Tuesday, December 28, 2004


I wonder about myself. On a purely philosophical level I believe in the purity of jobs like cooking and farming, because they intimately connect you to the physical world; if you push that pitchfork in too far or turn that knife to the wrong angle you cut a sweet-potato or your finger in half. The consequences and rewards of your work are tangible. I'm not smart enough to pursue work that I don't get immediate gratification from. Just another reason this abrupt return to Tokyo and the world of white-collar work has been such a shock to my system.

I'm ashamed to admit all the media I've taken in the past few weeks. It just doesn't feel healthy, but it's so addictive. I have limited myself to books for so long that unlimited internet and TV is like being giving free reign in a Belgian beer and chocolates shop. I don't know if such a shop exists, but I know I wouldn't be able to control myself if I entered one. Spending half your day working in front of a computer screen and the other half relaxing in front of one just doesn't seem like a good idea. My New Years Resolution is already made up.

Which is all just a prelude to this post's real topic: Manzai.

Last night I stayed up with my housemates to watch the annual televised "M-1" competition, a national contest of over 3000 manzai comedic duos for the grand prize of $100,000. So what is manzai? Well, think back to the one or two times you've heard the old Abbot & Costello "Who's On First?" routine. Then imagine a whole living world of comedian duos who make their living off routines just like that. That's manzai.

The standard format is your straight man and your funny man, your standard situation is man-in-a-taxicab, suitor-and-father, bartender-and-drunk. What is amazing about manzai is that not only has it survived where vaudeville comedians have faded into obscurity, but that it spawns new variations every year. Out of the standard format of two guys just talking about something you get a whole range of styles. This years M-1 finalists included a "Shibuya-kei" duo whose language and material comes out of Japanese youth culture with all it's obscure phrases and verbs absorbed from English to a duo who pattered along in the flattest and most unassuming of tones, but their subject an incredible free associaciative linguistic romp from professional baseball hat sizes to the proper gradation with which to mix total wins with milk. This only makes a kind of bizarre sense in Japanese, and I won't even try to translate it.

The M-1 contest is an annual TV Asahi competition for "the best" manzai group, with initial spots open to any group for a small entry fee. 3000 plus entrants are winnowed down to 64 groups, and then a mere 9 for the nationally televised competition. These remaining nine are judged by a panel of some of the most famous living Japanese comedians, who all seem unusually serious for this year-end event.

The results, while predictable, were still thrilling to watch. While the first place spot went to "Untouchable" a group in their early 30's that sticks to traditional manzai themes with impeccable timing and delivery (they won with a standard suitor-and-father routine done at a breakneck pace with excellent jokes), the second place spot went to "Nankai Candies" the first male-female duo ever to make the M-1 finals. Maybe I've been here too long, but it was astonishing to see a group that had so freshly reinvented the manzai style. "Untouchable" pretty much epitomizes the standard manzai style: two guys going through a routine about typical male concerns like women, sports or business at a breakneck pace and with amazing timing and delivery. Watching "Nankai Candies" must have been like seeing Monty Python for the first time: they totally destroyed the pacing and content of typical manzai, delivering in slow, unhurried voices. While Yamazato-san, the male half of the pair had his moments, it was Shizu-chan, the round faced, completely ordinary looking comedienne who destroyed the audience. She delivered her lines in a deep throated deadpan that was not so much parody as an almost punk rock vision of comedy. She had a twinkle in her eyes the whole time that broadcast out "can you believe this bullshit?" while she knocked through their routines. "The Japanese Janene Garafelo" is a terrible description of her, but it's the first one that comes to mind.

The routine that won them second place they must have written especially for the finals; they turned and addressed the hosts of the show during their directly, one of whom happens to be the almond eyed and coconut-titted super model Waka Inoue, the current standard of Japanese beauty in Japan. It was amazing to watch these two twenty-somethings, on their first big break on national TV, ragging on the host, and the idea of mass media created female beauty in general. The whole routine centered around how Shizu-chan could better increase her female appeal, and there was a moment where she was pretending to cavort in the ocean waves for a fashion photographer while her partner berated the unsexiness of her cavorting that was one of the funniest and most punk rock things I have seen on television.

I was encouraged to see that some of my favorite Japanese comedians loved the skit, with the oldest and most well known of the group getting up and asking Shizu-chan only half jokingly if she'd like to start a comedy duo with him. The anarchy of really good comedy doesn't heed age or custom; it cuts through the bullshit as fast as it piles up, and while the panel dissected the timing and pace to a T, in the end the craft will matter less than the material. Let's just see someone try to win next year on the old suitor routine...

