled my luggage out of the boot and onto the sidewalk. He then bid me an enthusiastic farewell, tooting the horn while the taxi purred off in the pouring rain.

The lift to the sixth floor was a cage-like elevator with double manual doors. The apartment owner’s mother and agency representative greeted me for the ceremonial contract signing and rent payment. A brief tour of the one-bedroom apartment ensued. During a demonstration in the kitchen, flames roared out of the side of the gas oven. They’d have it fixed, I was told, but in the meantime I was to play it safe by using only the front burner. Another ominous sign was the sinister blue flame of the water heater continually burning through an exposure in the tank.

Not one to cook, I was far more concerned about the Internet connection, my lifeline to the world. Once I got that up and running, I sat down and pondered my fate in a city where I suddenly had nothing to do and nobody to do it with. I celebrated freedom by redecorating – small touches to make an already furnished home feel homier. For example, I programmed the microwave’s clock and converted an empty bidet into a bowlful of toiletries. After all, Americans are far too civilized to need to wash the dirtiest part of the body after use.

The reason behind bidet storage arrangement was that I dared not rest anything on the sink, which threatens to topple from the weight of anything more than a soap dish. The bathroom has proven more problematic than the kitchen. I blew out the light during a wet run of the toilet, and then snapped a plug inside a socket. Sturdier is the entrance door that has more deadbolts than a bank’s vault. And I thought this was the good neighborhood?

Now to some advice for anyone moving to an unfamiliar place: pack lots of chocolate. Like 58 pounds worth. It won’t spoil and gives needed much-needed energy and comfort when you can’t forage anything else to eat because you are too exhausted or disoriented to leave your kitchen.

Today chocolate is especially apropos. Unlike the tricks I engaged in last year, Halloween in Buenos Aires passed uncelebrated. Instead, I’ll deliver treats – images from one of the world’s coolest cemeteries, a necropolis just down my street, which has turned out to be the rotten road of Recoleta….

Entrance to my apartment building.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Color Coordinated

I've previously blogged about autumn's beauty in Japan. In 2005, I delighted in Nikko's seasonal transformation. A year later I strolled through Kyoto and Uji for an even more impressive pageantry. This year I put it all together (thanks to some armchair research) and came up with the top 10 spots for foliage viewing across Japan. The result is a subdued but sophisticated spread in Japan's elite cultural magazine, J Select.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

My Summer Vacation

September spells the end of freedom for students, and the beginning of grading My Summer Vacation journals if you’re an English teacher at Shin Gakko. Back in June I asked Egg Man, the department chair, what assignment we should give our ESL charges over their six week break.

“You mean like some kind of homework?” he asked like I had suggested going against the laws of physics. Apparently such a concept was unthinkable, or at best, discouraged. Above Egg Man’s doubts, I recommended a journal project as an easy, open-ended assignment for students to document their summer vacations. Educational merit aside, I was deeply curious about what the little buggers were doing with their newfound free time.

I designed a booklet with six pages, each split in half. Knowing that there were more cartoonists than wordsmiths among the rows of silent mouths drooling on desks, the top half of each sheet was left blank for optional drawings, photos or newspaper clippings. Double wide lines ruled the bottom half; five short sentences could easily fill the space.

Although originally intended for only my three classes, the assignment quickly won converts across the department. Egg Man ordered hundreds of additional copies; now all 14 high school English sections would be journaling this summer. Such a progressive assignment seemed like a good idea at the time, even at the risk of losing popularity among the moaning students. When school resumed in late August, however, a challenging stack of journals awaited my red pen and its refill of ink.

Scribbles of English were so incomprehensible that I had to limit myself to a dozen journals a day or risk fluid swelling in my brain. Out of more than 500 pages reviewed, my hand-picked favorites are reproduced below. These essays stand out for the lyrical simplicity of their prose that makes for a rhythmic and poetic read even if results run well wide of the grammatical mark. Without any further ado, I present to you:


The summer of Japan must fan. It is very convenient though it is not a wind of nature. Mosquito incense coil. Peculiar shape. Smell. There is an electric type today, too. I thought that the culture of Japan was very wonderful.

It is July 24 today.
Visiting a library on the way.
Children who had been doing the insect removing in the park were seen.
I thought to play in such a wind recently.
Such hot everyday.
It is likely to have to play outside only on such a day.
It was hot today.

First day, we are swimming in the pool and sea on the hotel all day. At night, we have a dinner at the hotel as smorgasbord, which there are Japanese, Chinese, Western food, fruit dessert and various drink and so on.

I went to sea with my littler brother and cousin and uncle and ant. Today is hot. I can few swim. So, I used float ring. I swimming in the sea. Then, I was nearly drowned! the wave was floated my float ring to the shore. I thought die.

August 15 sunny + cloudy
I couldn’t do homework. Because it is very hot today. My room was very hot when I comed from school. I will do homework. But, it is hot today. So I feel a lack of motivation. I think that I want to do cold tomorrow.

August 16 Wednesday
I met an old friend again. He is mother’s boy. I gathered in a house of a friend. I ate curry to lunch. Nose hair stick out. I was very happy on that day.

Today is August twenty three.
I went to school because today was
toukoubi. This means go to school day. Teacher talked about new term. I thought that I haven’t finished homework yet. I thought that Vacation has already ended for two weeks. I thought that how early it is!
I thought I sad.

8/31 – It is a day the last in summer vacation today. Homework has not ended yet. I think it is staying up all night today. Please help someone.

For other Engrish entries, have a look back on past compositions at other schools.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Tax Office Jitters

...Continued from previous post.

The Shinjuku Ward tax office was a nondescript building in a nondescript section of Shinjuku, just beyond the shadows of the district’s celebrated skyscrapers. At first I walked right by, mistaking the four-story structure set back from the road for a school – a class of building molded from a similar concrete cookie-cutter batch.

Inside, the room of bureaucrats silently shuffled papers at retro metal desks under light fixtures yellowed with age. Lines snaked on the worn salmon carpet as people waited to turn in forms I didn’t have and couldn’t read.

Not sure of where to start, I walked up to an unstaffed counter. My strategy for assistance was one of entrapment. Looking helpless becomes an advantage when playing upon the innate sensibilities of the Japanese to deliver superior customer service no matter who the client.

I set myself as bait, standing tall and vigilant. One glance and Hiroshi was hooked. Our eyes met. I reeled him in with a smile and wave of papers (actually just the map the Oracle had circled).

Short spiky hair and acne-scarred cheeks gave him a fresh out of school look. Hiroshi was easily the most junior on the graying staff, and as a result was probably under 9-to-5 orders to serve whoever the wind blew in, such as clueless gaijin like myself.

Even though we couldn’t communicate, he dutifully ushered me to a long table with a wood pattern laminate peeling from the corners. I had seen this before. I flashed back to elementary school lunch tables on which I unwrapped the tinfoil around a PB&J sandwich my mother packed with two Saran-wrapped Oreos and a napkin inside a brown paper bag.

Instead of taking out my lunch, I handed Hiroshi the earnings slip that prompted the Oracle to steer me here. Turning in the paper was like loading batteries into a robot. Hiroshi sprung into action, picking up a form that looked like an accountant’s crossword puzzle. He plugged numbers into formulas, tapped on a calculator and juggled the results into rows of white boxes.

“Maybe you owe money!” echoed the Oracle’s haunting forecast.

