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.