Sunday, July 31, 2011


Tokyo comes on strong-- never stronger than when the floor starts shaking at three in the morning. The earthquake turned out to be another non-event, and I got to play the expert by guessing a magnitude (3) before hitting the TV to check the urgent update from NHK. (I turned out to be right, pleasingly.)

As a kind of capstone to the 'Japan experience', Mom, Dad, and Gregory have joined me in Tokyo for the beginnings of a vacation, scheduled to take us from Tokyo to Osaka by a circuitous route over the next several weeks, with me as amateur translator and guide.

For my part, I feel weirdly as if I've ended up in another Japan entirely-- my traveling companions attract a very different type of attention than I did while alone and the change in atmosphere between Tokyo and Akita is shocking. Amazingly, the feeling is less of sticking out, as I did in Akita, than it is of being studiously ignored as if one were a mild but not uncommon annoyance.  I'm sure I preferred the former-- at the very least, it triggered some memorable conversations with passerby. And the intestinal complexity of Tokyo's organic maze of streets, subways, and commuter lines of various has fallen in large part to me, a navigator less of the school of Magellan than of Google Maps, to navigate, at some cost to my sanity. It seems clear that, in the final analysis, I'm just not a city mouse.

That being said, the sheer scope and variety of this place is amazing. It's not uncommon for cities to have distinctive districts, but Tokyo seems to change character within the space of blocks. I'm not the first commentator to note that the place is less a metropolis than a series of villages, but the observation is apt. Walk a mile in any direction from our hotel, on the edge of Ueno Park, and you'll run into any one of half-a-dozen zones, each with its own, distinctive atmosphere. Each feels like a place, a destination-- and crossing between so many, as we did today, winding between Senso-ji in Asakusa to the gates of the Imperial Palace, produces a sensation of constant contrast that makes Tokyo feel somehow improbably more massive than it is. And that, it must be admitted, has its own charm. More later.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hassha-jyunbi kanryou

 Ben "Early to Rise" Franklin would probably despair of Kazuma, my roommate, who usually doesn't manage to rouse himself before around 1 on off days, and, when, as is my wont, I woke a minute before my alarm clock's scheduled wake-up at 6:30, it didn't look like he was planning on making an exception for my move-out, conveniently quashing any fears I might have had about a mushy, drawn-out arting. So, quietly closing the bed-room door (leaving a note that I hoped would say more), I rolled up my futon, turned in the key at the dorm head office, and caught the 8:30 bus to Wada Station, watching behind me as I clipped off the last of my bus tickets. It wasn't until AIU disappeared, presumably forever, around the bend, before the finality of the thing really began to sink in.

A bus and a train later, I found myself in Akita Station, overrun, this being the first official day of summer vacation, with uniformed groups of students, sitting in loose herds on top of their school-issue knapsacks, or wandering in twos and threes towards the station's attached shops. With an hour to kill, and seats already reserved, I figured I'd follow along. Like most large train stations the world over, Akita features an attached mall, positively lousy with souvenir stands, food outlets, and small restaurants-- all, if you're used to facing hard decisions when looking for something that looks safe to eat at the average American train station, of head-spinningly high quality. Looking for a packed lunch, I bought a bentō of assorted flavor fried-tofu/rice inari-zushi, and, lured by a charmingly proffered free coffee sample, popped into the station's import food store to have a look around. If ever there was an object lesson in the strange bedfellows of globalization, this was it: English tea rubbed elbows with export-marked bags of Taiwanese Doritos and Indonesian-origin Funyuns.
Cultural appropriation in action. And no, I still wouldn't try it.

Once I remember reading a weird old book whose author, of the mildly tin-foil hat persuasion, was convinced unflinchingly that the shape of the glass Coke bottle lured its customers by subliminally echoing the curves of a woman's body. I wonder if the effect is theorized to be stronger or weaker if you make it this obvious...
Equipped with my bentō and a normally-shaped bottle of sparkling lemonade, and checking my ticket, I made my way to platform 11 to wait for my train's arrival, planning to dig into a historical-fiction manga I'd picked up in May but never had time to read.