That outcome worried me. Here I was going out of my way to do the right thing, and I prayed to be rewarded with a tax payout, not punished with penalty for a balance due. I watched Hiroshi’s tabulations with the fixation of a tennis line judge. Refund, refund, refund, I chanted to myself, holding my breath for the sum to settle. Totals climbed with additions and tumbled with subtractions. I felt like I was on some kind of personal finances game show hanging on to see which way the balance would tip.

¥26,820. Hiroshi put his pen down. Positive or negative? I sought clarification in his eyes, but he directed them towards his senior who had appeared behind him to supervise the calculations and translate the result into English.

“This number is your refund,” the man said of my approximately $240 windfall.

I exhaled. In my next breath I naively asked for my winnings in cash, drawing laughter from both employees. A casino this was not.

As I scribbled my bank account information on a deposit form, another sheet of paper appeared. It was a letter – in English and addressed to someone else. Apparently I had to do some off-the-books work to secure my money. No matter what a foreigner’s occupation in Japan, no one is immune from at least some degree of teaching English. Spontaneous tutoring arises without warning and in unusual places, like here at the local tax office. I ignored irregular capitalization as I proofread the letter about a foreigner’s double filing mistake. When I, too, rested my pen, we traded bowing thanks over the long table.

Outside the rain had stopped, and the pavement gleamed under thinning clouds. On my way home I decided to stop by the Oracle to share news of my good fortune.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Oracle of Shinjuku

“There are only two things you have to do in life to be a good citizen,” the Honorable Justice Evans pleaded to the half-filled central juror room at County Courthouse. “Pay taxes and do jury duty.”

After two postponements, there I was reporting for duty less than a week after returning from Japan, which doesn’t have such a legal system, but is considering adopting it. In the meantime, were Justice Evans addressing Tokyoites, he might substitute proper disposal of household garbage for jury duty. Paying taxes anywhere is a given, except maybe in Dubai.

As I looked forward to fulfilling civic duty in America, I thought back to qualms I had about shirking it in Japan. I had cleaned up my act on garbage after initial infractions. And I never had to think about taxes since they were automatically deducted from my teacher’s paycheck.

Complacency with being a good foreign resident changed with the arrival of an official envelope from the Shinjuku office of Tokyo’s city government. Not lost among its thick contents covered in small, indecipherable characters was a bolded bottom line: ¥104,200 with four pay stubs for ¥26,050 each. I only had to read numbers to know I had debts equivalent to $900 due two weeks before I departed.

With time of the essence, I sought a one-stop authority. I asked for an audience with the Oracle. Unlike her predecessors from ancient Greece, China and Mesopotamia, this glasses-rimmed granny didn’t look particularly divine behind a bare desk with a nine button telephone.

And rather than “ask for an audience,” I simply walked into the Shinjuku ward office. Nonetheless, her advice was not to be taken lightly. She dispensed such wisdom that I consulted this bilingual bureaucrat four times in my final two weeks. To her, it was a day job. To me, a personal concierge ready to tackle the nitty gritty of getting a pension refund or recycling a water-logged laptop. Charged with helping Japanese-challenged foreigners figure out affairs, the Oracle became a lifeline to wrapping things up in Japan before I shipped myself back to New York.

Frustration preceded reverence. With a grasp of two languages and within reach of a telephone, the Oracle delivered a painful reading at my first consultation. She decoded the suspicious envelope, which was an unwelcome parting present for residence tax owed. While coincidence rather than prescience delivered the bill before my checking out, its bottom line could not be ignored before my imminent departure.

The Oracle was not sympathetic. “You must pay now” became her patented response to each sour face I threw up in opposition to parting with such a hard earned sum.

Pouting to the Oracle would get me no where, but another foreigner waiting in the Oracle’s on-deck chair offered advice of his own. A Japan veteran, the Ph.D. student gently interrupted to explain how changes in tax laws had hit everyone hard. Residence tax in particular had skyrocketed. He knew of people who owed double or triple what they had paid last year.

“But I didn’t pay anything last year!” I cried.

“That’s because your first year in Japan is free,” he said. I was getting nailed for my second year just days before I left for good. He understood the temptation. From the corner of his mouth he insinuated for me to drag out the installments for as long as possible, and to leave without saying good-bye, especially not to anyone official. The Oracle observed the exchange while brooding from her seat.

To pay or not to pay wasn’t the question. It was a matter of how much. Posts from online forums steered wannabe evaders to pay just enough to keep names off the top of the delinquent pile on the tax collector’s desk. I wrestled with how much was just enough. One installment? Two? Or get installments further subdivided and pay even less before slipping away.

I couldn’t block out the Oracle’s uncompromising tone ringing in my ears: “You must pay…you must pay NOW!”

A whispering voice on my other shoulder countered, “Drag it out for as looooong as pooossible.”

Battle lines were drawn in a fight for my morality. Rules were rules, but the Oracle’s do-right demands were hollow; if I wasn’t renewing my visa to stay longer, there was no mechanism to force my compliance before jetting off for good. In the unlikely event that immigration asked for proof of payment, I might be detained until I cleared my name. According to the online community, the specter of such a scenario was about as remote as locusts descending upon the concrete of Tokyo.

Here at the end of my Japan adventures, however, I felt a moral imperative to do right. After all, hadn’t I broken enough laws in this honesty first, by-the-book country? The number of smiling lies I fed to immigration about my intentions for visiting. The three months I taught on a tourist visa. The mega amounts of prescription drugs I smuggled in my luggage to avoid headaches from customs and monthly shipping charges from overseas. To make up for the past, my conscious was guilting me into full compliance.

A few days later I decided to pay the Oracle another visit. A smile of recognition gave way to an eye of suspicion.

I confessed immediately. “I already paid one installment!” It was due before I left, so paying that one was never in question.

I already knew the Oracle’s stance on the rest. Yet I was here for a different issue – getting a refund for payments I made into the national pension scheme. I showed her an assortment of confusing paperwork. One small slip of paper caught her attention. It was an earnings and tax statement from the current year. The Oracle revealed that if I was leaving, I might qualify for an income tax refund, but only the national tax office could tell me for sure. This building housed, among other departments, the tax office for Shinjuku ward where my residence tax would be collected.

A pension and income tax refund would help offset losses from the remaining installments of residence tax. I would be doing everything by the book while reducing the blow to the balance in my bank account.

Just then, the Oracle had a second thought. Storm clouds massed outside.

“But maybe you must owe more taxes,” she warned. “I don’t know.”

Thunder crackled. Lighting flashed. It rained locusts. The thought of voluntarily walking into the income tax office and coughing up more money made me choke, but the Oracle had spoken. I would heed.

She pulled out a map made illegible from countless reproductions, and circled my meeting place with Tokyo’s taxation tribunal. Twenty minutes later I reached their office, and it began to pour.

To be continued….

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Below is a published recap of a day trip I took with Jen back in January.

To view the Ashikaga photo set, click here.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Afternoon at the Arcade

I'm no fan of boxing or the bland Ikebukuro district of Tokyo, but the other day I had a little fun with both. Thanks to Michelle for finding this gem, to Jen the videographer, and to my video-skilled sister for pasting it together.


On a sad side note, this will be my last post from within Japan proper. Although after two years I have decided to move on, the backlog will ensure the blog's continuation for the foreseeable future.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Bali's Lesser Known Neighbor

My jumping off point to Triple Paradise was Lombok Island, which is the subject of the article I wrote below. Click it to enlarge.