Nankai Candies Posted by Hello

Saturday, December 25, 2004


I wasn't exactly thrilled to be coming back to Saitama. Saitama is basically a New Jersey to Tokyo's New York basically just another sprawling limb of the Tokyo metropolis. It is barred along with train lines that radiate out from Tokyo like spokes on a wheel. It takes me 20 minutes to ride to central Shinjuku, but it takes around 2 hours and three different train lines to get to my old town of Hanno in western Saitama, even though the distance is about the same.
The word for suburb in Japanese is bedo-taun, "bed town", and the phrasing is accurate. It seems that most people just sleep here, with all their working and playing done in the big city.

Urawa itself didn't really seem particularly promising. Hanno was a bit removed from the great Tokyo sprawl, folded into the foothills of the Japanese alps, a river sweeping through it, the air was noticeably lighter and fresher than Tokyo, from there on out it was precipitous valleys and Buddha statues atop mountains, guarding small hamlets. Urawa on the other hand is central Saitama. It is one of the three interlocking Saitama urban centers that were recently incorporated into the blandly name Saitama city, which is incongruously written in the phonetic script and not it's original emotionally resonant kanji, which strips it of the meager dignity of it's own history. Imagine San Francisco, Oakland and Berkley merged into one city renamed Kaleefornia City and you'll get an inkling of what I'm talking about.

However, tonight after I came back from Howl's Moving Castle, my head still washed in the movie's images of small towns nestled in sharp mountains, Urawa opened up to me. There was a chorus caroling outside the station, singing familiar Christmas carols in their original German. The station entrance opens up onto a square that forms the entrance to the local branch of the Isetan department store. Isetan had just closed, and employees were filing out the service entrance, winter coats over their scarf and skirt uniforms, a chef in whites handing out bags of leftovers to them as they punched out. The streets then broke up into a wandering series of back alleys lined with noodle shops, cafes, bakeries, bars and the occasional pachinko parlor. One pachinko parlor had a young woman in her early thirties in a Santa suit dishing out free bowls of pork soup from a massive kettle to all the midnight gamblers. 12 car express trains bypassing Urawa station slid through the neon signs. And in that moment Urawa seemed to be one of the most interesting places I've ever been in Japan, it's resolute ordinariness coming together to make it something I've never seen before. It is a living breathing city, unpretentiously and thoroughly Japanese; it doesn't have the manic anxious energy of central Tokyo, desperately chasing the new thing, or the quiet resignation of the countryside, slowing watching it's young bleed away to the city. In it's Thai restaurants perched on the second story of working class red-lantern bars, in it's department store ladies and salarymen hurrying home in the cold, blond haired gaijin selling jewelry out of suitcases, packs of 13 year olds on bicycles, it is Everytown, Japan, in a way that no other town I have seen is.


Despite what my mother may be telling you, that isn't me wearing a reindeer costume being ridden by George Michael. I got a Christmas phone call this morning from my parents this morning demanding to know what the picture was about.

Thinking mostly of dramatic effect, I think I cranked up the pathos a little bit too high on that last post. Mom got a bit worried and sent an email out to both sides of my family asking everyone to drop me a line and cheer me up. Which has been wonderful, I've heard from most of the cousins and lots of you shared stories about Christmases alone and away from home. Best story goes hands down to Neil Moxham, but you'll have to hear it from him. Thanks to everyone for writing!

Just to reassure all of you, I'm going out tonight with an English teacher friend to see the new Hayao Miyazaki movie, which is a wonderful Christmas present on it's own. His new movie Howl's Moving Castle opened about a month ago, and broke the Japanese box office record for opening weekend sales set by his previous movie, Spirited Away. For any of you who haven't seen Spirited Away, Totoro, Princess Mononoke or anything else directed by Miyazaki, I can't recommend him enough. Despite being animated movies aimed at children, they tackle issues as major as how mankind can survive without destroying the environment that sustains us, and as everyday as people thrust into the working world and forced to fend for themselves. Even as he unblinkingly addresses these heavy issues his movies are steeped in a rich love for life and total awe at the world in all its details and ironies. His movies have that rarest of qualities: they fill you with the joy of living. In lieu of a Christmas with the family I can't think of a better Christmas present than that.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Thursday, December 23, 2004

where am I gonna get a date for christmas?