I looked up to find that I'd become the background for a group photo being taken by an energetic group of around 30 be-sneakered high-school girls wearing shirts that identified them as a Miyazaki Prefecture high-school varsity basketball team, closely chaperoned, it seemed, by their coach, who hurried over to apologize.

Teacher:"Um, so… sorry to bother"

Me--<Oh, it's all right, no trouble at all!>

T:<My goodness! You speak Japanese! Girls, look! Isn't he good?>

Me--<Oh, not at all-- I really just started studying>

T<Fantastic! So natural! Everyone, maybe you can ask him some questions. It'll be good practice.>

Girls: <Where are you from?>

T: <In English~!>

Me: "Oh yeah, English is fine too-- uh, I mean, <English is fine too>"

G: <Oh, um, right. Err…>

G: "From…. how long…. Japan?

Me: <Err, do you mean 'Since when have I been in Japan?'>

G: <Yeah!>

Me: <About 3 months.>

T: <Three months! And he can already speak so well!>

Me: <Well, there was around 3 1/2 years of Japanese studying before that, but yes, this is my first time in Japan.>

T: <Wow! So soon!>

It took a good several minutes for the teacher to wear out her enthusiasm for complimenting me, but that done, I managed to have a very pleasant chat with the group, who indeed turned out to be from Miyazaki-ken, and were just on their way back from a several-game series with Akita schools. It seemed like no time at all before our train had pulled into the station. I found my window seat, wrestled my bag into the overhead baggage rack, and settled in for the trip south.

Exactly as my watch ticked over to our 10:56 scheduled departure, the Komachi Akita Shinkansen, a streamlined super-express "bullet train", pulled out of the station with an almost subliminal smoothness, the nearly inaudible purr of the traction motors masked by a sparkly little ditty over the PA. As I looked out my window, two little boys, wearing their elementary-school issue hats and Pokemon rucksacks, ran after us, laughing wildly as they were outdistanced by the engine's building speed. At the end of the platform, a white-gloved signalman bowed to the waist. And before I knew it, we'd left Akita behind us altogether.

We winged eastwards towards Omagari, the narrow-gauge commuter rail-lines' power-poles, parallel to our track, blurred by speed into Art Deco streamline smears, the distant scenery sliding past with surprising haste as the engine began to really stretch its legs. South of Kakunodate, I popped open my bento and watched the distant, cedar-forested hills roll past as I worked through the black soybean inari into the wasabi/mountain vegetable rolls. 

The mountains grew lower and further away as we passed Morioka and Sendai, where, next to the train station a few miles from the coast, I could see several tile-roofed houses covered with sandbags and tarps, the better to keep the rain off until earthquake-shaken tiles could be replaced. Like Kesennuma, the inland had been largely spared, it seemed-- though I was sure that, since the town was rumored to have been totally laid waste in the American media, matters were sure to be worse by the coast.

We cut through low, wooded hills one after another south of Sendai, as the train picked up speed again. I bought an apple sherbet (<Made from Aomori Apples!> off the onboard snack cart, balancing the cup on my laptop as we sped over a viaduct and a ticker at the front of the car spooled out the Mainichi Shinbun's weather report for Tokyo and points south. The landscape outside the windows seemed abruptly to have flattened out as we reached the verges of the Kanto Plain, and with it, the outskirts of Tokyo. 

 And almost before I knew it, I was grabbing my bags and leaping from the train in Ueno Station, feeling a long way from Akita-- a long way from home.

We're Off

Exams came to an end on Thursday and the school organized a bit of a half-hearted farewell party the same evening-- a strangely poorly-attended affair, all things considered. Free to leave at will upon the completion of their exams, most all of my friends had already hit the road, posting scattershot goodbyes on their Facebooks. If I was worried about teary goodbyes, I needn't have-- there's something a bit weird about coming to breakfast, asking about So-and-So-san, and finding out they just hopped the last flight to Kyushu. But, then again, even if I'm leaving my new friends, I'm not quite done with Japan-- by the time this posts online tomorrow morning, I'll be on the southbound shinkansen for Tokyo, there to start the first leg of a 2 1/2 week vacation that will close the semester.