For the full set of Lombok photos, click here.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


I’m pleased to report the reunion (in all its denim) was a success. In the words of Yelena, 2002 class reunion chair, “I just love those jeans on you.” Thanks, Yelena.

The other compliment came from my friend Heather’s psycho freshman year roommate. In the barbecue buffet line, I had my hand on a hot dog bun when hers grabbed my shoulder. I took me a moment to remember who Pam was, but she didn’t miss a beat.

“Oh my gosh, Jeff, you look great! The goatee looks so good on you!”

She wouldn’t have said the same for some of my fraternity brothers who I bumped into at the diner down on Main Street Sunday morning. With bloodshot eyes and stained t-shirts, the three zombies smelled like they had slept in a landfill.

“Hey guys…what’s up?” I asked with hesitation.

Yogi went first. “Odie pissed his car.”

Odie went second. “Yogi broke the lock off the [frat] house with a rock to use the bathroom but hosed himself right there standing up.”

It was Jester’s turn. “I woke up in Butterfield [dormitory]. I have no idea how I got there.”

I surveyed the group with arced eyebrows. Then Odie spoke up, admitting that, yes, after a night of binging on beer pong he passed out inside his Ford Explorer behind the house and lost control of bodily functions.
Jester (left) and Odie exchange paddle slaps after winning a point in pong. They'd both be on the losing end come sunup.

“Yeah, and he also booted all over the driver’s seat!” Yogi volunteered.

"Shut the hell up, Yogi, no I didn't."

There was no denying, however, that Odie had also drained his truck's battery. Yet Yogi and Jester weren’t home free. The SUV (Smelly Urinated Vehicle) was their only ride back to Boston.

* * *

After reliving liquid college memories followed by a week of hosting a Japanese friend (blog entry forthcoming), I found myself sitting aboard American Airlines flight 167 bound for Narita.

During the delay at the gate, I polished off leftover apple pie and a container of chunked melon and strawberries for breakfast. Now past noon, I was ready to snack again. I inflated my air pillow and settled into my coach seat. With legs on this 6’2” frame, I can vouch that American does have more legroom.

I was nibbling my third handful of Snak Club Yogurt ‘N’ Nut Mix when an unusual announcement came over the PA.

“Ladies and gentleman, the mother of a little girl in seat 42B has alerted us that her daughter has an extreme allergy to peanuts. Anyone seated nearby is asked not to eat peanuts.”

I stopped mid-munch. Snak Club had no cholesterol, no preservatives, but plenty of peanuts. Was I the subject of censure?

I glanced up at my seat assignment. 36B. Six rows. How near was near, and was I far enough away from near? How much of a whiff of peanuts was gonna choke the little girl’s throat? What if I left the offending nuts in the bag, could I keep indulging in almonds, raisins, dates and irresistible white chocolate chips – mouthwatering bits of perfection my taste buds suddenly craved at any price? I mean, there were plenty of other little girls on the plane. Healthy ones, too.

My jaw locked shut for fear of contaminating the air with peanut particles, the fallout of which would surely suffocate girl 42B six rows back. I decided to sacrifice for the greater good, and carefully rolled up the plastic bag.

“Excuse me!” barked a voice from behind.

Shit, too late! Wrongful death was my first thought.

Like the airline’s Boeing 777 fleet, Marilyn the flight attendant was an aging hen rolling through the aisle in preparation for take off. Unlike slinky stewardesses on Asian carriers, Marylin and American's girls were probably now grandmothers who had pedaled beverage carts long enough to land the coveted international routes. Grace had worn off years ago. Riveted elbows and sliver hair matched the exterior of the fuselage.

“EXCUSE ME?” she clucked again. “Can you get that? I can’t reach.”

And just like that she resigned herself from closing the overhead bin above me. For the base fare, taxes, security fee and fuel surcharge I paid to sit on my air pillow, I didn’t take kindly to a do-it-yourself attitude from an employee of an airline behind schedule.

She moved along tapping shoulders down the aisle, delegating duties to Chinese and Japanese passengers who couldn’t catch her rushed instructions in English. I did her job and fluffed my cushion. Buckling my belt, I reached for the seat pocket and unleashed the bag of nuts.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Introducing...The Staff

Generally speaking, the staff here at Shin Gakko is excellent – friendly, tolerant and dedicated to a fault. They treat us foreign teachers as quasi equals even though we are, well, barbarians who break house rules with only casual teaching credentials to our name (i.e. being native English speakers). Below are staff vignettes with Anglicized nicknames to protect the innocent and mock the guilty.

Personal secretary to Mr. Ouchy. Never fails to "herro good morning!" me with her only three words of English while we’re riding the elevator to the 8:15 a.m. staff meeting.

A dear of a home economics teacher. Young, sweet and single.

Biology Bob
Quirky science teacher I sit next to in the teachers' room. Never seen him eat lunch all year.

The Bento Babes
Three mothers who staff the school canteen (“The Bento Shack”) where bento box lunches and vacuum-sealed breads are the source of lunchtime sustenance when I don’t have time to chow down on Bertha’s cafeteria cooking.

Bertha & the Kitchenettes
Bertha leads this endearing cafeteria cooking crew. Her bright smile, short graying hair, strong forearms and stronger work ethic merit a comparison to a Japanese Rosie the Riveter. The best part of working at Shin Gakko is their bathtub-size curry rice or fatty sauteed beef bowl.

British co-worker who amuses me with his daily antics in an otherwise by-the-book atmosphere. Once accidentally exposed himself to Gloria.

Commander Kickshit
Overzealous, gruff boy’s P.E. teacher with an impressive wardrobe of matching Adidas tracksuits. Hates kids and English even more. Dishes out an excessive number of pushups to his lanky charges. Could benefit from a rainbow Care Bear or a bear hug.

Egg Man
A pun on his real Japanese name, Egg Man and I teach English to my insolent homeroom class of 7th graders. “So what we gonna do?” is his patented phrase before we enter the room. With the little monsters waiting inside, I’m tempted to call the Ghostbusters.

English Inc.
Faulty placement agency that duped me into this job. While its employees are nice as individuals, I’ve butted heads with the company over working conditions, salary, health insurance, time off and everything else in my flawed contract.

Perhaps the longest tenured teacher at Shin Gakko, Esther reminds of my eponymous late grandmother with her passively barbed comments. Despite my limited role as a human tape recorder in her two sections of 11th graders, I look forward to class as a way to spiritually reconnect with Grandma.

Terse custodian who sweeps the halls with a grimace. Has no qualms about mopping the men’s room while I’m doing time on the can. Normally a shadowy background figure, Gloria once took center stage when she tumbled down a flight of stairs outside of my English class.

Head of English
But ironically one of the worst at it, Head is an example of textbook learning gone horribly wrong. I bite my tongue whenever he begins sentences with fundamentally, as you know and namely. Case in point: “As you know, in five minutes, namely 8:25, there is a homeroom class of fundamental English.”

Gloria’s gloved subordinate.

Mr. Microphone
Balding audio-visual guy who wears dark sunglasses even inside his studio cave outfitted with floor-to-ceiling sound equipment circa 1986 and flickering monitors with murky images.

Ms. Mitohara
The most helpful and competent English teacher I’ve ever worked with. She has been my lifeline to any and every question concerning a frustratingly disorganized school management. Yet as a junior teacher and a woman, responsibilities bypass her in favor of more senior and English incompetent male colleagues.