It's extremely telling that the song you hear most often in Japan in late December has nothing to do with Santa, presents, goodwill towards men or maids-a-milking. I was 5 years old when Wham's "Last Christmas" topped the charts, and being the media-phobe that I am, it took me twenty years and a trip halfway round the world to learn that last Christmas, George Michael gave you his heart, and the very next day you gave it away. This year, to save himself from tears, he's gonna give it to someone special. You're such an asshole.

This tune about George Michael's yuletide heart transplant comes flying at you from every corner fashion boutique, every convenience store, every junior high school band fundrasing on the street, and every snotnose who picks up a guitar, wraps a scarf around his neck and whines out pop tunes to the huddled holiday shoppers too busy to listen to that song again. There have been a few Japanese remakes of the tune and even the hit TV drama "Last Christmas" that employs it as the theme song. With no trace of irony, the show is about the professional and romantic entanglements of a hip young advertising exec. He does not experience any epiphanies about how his work ruins Christmas. In Asia, advertising makes Christmas. Just one of those quirks of fate that wherever corporate capitalism goes it brings canned yuletide cheer, store window cardboard Santas and muzak renditions of jingle bells. Korea, Taiwan, Thailand; Japan isn't the exception, it's the Asian Christmas pioneer.

Christmas in Japan is overwhelmingly a singles holiday. Families with young children give presents, but it's all one way, and pretty much over by the time they get old enough to realize Santa didn't bring them that copy of Metro Prime Hunters for their Nintendo DS. No, Christmas is when young lovers huddle together in coats and scarves, heads bare to let their tussled hair catch snowflakes. Wander down to the local irumineishon (say it out loud) to ooh and ah at the multicolored lights, and buy a few pieces of Kurisumasu Keiki. This year's cake prices are about 50% higher than usual due to a shortage of eggs, but they'll still sell out, cause what is Christmas in Japan without cake?

Oh yes, presents are involved, but while the thought is all nice and good, it comes down to the price tag. One of my housemates bought his girlfriend a pair of $60 earrings, and he said he was skimping since he doesn't have any income right now. Ouch.

Which leaves me with a dilemna. With everyone I know going out with a significant or not-so-significant other on the 25th, I'm left with an empty house, a small stack of Christmas presents lovingly sent from home (thanks Mom and Dad!) and George Michael singing over and over again in my head. Wonder if he's busy this year...

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

a good thing

Well, after yesterday's highly negative post I thought I should write about something positive. Strangely enough, this is yet another TV story.

One thing you can't help but being struck by if you watch enough Japanese TV is the prevalence of several fu-laming gay guys peppered around in guest spots on the various talk shows. The surprising thing is that they're taken as just another member of the panel. I wondered if, like the States, gay guys on Japanese TV are de-sexed and placed in a best friend role, but no, the other day I saw two girls and one very very gay guy (all famous singers) being interviewed on one of Japan's biggest talk shows. Japanese comedy isn't exactly PC or even particularly polite, so I was dumbfounded to see the hosts treat the gay guy exactly the same way they were treating the two female singers. Which is not very politely. The standard format of Japanese comedy is a duo, with one rude guy who says all the things you're thinking and cracks edgy jokes, and then his nice guy partner who apologizes for his friend's rudeness while wacking him on the back of the head.

Anyway, they had a segment where all three guests had to describe their ideal kiss, and they had actors act out the situation. Sure enough, they had two guys smooching away by the end of the gay singer's "dramatic reenactment." And when everyone discussed it and joked about it afterwards, the fact that he was gay wasn't even brought up. They tore him apart for the unlikeliness of the fantasy he had created, but the gay thing wasn't even touched. And it wasn't like they were dancing around the issue, it was just... not a big deal.

I haven't seen any of the recent gay themed shows in the States like Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, or even Ellen, so I can't say how pop culture in America deals with homosexuality these days, but it's nice to see the issue that tore America in half during this past election basically moving along undebated in Japan. The next step is to get foul mouthed butch lesbians on the talk shows.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


I just had an encounter that totally bolsters my "girls who are into foreign guys are lame" theory.

While there are a thousand exceptions that prove the rule, relationships between white guys and Japanese girls tend to fall into a particular pattern here: the white guy doesn't learn much Japanese and depends on his Japanese girlfriend for all sorts of things, from translating for him to driving him around to purchasing plane tickets or making reservations at a restaurant. Then on the other side of it, I've seen tons of Japanese girls who seem to dig this situation, babying the ignorant gaijin, guiding him through Japan's intricate and refined social network.