One group that hasn't yet left for home, though, are the AIU Kanto team, practitioners of one of Akita's more famous non-demon-related cultural events.  Soon after the end of the spring term, Akita City holds its annual harvest festival, its centerpiece a parade of massive bamboo poles hung with lanterns like a stalk of rice heavy with grain. These, each with a mass upwards of 50 kg, the marchers balance precariously on their arms, heads, and backs, chanting an invocation intended to bring about a good crop, accompanied by the skirling of flutes and the beating of taiko. Always keen on community participation, AIU fields its own team of drummers, pole-balancers, and flautists-- for weeks their practices, held in front of the municipal soccer stadium I visited in April have been audible  And, as rain loomed over the parking lot, we were treated to a smaller scale re-enactment of the festival:

More later, assuming on-time arrival in Tokyo!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Final Phases

There may have been scheduled classes, but it seemed like a waste to let the last bits of free time before my return go to waste without getting a little better acquainted with the city of Akita itself-- so this Saturday, I printed out a map of the downtown from Google and hopped on the 8:30 local headed into town with very little in the way of a plan beyond a stated intent to wander into as many cool things as possible.

I turned left out of the station on a whim, and found myself, after a few blocks, in front of what proclaimed itself to be a "People's Market"-- the Communistic name nothing more than an unfortunate consequence of translation, as far as I could tell.

Inside was, as I'd hoped, a covered food market of the type that is perfect for snacking, weird-food investigating, and general flaneurie.
I picked up a package of cherries in the fruit section, before moving on to Meats and Fish.
Hi guys.
Prepping a halved salmon for sale. On the right of frame, the square off-white packages are, if memory serves, fin whale meat, which I saw in several of the seafood stores. Looks to be about 920円/$10 per pack.

 These are <hoya>, a specialty food more common in Tohoku and Korea. English speakers know them as sea squirts. I hear they're an acquired taste.

Breakfast wore off a little early, so I called a halt at a little lunch-counter udon place that seemed to be doing most of its business with other shopkeepers.
Noodles made on premises, according to the sign. I don't doubt it-- they were excellent.
Hard to beat a bowl of wakame-udon for a ¥350 lunch. And dang tasty.

Udon-enhanced, I set off back in the direction of the park, stopping along the way to investigate the Atorion, a 7-story souvenir shop/concert hall a block or two from the station, and one of the few things my guidebook even bothered to mention about Akita. A breezy look at coming attractions suggested that the editors may have erred.

It's like one of those musician jokes. The one where the concertmaster wakes up in Hell.
The souvenirs turned out to be as lackluster as the coming events, so I headed off in the direction of Senshu Park, built on a hill that once served as part of the defensive earthworks for the city's former castle, once the residence of the Satake clan daimyos.

The present owners had been nice enough to fill what I surmised to be one of the moats with fantastic-looking lotus and water-lilies, now in full bloom.