Ms. Murasaki
Prim and proper, this Japanese language teacher is unfailingly polite. Behind that perfect façade, however, I just know that she yearns to abolish English language instruction and banish the barbaric foreigners defiling her country in the name of teaching it.

Mr. Oki
This young and dumpling-shaped English teacher and I teach two sections of 10th graders. Future dream: escape Japan and move to Melbourne.

Mr. Ouchy
A pun on the principal’s Japanese name. His chauffeured black “President” model sedan idles out front sparing him the 15-minute walk to the train station.

Soccer Dan
Finally, a hip math teacher! Tall and 24, Dan draws a line of girls at his desk seeking extra attention after class. Once a soccer player in college, the sportsman keeps in the game as a coach for the boys’ team who rank just behind baseballers as the big men on campus.

Sunshine Suzuki
Ebullient and enthusiastic, this female gym teacher coaches the 7th and 8th grade girls. For my assistant gym teacher duties, I am fortunate to be paired with her rather than Commander.

Suzuki & Suzuki
Two sister spinsters staffing the school store stocked with overpriced mechanical pencils and notebooks. Hairnets, buns and white-powered faces are a throwback to pre-war Japan.

Reminds me of my grandmother after she began forgetting my name or that, yes, we have class today and, yes, it started five minutes ago. Her English pronunciation is so mangled that even I have trouble catching the non-sequitors spitting from her mouth. We team-teach one vacuous class of 10th graders who silently count down the minutes until the bell ends foreign language hell.

Unfriendly Wendy
Crotchety head receptionist holding court in the main office where Arlene sits. Faxes my monthly timesheet to English Inc., begrudgingly.

Dwarfy librarian never without her maroon apron and thick glasses. Possibly having an affair with Mr. Microphone.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Day of Denim

In the five years since I’ve graduated from college, peers have outpaced me with more framed pieces of paper and larger bank balances. Now this weekend it’s time for our first reunion, where no doubt I’ll have better stories over beers in the Class of 2002 tent, but I’ll also need something more to measure up. Style.

Of particular concern is what to wear on my bottom half. Go-to Diesel jeans have worn away at the most inconvenient place – the crotch. So, too, have A+F boxers, compounding the exposure of a private area in public places. Sitting on the subway leaves me especially vulnerable.

Over two years, clothing expenditures in Japan have totaled $20 for a new belt and second-hand jacket. Stylistic differences and size realities have ruled out flirting with Japanese fashion, which is probably for the better. Purple tank tops under three-quarter button-down stretch shirts look fine on their rail-thin frames, but would leave me feeing self-conscious even at a gay mixer.

Unsure of where to hunt for men's denim, I guessed that OIMEN department store would be a good start. I tensed up walking into the ground floor, also ground zero for accessories. Snakeskin shoes, belt buckles larger than my fist and enough glittering chains to make Mr. T blush all screamed high fashion out of my league. Despite sounding like a narcissistic brand snob, I find shopping to be stressful and degrading (hence buy only brand names to make myself look positively stunning).

Boutiques and responsive attendants filled OIMEN’s eight floors. Some enthusiastically engaged the lone foreigner by pulling recommendations off the rack as I walked by (see above remark about J-boy fashion). On the second floor I hovered around a promising shelf with jeans in hopes of sending a silent signal for help. I even unfolded some and held them against my legs. Why was no one running over? Was my booty that out of proportion? Or worse, were these women’s jeans?

I built up the nerve to ask the teenage sales girl if she had the paint-splattered denims in large. She acknowledged the request with a nasal shriek and shuffled off – literally jogging in baby steps – and returned with a counter-question: would I like to try them in medium?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I made a classic gaijin (foreigner) mistake by walking into the fitting room with shoes on feet. The footwear foul must have incensed the clothing gods; the jeans wouldn’t budge above my knees. Salvation knocked on the door and handed me a large, but in a style so splattered that the jeans were almost white. Out of politeness I tried them on – up until my thighs.

I was just pulling my old jeans back up when the door swung open. The head salesman looked in without apology. A more suitable client stood behind him with two pairs in hand. I stumbled out of the fitting room as casually as possible, clutching sneakers in one hand and belt loops in the other.

I buttoned my fly and tightened my belt on the up escalator, and contemplated the challenge before me. Jeans in Japan had to fit three criteria, the second of which was fitting me. First they had to pass a style test – funky but not flamboyant. Next I had to pass the physical challenge – squeezing American thighs into pants designed for a people with pencils for legs. Finally came the price check. With tags often $175 and up, would fashion come at any price?

On the third floor, directly above the fitting room fiasco shop, I spotted another rack of denim, and parted it with authority. I stepped back. The style was exactly what I was after – whitewashed creases radiating out from the groin (looks better than it sounds, trust me).

I sucked in air through my teeth as fingers fished for the size tag inside. Actually, one glance at the thighs said enough. I could fit my arm through the leg hole, but not much else. Criterion two failed. Game over.

Out of curiosity I checked the price of what would have been. My eyes lit up – they were under $85. Momentum restarted. Behind the small size was a larger pair – LL to be exact. The planets were aligning.

I rushed to the nearest attendant, who was folding sparkly skull and crossbones t-shirts. His sun-kissed skin complemented hair dyed auburn. Manicured bangs swept over one eye. He was a textbook example of かっこいい (cool guy). His jeans were ripped and roped, and studded with brass buttons down the leg seams. A white t-shirt matched his smile, or chagrin at having a foreigner on his hands. In haste, I yanked off still-tied sneakers and ran into the dressing room.

I emerged.

“Such long legs. I’m jealous,” he said.

“No, no. My thighs are a little big,” I admitted while testing out the hip huggers, which did the job without turning legs numb.

“They look good on you,” he said, bending down to examine the cuff that flared out. “Just right.”

I turned to put on sneakers that, tightly tied, I had kicked off outside of the fitting room. They now sat neatly aligned and undone. The thought of this superstylish guy laboring over my New Balance laces brought out an “only in Japan” smirk.

He folded my purchase like it was the emperor’s robe, and sealed it inside a plastic bag that he lowered into a shopping bag over which he slipped another plastic bag to guard against the morning’s drizzle.

His duty wasn’t done until he walked me five feet to the door, bowed and politely asked for my continued patronage. I dually thanked him (as well as the clothing gods). With solar eclipse-like odds of finding jeans in Japan, expect me back around 2087.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Outing in Akihabara Part II

...continued from last post.
Some passages of this post are sexually explicit. Reader discretion is advised.

I had been conditioned to seeing the boys in black uniforms, but on this Sunday we were far from locked school grounds. Noki arrived so camouflaged that I didn’t recognize him, although he stood out like Rambo dressed head to toe in fatigues from a hunting hat down to black combat boots laced high. He slung a matching backpack over one shoulder. Oversized brown sunglasses completed the enthusiast’s ensemble.

I fumbled for words, but only laughter let loose. The kind of knee-jerk snort like if you saw your dad in drag. Honda picked up on my poorly disguised reaction.

“This crazy boy,” he said, maxing out his conversational English.

Honda (center) had his own look. He was grooming himself to be a typical Japanese pretty boy. A diamond glinted from one earlobe. Snug jeans rested low on his hips with a Louis Vuitton wallet peeking out from the back pocket. A dark velvet blazer hugged his shoulders while neatly tied around the neck was a fake Burberry scarf, a ubiquitous accessory among trendy teenagers like his friend (left).

In our distinctive outfits – solider, fashionista and off-duty teacher in khakis – we marched off to explore the urban jungle of Akihabara with Noki of course leading the charge.

One subset of geeks is perverts, and bookshelves in Akihabara are packed with perversions. On this day I saw enough bulging cartoon breasts on magazine covers to satisfy me for a lifetime. The industry trend seemed to be the bigger the better, and boobs inflated beyond the size of beach balls were not uncommon.

Permutations for erotic poses were endless. Some girls wore skimpy school uniforms. Others, bikinis dripping in cum. Boobs came bound in chains and rope while another popular theme was girls’ caressing the chests of playmates.

Once you’ve seen a few, you get feeling you’ve seen them all. That was until I came across a cover with a wolf-human clawing into bleeding vaginas. Nearby, penile-shaped tentacles of an anthropomorphic octopus penetrated all orifices of a gagging schoolgirl.

Honda typed Japanese into his electronic dictionary. The translation read, “This causes sour relations between Japan and countries concerned.” I was more than concerned. I was nauseous, and was about to feel worse.

Up and down stairs Noki weaved through floors with narrow aisles of paperback fantasy worlds with twisted illustrations. Grisly graphics were not bound to the printed page. A video game running on demo mode challenged players to select an animal and rape chained girls with ferocity. Success was measured by the level of white liquid dripping into a pot at her feet.

I asked Noki if he was ready to leave.

“I must check this floor,” he said with diligence. “Checking many floors is very important.”

I, however, had seen more than enough, and wondered if they were even allowed to be seeing any of this. Honda typed again and showed me the result: “Persons under the age of 18 are not admitted.”

“How old are you!” I accused them once we were back outside.

“Sixteen!” they chimed in unison as I followed them into the next store.

Filled with endless volumes of comics, this basement bookshop was at least tamer. Curious collections included: Chrono Crusade, Venus Versus Virus, Arrivederci Alicevenice, Lunatic Saga, Butt Backraid and the not-so-Shakespearean, As You Like It featuring a not-so-studious schoolgirl.

Noki showed me his favorite, a series called Rozen Maiden. I recognized the girls on the cover as those on his fan and day planner he brought to class.

“I don’t like real girls,” Noki confessed. “I hate them.”

As Noki explained the characters, their strengths and the battles they faced, I sensed his kinship with the maidens. The books about these girls now seemed normal compared to other subjects in stock like Love Doll Hole, How To And More.

Browsing further, I noticed an evolution in cartoon chests on covers. Muscled arms and exposed torsos were locked in group embrace. I picked up a paperback called “Brothers,” but the men looked more intimately familiar than just family. Contrary to my first thought, this was not the gay manga section. Noki said that “Boys Love,” or BL, was a genre for girls. It seemed only fair that if men can flip through pages of girl-on-girl action that women could fantasize about groups of amorous guys.

The final fantasy adventure in Akihabara was a reality check. As soon as we stepped back outside, two uniformed officers moved in on Noki.

“Are you here shopping in Akihabara?” the policeman asked.

“Yes, we are going to some stores,” Noki said. Honda and I backed up a step.

“So you’re here shopping?” the policeman reiterated in typical Japanese-style interrogation. Passersby slowed to whiff the unfolding drama.

“Actually, he's here to wage guerilla war on soft targets,” I wanted to interject. I lacked the language skills to do so, but saw an opportunity to practice.

Since there were two officers, I engaged the one not frisking Noki’s fatigues. I told him that Noki was a friend, but that I was no otaku. He asked me what country I was from and how long I had been in Japan. Sensing the next question would be about my job, I changed the subject. I didn’t want Honda implicating me and piping up about my being their teacher.

“Tokyo is so safe,” I marveled. The cop cocked his head in doubt. “Well, my hometown is New York.”

His head straightened and he smiled in agreement before turning to his patrol partner who was wrapping up his search. Failing to find a knife, pistol or other 凶器 (murder weapon), the policeman released an embarrassed Noki.

Interest in us faded, and so did my feelings towards Akihabara. I warned Noki and Honda not to be late for English class tomorrow morning and disbanded.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Outing in Akihabara

Akihabara means different things to different people. For technophiles, it’s mecca for the latest gadgets that hit shelves here before they do in the States. Meanwhile, technophobes can dig up a spare part to a dinosaur desktop or score an original Legend of Zelda Nintendo game cartridge from 20 years ago (used to love that one). Representing more ordinary tastes, I have browsed Akihabara for an iPod and a digital SLR camera.

Tokyo’s Electric Town also has an underbelly. Akihabara is ground zero for a nerd subculture drawing devotees of anime (animation), manga (comics) and cosplay (costume play, photo left) to its glowing precincts. Words can’t do justice to this fantasy world that for otaku is the only reality for these “obsessed house-broken geeks.”

Noki is an otaku. He’s also my 11th grade student, and one of the friendlier ones, too. Shirking the school’s required black blazer, he stands out like a flamingo on an iceberg full of penguins. The next layer of the uniform – a white button down shirt – flaps untucked and unbuttoned to reveal his true character: a t-shirt with anime characters.

Anime obsessions do not earn respect among high school peers, but Noki wears his hobby like an honorary shield, which must magically give him protection. The boys’ dress code dictates that blazers be buttoned up like straightjackets. Teachers reprimand those who casually keep two top buttons open, one over the limit. Yet I never saw anyone challenge Noki for sitting in class naked, relatively speaking.

The bell ends the struggle of students’ listening to another language. They file out of the room happily chatting in Japanese, but Noki lingers to reassemble. During the course of class he’s kicked off his shoes – and if summer, socks – and littered the floor around his desk with handouts.

I confer with the Japanese teacher about the lesson plan for next class, which falls every Monday and Wednesday morning. From the corner of my eye I catch Noki creeping up. He’s waiting to tell me something, and I know exactly what it is.

“I went to Akihabara last weekend,” he announces if it’s a Monday. (Wednesday’s opener is, “I will go to Akihabara this weekend.”) Noki is admittedly an Akiba-kei, a pejorative term for an Akihabara-type person. The label still seems benign at his age, at least more so than for those in their 30s branded for similar obsessions.

Noki answers my question before I’ve asked it by showing me his newest anime acquisition. During class I saw him keeping cool with this plastic hand fan, which turned out to be decorated with cartoon girls busting out of maid’s costumes and brandishing weapons far more dangerous than dust mops.

“Which one do you like best?” he asked.

The question caught me off guard. Did he mean sexually? I mean, how else would I “like” them? Lust mulled their heaving chests and oh so slender figures.

“Um, I’ll take the one with blue hair and nunchuks,” I said, slightly ashamed over where my mind just went.

“I, I like this one.” He pointed to a character with sharp red hair cascading down to black socks hiked up to the knees. As I checked her out, oversized auburn eyes flashed at my intrusive gaze. Her raised sword forced my eyes to surrender.

I looked up. Noki was one of the few students who conversed with me willingly, so I was happy to be engaged on any subject. In due time, polite interest earned me and Honda an escorted tour through Akihabara’s subculture that made the sworded maids seem realistic.

Honda and Noki made a curious pair. Honda played the class clown when not otherwise preening his spiky hair, which he fussed over to the exclusion of anything topical. Although he sat in front of Honda, Noki’s position on the totem pole of high school coolness couldn’t have been more distant. Girls extended a sympathetic wince if a friend got paired with Noki for conversation drills. But who was Noki to care? His mind wasn’t bound to the realm of realism anyway.