Across the bridge into the park, my guide informed me, was to be found the municipal art museum, its collection principally donated by one Hirano Masakichi-- an unfortunate turn of events, as I quickly found out. Like so many money-rich, taste-poor collectors of his era, Hirano, as far as I could tell, had apparently had assistance in assembling his collection from an expert. His choice, however, left something to be desired-- rather than a Duveen, it looked like the hapless tycoon ended up falling in with one Tsuguharu Fujita, a Frenchified (down to an affected Gallic "ou" in the 'official' spelling of his surname) former expatriate artist about whom Wikipedia can say nothing nicer than that his fame rested chiefly on "stylistically unique" renderings of  women and cats. I have to hand it to 'Foujita'-- despite the fact that his style wandered over his career from twee, unschooled, mock-Chinese ink-paintings to a hideous, fruity Socialist Realism by way of an blood-weepingly ugly attempt at Post-Impressionism, and that, from the dozens of self-portraits scattered throughout the gallery, he looked something like Tojo Hideki with worse hair, he'd apparently been quite the salesman-- even managing to pawn off on Hirano a monumentally huge yet weirdly slapdash-looking oil-painting depicting seasonal festivals in Akita. The perfect gift for your worst enemy's zeppelin hangar.
One of the largest oil paintings in the world, so they say. 
Fortunately, Hirano had also apparently found the time to purchase a couple of minor Picassos, a minor Van Gogh self-portrait sketch, and a complete series of late Goya etchings on a bullfighting theme. From what I could tell, bullfighting around 1816 involved a startling degree of audience participation, and the odds weren't always in favor of the guys with the capes. The best of the images were both statuesque and dynamic, their motion frozen in a way that, instead of the mechanical arrested motion of a camera,  strikingly evoked the way that single shocking moments linger in the human memory-- surrounding detail faded out to a blur, the central figures caught exactly at the crucial moment with a chilling intensity. 

With a few hours left before my train home, I left the Hirano Museum to noodle around the park itself. Hiking up a forested hill, I soon found myself at the park's center, the partially restored grounds of the former castle.
Forbidden, as former enemies of the Tokugawa Shoguns, from maintaining a grand central keep, the ruling Satake family had built instead a large earthworked compound with several smaller defensive structures, a few of which had been rebuilt in the 1980s. 

Here's Yoshitaka Satake, the last daimyo of Kubota Domain, as we learn from the plaque.
A small history museum occupied a former defense turret, and I popped in to take a look. Not a lot of the densely-written Japanese-language material in my brochure got through to me, but I was pleased to find that the exhibit featured one of those old-school push-button dioramas depicting the castle town as it would have looked during the height of the Edo Period.

On the fourth floor of the turret, the museum planners had included a balcony, the better to compare the old view with the new. 

Quite the change, I thought, leaning on the railing, and looking out towards the mountains. Amazing how quickly the time goes.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


I'm not sure if it's a personal quirk, or an unremarked feature of all language learners' experience, but
after about a month of concentrated Japanese study, I found that alien phrases-- first short half-sentences, then steadily longer constructions-- had begun working their way into my daydreams, sticking there like burrs on my mind, floating unprompted to the surface when my mind wandered to hover on my lips like a banal, faintly unnerving mantra. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the word choice: I once spent an entire day stuck on the word <高等教育>、(kōtōkyōiku, "Secondary Education"), still longer on the phrase <発信準備完了>(hasshin-jyunbi kanryō, "Launch preparations complete!")-- as catchy a sentence as it is useless-- and I still find myself bemused when I let my mind wander for a second and find myself mumbling something like the Japanese word for <Artificial Coloring> inwardly.

This is the long way around to saying that I found myself turning over <歳月、人を待たず>
(saigetsu, hito o matazu- "Time waits for no man") over in my head the other day, and reflecting on how quickly, indeed, the time has gone. The higurashi sing from the trees at evening, and already, I find myself packing boxes for the trip home. The air is chill in the lunch room as everyone gets steadily more frazzled and stir-crazy-- less talking, and a lot more thousand-yard stare right into the depths of the spicy-squid-over-rice.

Not for me the moping stare if I can help it-- although the desk is full of chocolate almond wrappers and iTunes shows that I've been spinning through the works of Thomas Tallis a bit more than seems wholly healthy. High time for a mood boost--which brings us to this Thursday, when I signed up on short notice for a one-day AIU-elementary school exchange in Oga, located an hour north-west of Akita.  It wasn't my first time-- as the only source for willing, enthusiastic, English speaking college students for several hundred miles, AIU's liason office runs dozens of such programs monthly, and I'd hit several before.

New educational standards now oblige Japan's mandatory English foreign language classes to start in elementary school, and what seems like almost all of the grade schools in the prefecture have, as a consequence, worked hard to set up one-day enrichment programs for their kids, enticing would-be English pronunciation and grammar models with bookstore gift cards and, (more importantly, as far as I'm concerned), the chance to spend some quality time with excited 1st through 6th graders, who, in my regrettably limited experience, rank high as good people to hang out with. And this time, I planned to actually get some pictures of the proceedings.