Perhaps admiring Noki’s rebelliousness, Honda courted him as an ally for in-class mischief, but I never expected them to join forces outside of it. On this occasion, however, temptation was too great. For Honda, a journey beyond classroom boundaries into his classmate’s passion while with his English teacher would be something to brag about come Monday morning, just in time for our first period class.

That class began at 8:50, but punctuality wasn’t in Noki’s or Honda’s vocabulary. They were usually the last two in their seats after the second bell. Honda reveled in any reproach that shifted the bad boy spotlight on him.

It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that while waiting at our meeting point in Akihabara station, my phone buzzed with a text message:

I am sorry , may be we will late to meeting. so Please wait . for us w(oOo)w

It was from Honda’s number, but with Noki’s name as the author in the subject line. Honda could barely introduce himself in English while Noki was the only student I knew who didn’t own a cell phone. Reasoning was a matter of finance mixed with obsession: why pay a monthly contract when such money could be saved for the next big game release?

Forty minutes later they arrived, whereupon irritation dissolved into speechlessness.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mountain Ramen

Friday evening is a special time, marking the transition from the freshly finished workweek. Monday morning’s obligations are a small, dark cloud on the horizon. First come two nights of smooth sailing, each followed by a morning of slumber and the rest of Sunday to recharge.

In college, after classes on Friday I hosted a weekly news radio show that bridged the divide between lecture halls and fraternity row later that night. Even though nobody tuned in, broadcasting through a microphone was therapeutic and marked the beginning of the weekend’s liberation.

In Tokyo, I turn to basketball to air out pent-up frustrations, often courtesy of absent-minded middle schoolers and ineffective team teachers. I continue to stick with the gym in my old neighborhood now 40 minutes away by subway. After the game I head to Monzen-Nakacho’s name-knowing local restaurants that feel like the closest thing to home when 7,000 miles away from it.

Satisfaction from a surprisingly successful game (12 pts, 10 rebs, 3 blks, 2 stls) collapsed into shock when I rounded the corner to Java. My first Monzen-Nakacho hangout had been my favorite outlet for a glass of dark beer, home-cooked beef stew and casual conversation in English with Narumi the proprietress.

This pub with an eclectic interior had now been gutted. Naked wires hung like strangled snakes from the ceiling. A notice with a big phone number was taped to bare glass once covered with a patchwork of tapestries from Southeast Asia. I assumed the number wasn’t for takeout, and shuffled down Eitai Street to find another place for dinner. Knees ached from running the court, and now my heart had a small tear from Java’s sudden closure.

The chill in the air steered me to a familiar ramen shop that I valued for is hearty portions and, more importantly, picture menu. I always pointed to the same noodles mixed with pork and caramelized onions, garnished with a runny raw egg. The long counter was also a blessing when dining alone and trying not to feel like it.

Reaching for a menu, my hand recoiled as if the paper had sprouted thorns. By my standards, it had indeed mutated beyond recognition. The new menu did not include a single picture, much less a word of English. I panicked. The staff would expect me to order soon. From behind the counter sounds of bowls banging and water hissing as it boiled made me sweat with indecision. Asking for an English menu would be a futile embarrassment. Asking for a standard miso or soy sauce-based ramen was akin to ordering sandwich with white bread in a deli. It was too late to leave, so I stalled by pretending to peruse columns of bewildering kanji characters while I racked my brain for a dignified solution.

Now two years into this adventure, I was suddenly knocked back to its early days when I didn’t understand anyone or have a clue about anything. Days when I relied on pointing to plastic models in shop windows, and still wasn’t sure what I was about to eat. The resurgence of helplessness and solitude was a stomach-turning reminder as to how little I’ve progressed even at simple tasks.

Pulling the “Oh I’m ringing and it’s really important!” ruse and hurrying back out to the sidewalk worked once upon realizing that the only thing rotating around the sushi conveyor belt was empty dishes; later in the evenings you have to order your fish instead of plucking whatever looks good coming down the line. That night I opted for convenience store take away rather than trying to pronounce Japanese fish names in front of the local panel of judges behind their piles of soy sauce-stained plates.

Extricating myself eventually came from an overlooked source – the menu itself. Amid the hieroglyphics I picked out a phrase I could digest: 味山ラーメン [literally, miso mountain ramen]. It sounded like the standard miso-flavored ramen, perhaps with some mountain vegetables. Or so I thought.

I stopped sweating and ordered. Relief was short-lived. The mountain ramen was twice the size of any ramen I had ever seen. It had the stability of a cone balancing three scoops. Just looking at the steaming mound sated my mild appetite. Chopsticks felt like leaden rods. For fear of stirring the pot (and triggering a noodleslide onto the counter), I nibbled on cabbage cherry picked off the summit.

Just then a group of 10 co-workers entered with designs on sitting at the counter, capacity 12. My seating shield – a group of four near me – retreated to pay, leaving me naked in the middle. As they strategized on how to squeeze themselves around the foreign obstacle, I moved my mountain to the corner of the counter.

Mr. Kurihara, in a gray suit and puffy red cheeks, plopped down beside me with gratitude. He wiped his round glasses. He seemed impressed that I was from New York and could speak a smattering of his native tongue, but was blown away by the size of my ramen. Three of his juniors also wiped their glasses to get a better look at the spectacle still smoldering before me. In a rare role reversal, they ordered “whatever he’s having – ”

“It’s the mountain ramen,” I interjected with authority in Japanese. I flipped through the menu and pointed out the listing. They cooed in understanding. I resumed digging in, but hardly made a dent even after five minutes. Waiting for his own noodle and vegetable mountain, Mr. Kurihara leaned over with one last question:

“Do you give English lessons?”

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Triple Paradise

Sorry for the lack of postings lately. I have been traveling in Myanmar and Thailand for the past six weeks. I'll write more soon. In the meantime, here's an article about a previous expedition to Indonesia's Gili islands. Click on the image below or read the online version here.

For more pictures of paradise, click here.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Dinner with a hook

Here's an article I wrote about my favorite restaurant in Tokyo:

For more pictures of what it's like to catch your own dinner, click here.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Culture Day

Nasal automated announcements sparked up nostalgia. I was back aboard bus 67 bound for Kanokita Junior High. The smokestack of the ward garbage incinerator loomed in the distance, marking the vicinity of where I once taught perverted boys and sometimes drunk girls, underachievers all.

No lessons were scheduled. Today was Culture Day, a national holiday every November when some schools stage student performances to parents, friends – or in my case – former staff. I had been looking forward to the reunion ever since Ms. Hattori had mentioned it during our summer outing. (Nothing like accepting a causal invitation.)

I hopped off the bus in front of the familiar grocery store, the source of mid-morning sustenance in between uncontrollable classes. Teachers and parents welcomed guests at the main gate. I felt out of place returning half a year after saying good-bye for what I thought was forever. I no longer worked there, and the connection to former students had faded in my absence.

After all, I was an English-speaking mouth contracted for a niche role for a limited time only. Another interchangeable part had since replaced me, this one imported from Australia. Over the summer, Ms. Hattori told me that he was a “very strong” teacher. Given these students, teachers had to be able to take it on the chin. Repeatedly.

Some kids came up to me to touch hair especially spiked for the occasion. Coming back after graduation is a chance to show off just how cool you’ve become (which I reinforced wearing a “Local Celebrity” t-shirt).

Some students matched my “maturity.” A metal ball pierced Maki’s chin. For the boys, longer hair seemed en vogue, and leader of the pack Me Too Pants Dropper sprouted a Japanese-style fro. A year older, students were also a year closer to the edge of rebellious adolescence. Some had already succumbed to its teenage temptations. I bumped into Harajuku Boy in the courtyard. His cherubic smile couldn’t mask the odor of tobacco on his uniform. We traded an awkward hello.

Next to him was another boy I recognized with hair now colored auburn. Theoretically rigid school rules forbid individual forms of expression like dyed hair, long hair, piercings, makeup, or any markings or accessories on the skin or uniform (much less Marlboros). I spoke to him in Japanese because the only English to ever come out of his mouth was piecemeal vulgarities. He, too, reeked of smoke, and I challenged him about it. Instead of an apology, he stunned me again by whipping out a condom from his uniform pocket. The smoking, the sex. I didn’t know where to begin, and didn’t have the language skills to try. I shook my head and walked inside the gym-turned-auditorium.

Culture Day at Kanokita consisted of each class singing a song on stage. The PTA judged the contest before doing a number themselves with some of the teachers and principal, which nearly plunged the place into chaos because so few teachers remained to police order.

On a day with the outside community present, there was still no hope of hiding hallmarks of disorder. Despite an auditorium full of their parents, students were raising hell for teachers embattled like Anglos at the Alamo. In Japan, schools are expected to shoulder the burden of disciplining teenagers, and parents can fault the school if their child causes trouble even off its grounds.

Speaking of trouble, among the rows of students I spotted the Tribe of Terror – a girl-powered tornado that swirled through the hallways kicking up insurrection. They intimidated students and teachers alike, and I was no exception. The white-haired principal tried unsuccessfully to confiscate their cell phones while other teachers shushed clamor that drowned out the half-hearted singing. One bright spot, however, was watching Mr. “Do you play sex, everyday?” lead his class as their conductor. Their melody moved me to take this video clip:

At lunch, I caught up with last year’s youngest mischief-makers, including Crotch Grabber. We cracked a few old jokes before I was told I could go to the supermarket to buy food and eat it with the custodians downstairs. So much for the days of eating with the students.

After lunch, the opening act of a dozen kids was decidedly awful, until I realized they were the “handicapped” class I once guest lectured. Their gentle ways had been a refreshing contrast to the clowns upstairs. With this tough crowd, they were courageous to sing on stage no matter how off key.

I couldn’t understand a word of the school play (but took cues from the backdrop that it was set in a forest), and decided it was time to leave.

The main gate was blocked.

The Tribe of Terror had been kicked outside and took up positions along the perimeter where they listened to music on their cell phones and picked on anybody who came into range. Heading straight toward Seiko and Maki – the eye of the storm – my stomach clenched. Sure enough, they harassed me one last time, sending me off with the big nose song. While I was happy to reconnect with students who gave me such inspiration for writing, I was even happier to leave them under someone else’s responsibility.

The reunion took an unexpected turn on the train station platform when I was tapped on the shoulder. It was Mr. Yamato, Nubata’s young yet overworked English teacher. Although it was a national holiday, he had been at school coaching the tennis club, a sport he admittedly knew little about. I congratulated him on being promoted to a homeroom teacher, and of course asked about my favorite students, a decidedly more docile breed than those at Kanokita. They hadn’t forgotten me either. On the first day when their new foreign English teacher was introduced, he heard murmurs of, “Hey, that’s not Jeff. Where’s Jeff?”

If only this year’s crop of students at Shin Gakko were half as sincere. More updates to follow.

Monday, March 26, 2007


Last June I traveled to Israel on a Birthright Israel program that sends first-timers for free. Here are two articles I wrote that were recently published in Japan about Israel.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Teacher, Can You Spare A Coin?

Spit hit the curb with a smack outside of 7-11. It was 8:06. My eyes moved up from the ground to the source of the guttural noise. I knew that kid. A 16-year-old with a freshly shaved head, his white shirttail peeked out the back of his black uniform jacket. Matching trousers hung low on his slim thighs. He wasn’t my student, but I’m sure we had talked on occasion, probably about coarse rather than course subjects.

His arm amorously wrapped a classmate as he initiated a private moment in a public place during morning rush. One of the great things about Japan is the taboo on P.D.A., which he was flouting while spitting on the road (much more acceptable).

We both reached the door at the same time.

“Oh, sensei [teacher], ohayo!” he greeted with a devilish grin.

“Hey, how are you?” I asked what’s-his-face.

“Oh, sensei,” he cocked his head and repeated, unable to muster the simplest answer in English.

We headed for the same aisle, he for breakfast bread and I for fruit juice. Selection was good. Bread shelves were stocked with all of your favorites like chocobread and peanut butter cream Danish.

“Whaddaget?” I asked.

Corn bread. And by corn bread I mean yellow kernels embedded in white stuff on a Danish.

“That’s disgusting,” I said in Japanese.

“Nah, it’s delicious,” he countered.

I turned back to scan the juices and make a final selection.

Sensei” he called. “I forgot my lunch.”

“OK, well, here you are,” I said, waving to microwavable pasta with hot dog slices and egg salad sandwiches stuffed with the yolks of those hard boiled.

This morning I felt like apple juice.

Sensei” he called again. “I forgot my money.”

It was the quiver in his voice that turned me around. I stared into his drooping eyes for clues on how to react. His girlfriend stood in his shadow. Wasn’t she less forgetful? Whether the kids like it or not (and most do not), I get paid to be their teacher. Yet here was a chance to do something more than that. Here was a chance to play dad. I moved closer. I didn’t have to think for long.

My hand intuitively dipped into the outer pocket of my bag. I felt the raised edges of a ¥500 ($4.25) coin and fished it out. His eyes were trained on my bag, waiting to see how much I’d pull out. I felt like everyone in 7-11 had also paused to witness charity in slow motion.

Compared to the rest of Asia, there aren’t a lot of needy kids in the world’s second largest economy. Yet here I was giving the gift of lunch money – enough to make Sally Struthers proud.

Sensei, arrigato. Arrigato, sensei!” he thanked while cupping his hands to receive the oversized golden gift.

He said it would cover him for both today and tomorrow. Then he grew silent. It was my turn. To foster some sense of responsibility, I told him in which teachers’ room I sat.

“Tomorrow,” he cried in Japanese.

“OK,” I smiled.

“Or the next day!” he added, heading to the register.

N.B. Hey kid, “tomorrow’s” been three months and counting. Sensei wants his gold coin back.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Interview with the Foreigner

I’m more used to writing about others than being written about, but Shin Gakko’s in-school magazine included me in their quarterly issue (click picture to enlarge). Don’t mind my photo, although at least my tie matches my flag. In case you are like me and those pesky kanji are like Greek to you, here’s what I had to say in plain English. Questions are listed exactly as I received them. Answers, however, may deviate slightly from the Japanese printed.

1. Where are you from?
Brooklyn, biotch. You steppin’?

2. What good things about your country?
A lot of space for living and the freedom to live the life you want comfortably.

3. What makes you come to Japan?
Fresh sushi, jinsei-keiken(life experience), schoolgirls in short short skirts.

4. How long have you been in Japan?
20 months. Time fliesね!

5. What makes you attract about Japan?
Good food, healthy portion sizes, reliable trains, and interesting culture.

6. What’s your favorite Japanese food?
Sushi (salmon, salmon roe, eel, tuna).

7. What’s your least favorite Japanese food?
(N.B. green perilla leaf also known as shiso used as a garnish in sushi and other dishes.)