I slept on the bus ride north, along with the 5 or 6 other exchange kids who'd come along, waking more or less as we made it to the elementary school itself-- to see a double row of kids with flags had been dispatched to cheer us into the building, a slightly unexpected choice-- and kind of like being the President, if the  receiving line was allowed to actually hit you from nose to knee as they waved you into the building!

  Dropping our shoes off at the entrance, we forced our feet into the typical visitors' carpet slippers and made our way to the teachers' office for a briefing on the  day's activities. In all my previous excursions, this was delivered by the principal, and only after, as guests, we'd been offered coffee or tea. Usually this was where I'd be pressed into service as a translator for my less-experienced classmates, so it was therefore a pleasant surprise to be met in the teacher's lounge by a tall Australian fellow, who introduced himself as Joshua. This was the school's assigned Assistant Language Teacher-- part of a government-sponsored program, JET, that assigns circuit-riding English-speakers to Japanese classrooms across the country to serve as bi-weekly conversation examples.Joshua explained that today we'd be running a couple of classroom sessions, then a late Tanabata themed event-- but first, lunch. Outside, I could hear the welcoming community quietly fidgeting. Joshua half seriously asked us if any of us had trouble with small children, before inviting in a representative from each of the elementary grades to show us (boisterously, by both arms,) to our rooms.

 School lunch (only for elementary and I think some middle-schoolers-- high schoolers pack their own) is always eaten in homeroom here-- the lunchladies bring carts with trays and keep-warm buckets of food (rice, a daily vegetable,  fish or some dumplings, milk-cartons and sometimes a bowl of miso soup), and two daily "lunch monitors" take turns to unpack the carts, (on one of my visits, the monitors put on cafeteria-lady smocks and hats first), and serve their classmates. Then everyone pulls their personal chopsticks out of their pencil case, busts out with an <ITADAKIMASU!> ("UNTRANSLATABLE GENERIC FOOD-THANKS RITUAL PHRASE!") and digs in, before washing up, brushing their teeth, and repacking the cart before the next period.

I was surprised, and almost a little bummed, when, before ordering me through the lunchline, the home-room teacher actually asked if I was a vegetarian and told me I'd get my lunch later-- but I still got to sit with a table-full of inquisitive 6th-graders and have a carton of milk for the first time in an age, while being bombarded with left-field questions ranging from my favorite color (current answer: orange), animal, (crow), Dragonball character (comedy answer obligatory) and number (what else but 42?) to my marital status. It was a shame that almost none of this happened in English-- the game was up as soon as I explained my diet.

It was clear, once we'd finished our lunches, that the school intended to make the most of its visitors-- we were brought en masse to the gym following lunch, and, before the cameras of the school administration, run through a rehearsal of our self-introductions (in English, this time), and, in an unexpected twist, asked to demonstrate how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors in English. What formal didactic purpose, exactly, was intended in demonstrating that Americans and Australians have a different set of phrases and timings for a schoolyard game will probably remain forever veiled in mystery (although, at a stretch, it can't be denied to work as a small-scale demo of linguistic-cultural diversity,) but we had a great time organizing a lightning RPS tourney, in which, I am pleased to say, I came in second.

The kids got ample chance to school me in the next event-- we were set, with paper, tape, and glue to make origami decorations for Tanabata. We were long past the holiday, but it made a perfect excuse to get everyone working together-- more so in my case, since my skill with origami is hilariously next to nil.

An "advanced" activity was set up as our final event of the day-- this too, rock-paper-scissors related.  Divided into "ninja" (the kids) and "samurai retainers", (us), we were assigned to play rock paper-scissors in English-- the ninja having to defeat three ranks of "samurai" in a row-- to determine which of the children would depose the principal and become "English Shogun". Pictures make this easier to explain-- not least because of the excellent hats (imitating the samurai's traditional coif) we all got to wear:

And then the day was over, and we were ushered back to our buses, but not without being handed a sizeable goody bag, complete with hand-made "business cards" from our students, and then ushered back out through a similarly rowdy receiving line.

Not a bad day, if I do say so myself.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Some time ago, you may remember me promising an actual photo of me at work hauling sandbags of junk in Kesennuma.  This is it: I guess I wasn't grimacing as much as I thought.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

More Ikebana

Finals are here for sure- my first was a practical for Ikebana.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Interstitial Notes

Uh, yeah, that "back on schedule" thing doesn't seem to have worked out. Nobody likes a complaining blogger, but, as AIU slides towards Finals, I've been assigned a steadily increasing load of presentations, final papers, and tests, and to add insult to injury, my writing Saturdays have been converted to class days in order to compensate for the earthquake. Here's a video that was originally going to accompany my next update. This is footage from a small cottage-industry bamboo-shoot cannery run by an acquaintance of Kobayashi-sensei. It's not exactly the height of technology, as you see:

but the results were delicious, especially when dipped in a mixture of mayonnaise and miso, as in the video.

In any case, I've been a little too busy to post, and the Dolorous Stroke came two days ago, when I received the worst bug bite of my life. Yes, I know a bug bite--if only my immune system was so dismissive. As far as my mast cells are concerned, I'm at death's door. Whatever sank its fangs into me decided to go after both of my arms simultaneously, and injected some kind of Oriental Instant Death Essence that has engulfed both my forearms with painful, itchy blisters, and now appears to be triggering a generalized immune-system freakout across my entire body. Guess who forgot the Benadryl at home? That's right. Guess what's apparently illegal for sale without prescription in Japan? Oh yeah, baby!

Fortunately, Tylenol Cold's got a little bit of antihistamine onboard (makes you sleepy and cuts the hay-fever), so I loaded up on the cold meds and got a tip on a dermatologist's office from the school nurse, skipped classes and rode the bus out to a doctor's office on the outskirts of Goshono to have a crack at the second-to last piece of national infrastructure, (behind the prison system) that I'd been hoping to test while here.

By the way, let me note for the record that socialized medicine rules. Though the waiting room at the clinic, (a private surgery, like most, that accepts the national health insurance plan), was quite full, I was seen within 15 minutes by the dermatologist, an efficient, attentive woman in her early 40's. I was gratified when she let me have a crack at doing all of our business in Japanese, and pleasantly surprised when I actually managed to explain my symptoms and suss out a treatment plan together with her without resort to English. Count me glad also that the Japanese culture books were wrong again-- most of 'em claim, again with "culture" as their rationale, that Japan encourages its doctors to be imperious, condescending (to the point of not explaining medication regimens or even diagnoses as severe as cancer with their patients)  and fond of using largely superfluous injections as a form of semi-placebo intervention. It was not so-- but in the event I found myself sometime later in the mall at Goshono, a lot less itchy, but still in the mood for sweets-based self-medication.  How convenient that the food court had a fancy ice-cream joint:

Not just ice cream, it's...

It probably says something about how long I've been around here that mangled English has begun to fade into near imperceptibility-- so I'll admit I was pretty unperturbed by the store's name, "MARVELOUS CREAM". And then I looked a little closer, to the nicely-photographed collages of expensively-mashed ice-cream confections and saw...

Uh oh.
I am pleased to report that my ice cream was not made with my own heart-- instead it was paddle-mixed, Dastardly-Mash style, by personnel trained, as it seemed, to narrate the proceedings with a professionally-calibrated degree of cutesy singsong patter, calling out each new ingredient added. In this way I learned that coffee-flavored Jell-O is an available mix-in here.

<I'msorryforthewaitsir♪hereisyouricecream! Thankyouprofoundly★pleasecomeagainwouldyoulikeamembershipdiscountcard♬? Yespleasetakeitthankyouverymuchweappreciateyourbusinesspleasecallagain♬♪♪>

And quite a good mix-in at that, it turns out. More later.