8. What’s your favorite place you have visited in Japan?
Daytime, Kanazawa. After dark, the neon (red) lights of 歌舞伎町.

9. What’s your hobby?
Traveling, photography, writing.

10. Have you ever experienced any jobs (excluding teaching job)?
Sports instructor in Guam. Paralegal in New York. The usual.

11. What’s your motto?
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Harder.

12. Do you speak any other languages?
Español, which despite not using for almost a decade is still light years ahead of my Japanese. (Sigh).

13. Please give our students to your message.
The world is big. Go discover some of it. Learning English can be your passport to new places.

Monday, March 12, 2007

B.J. Play

Being a foreigner in Japan has its ups and downs. So although I wouldn’t normally pay $35 to see “professional” basketball in Japan, I made the most of free tickets for foreigners to attend international day at the arena. I upgraded to better free seats walking to the will call window – only in Japan do fans give away premium tickets. After tipoff, I wondered if anyone in Ariake Arena had actually paid to watch the last place Tokyo Apache battle suburbia’s Saitama Broncos in a match up of B.J. League rivals (the unfortunate acronym stands for Basketball Japan).

Banners in Engrish were scattered throughout the arena: “BS Freaks,” “Try Our Best,” “Our Way. Our Will. Our Win.” and – my favorite – “No basket. No life.” Indeed, the scoreless Apache looked dead as the Broncos stomped all over them in the early going and never looked back. Although the Apache logo is a bird, some boosters wore headdresses that would have made the University of Illinois’ recently retired Chief Illiniwek blush.

C-list celebrities on the court included Apache coach Joe Bryant, Kobe’s dad; Broncos forward David Benoit, one of my favorite former reserves on the Utah Jazz; and a Michael Jackson. A mix of races and sizes squared off as small Japanese guards swished threes from the perimeter while African-Americans like Benoit muscled inside for driving layups.

Not having an affinity for the home team’s garish purple uniforms or a suburban team in kelly green, I rooted for Benoit, who played well despite limited minutes. The contrast, however, saddened me. Once a substitute for Karl Malone, the NBA’s greatest power forward ever, Benoit now came off the bench in a country that has sent just one player to the NBA, which was a short-lived experience for Mr. Tabuse.

As for the game itself, I bet Kobe’s dad wished he had his son on the court, or any other Laker past or present for that matter. Even though the game was out of reach, I felt self-conscious about being the only one to pack up early. With less than a minute to play fans from both sides were still glued to their seats.

Score one for the suburbs, Their way. Their will. Their Win.
Final: Saitama 91, Tokyo 75.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Tohoku, We Have A Problem

Within the first two weeks of my new commute to Shin Gakko, I was delayed more times than in the previous year combined. I can thank the Keihin-Tohoku line for that. It’s one of Tokyo’s busiest, and as I’m learning, most breakable.

One morning the train stalled in the station for 10 minutes, rattling my confidence in Japan’s to-the-minute timetables. However, as this line also serves the 2,000 students at Shin Gakko, I felt safety in numbers showing up late.

Two weeks later it got worse. Much worse. Ascending the platform at fun-sounding Okachimachi station, I saw a blue train stuck halfway in the station. The doors were closed, but some passengers were inside. Concern crossed the face of the young conductor poking his head out of the window. After an unusually loud horn, the train lurched forward 15 feet and halted. On the opposite side, a green Yamanote line train glided into the station. I smirked to the suckers stuck inside the blue train, and hopped aboard.

Blue and green lines run parallel before green splits off to loop around central Tokyo. I thought I’d be clever to bypass the disabled blue train by riding the green one to the last of their shared stations, and catch a blue train further down the line.

Four stations later, I joined the throngs at Tabata station. I had outsmarted myself. There were no blue trains here. Everyone was waiting for the one stuck at Okachimachi. And when it did get moving, that train would be packed with four stations of stranded commuters.

Long overdue, the blue train arrived to an agitated swarm of commuters jockeying for inside position. I laughed to myself. They would never all fit. I didn’t join the fray because I had chosen a poor day to shed my laptop’s bulky carrying case in favor of an unpadded messenger bag.

As only the Japanese can do, everyone squeezed aboard. Except for me. Alone on the platform, I felt their stares drawing me inside. I scanned their pained expressions and noticed a woman smiling at me. I returned her smile with a shake of my head. I was waiting for the next one, which would be almost empty. Had I outsmarted myself again?

The doors never closed, and passengers were gasping. Embarrassment turned to satisfaction as riders rethought their decision, and began lining up behind me. An incomprehensible announcement (at least to my ears) led more to switch sides until the train was less full than when it arrived. That’s when I went in.

I spotted two of my students standing inside. Now with enough space to safeguard my laptop, I joined them. They became my lifeline for what qualified as a serious delay, but one that was seriously refreshing.

Some locals gathered along the fence watching the empty tracks. The silence was deafening. Today, the rails shined brighter. Concrete buildings looked a little more charming. The unpredictable had tossed routine on its head. Fretting commuters checked their wrists while I rocked back on my heels.

I spotted the same youthful conductor, and took an interest in his increasing exasperation. No one confronted him, but he could feel the scorn of hundreds of grumbling commuters. I wanted to buy him a beer after this run. It was Friday for me, but his weekend (career?) was ruined. He announced alternative routes to reach destinations, including mine. It involved transferring three times when all I wanted to do was take this train directly there.

If you’re late, you might as well be really late. I wasn’t in the mood to move, and of course the lazy junior high kids weren’t either. Service resumed after 20 minutes, and despite a reverse commute, plenty of people were now waiting to go to the suburbs. I staked out a corner and stood facing the wall to shelter my bag in front of me.

The conductor announced stops with his eyes closed. He looked 22, and was breaking out around his temples. The microphone trembled in his white-gloved hands. His voice remained composed over the P.A. system, but speaking from the back of his mouth and not his diaphragm, it sounded like each word would be his last. The burden of everyone’s lateness was suffocating him.

And then it suffocated me. Passengers flooded in at the next station. I saw one of my students get carried away in the human tide. Uniforms, briefcases, and backpacks crunched together. I got thrown face-first into the wall, and the safe zone for my laptop vanished. I elbowed the bag above the masses, and cradled it on my shoulder like a baby in rising floodwaters. Toes tingled and my arm tired; I rested the bag on a schoolboy’s back, his cheek smeared against the glass.

When the doors opened at my station, it was like pulling the stopper out of a bathtub drain. Train etiquette in polite Tokyo doesn’t include waiting for passengers to exit before boarding. I waited until the flow had reduced to a trickle to make my move, but once again misjudged. The tide reversed itself before everyone had cleared out, and commuters – backed up into the stairwells – rushed in.

I punched into work 30 minutes late, but was hardly the last to arrive. Quadruple suicide? I asked the other teachers the cause of the delay.

“Nah, they can hose that down in five minutes,” another foreign teacher said. “It must have been a signal problem.”

On the way to first period, I mechanically asked a high school girl, “Hi, how are you today?”

“I’m surviving,” she said with a smile. Surprised at her skillful English expression, I couldn’t have agreed more.