Barf. These are the people who make Japan out to be much more complicated and mysterious than it actually is, and see non-Japanese not as individuals but as archetypes. We're supposed to be rude and clumsy and ignorant and loud. And they wouldn't have us any other way.

So anyway, I put out an email on a local English teachers bulletein board to sell my electronic dictionary, and got a response from this one guy. Strangely, he didn't leave his own number, but his girlfriend's work number. I called it and he wasn't there, so they put his girlfriend on the phone. She answered in English so I replied in English. When she didn't understand, I switched to Japanese. She replied in faltering English. I swallowed my pride and spoke in English. She still seemed to have trouble understanding, so I said it in Japanese. She replied in English:

"David... he's not here now, can you teach me phone number?"

"When will he be back?" I asked in Japanese, thoroughly sick of this conversation.

"He is... out at party, and he will come back... very later tonight. Should he call you?"

I said thank you and got the hell out of that conversation. I simply do not understand what is wrong with people when they will not speak to me in Japanese, even when it is clearly the easiest option. I have had customers at restaurants I work at insist on giving me their orders in English, sweat pouring off their brows as they attempt to translate "five orders of today's curry, three beers and an ashtray please" into English. I will try to reassure them in my most practiced and formality laden Japanese that they if they would prefer, perhaps Japanese might be a slightly easier... but no! they soldier on valiantly, oblivious to what I just said.

I also just don't get these girls who work ridiculous hours at low paying jobs, and then put up with loutish English teacher boyfriends who make twice what they do playing games with pre-schoolers and spending the rest of their time bar hopping.

Don't know why this stuff gets me so riled up, I choose to live here, and being a white guy in Japan those are the facts of life. And in the grand scope of things it's all pretty minor. For the most part these people are few and far between, and once you break out of the English teachers and their groupies circuit you find most people are alright, and will take you as you are. I've been lucky enough to have met plenty of people who don't give a damn what language I speak as long as those five plates of noodles and three sets of dumplings are ready to go in five, and don't forget those minced onions again!

So I hung up the phone and slouched downstairs, where my partner's fiance was sitting reading a comic about golf. We both agreed that girl was totally wack.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Ex pats!

To tell you the truth, this blog was prompted by a suggestion from my friend Alex who is currently living Brazil. He and his friend Madeline living in Turkey were both blogging, so if I made one up we could have ourselves a little ex-pat blog network. If there are any other American ex pats out there blogging we'll link you up. Membership is extremely exclusive. So check out their sites to get the real deal on the generation that fled the Bush administration. Well, can't speak for Alex and Madeline, but I don't really want to live in a country with that monkey as President. Even if he is party hack and a lying bastard, I'll take Prime Minister Koizumi's wavy movie star hair and steely bureaucrat eyes over W's folksy bullshit anyday.

So check out our sites to get the real deal on our glamorous lives as ex-patriots as we sip absinthe, discuss literature, and go to bullfights.

Sunday, December 19, 2004


My body must be wondering what in the hell I'm up to.

Just a week ago I was waking up at seven or so every morning to air out the buckwheat we were drying for the soba noodles, then breakfast at around eight with the Kaneko family, everybody silently slurping down their daily miso soup, roasted fish, rice and veggies. The Kaneko's younger son, Junichi, would slouch off without a word to his job at the local auto-shop, while Kaneko-san and I would settle down with cups of coffee to watch the NHK asa-dora (lit. "morning drama").

Every year Japan's public television station produces a new year long, 15 minute series that is broadcast twice a day, during breakfast and lunch, right after the news. Last year's was some kind of samurai drama, but this year's is the story of a plucky girl named Wakaba (literally "young-leaf", ugh) who moves from the boondocks of southern Kyushu to the ultra-hip city of Kobe, with its wide European style boulevards and 19th century European houses. She is pursuing her dream of creating gardens, and finds a job at a small landscaping firm, but her life is rife with drama: will her younger brother crack under the pressure of college examinations? Can she choose between the moody boyfriend she left behind in Kyushu and the handsome but snooty young garden designer? What the hell is up with her British housemate Judy who speaks nothing but alley-gutter Osaka dialect? Is the silent and mysterious master of the local bar her father who supposedly died in the Kobe earthquake or just a coincidental doppleganger?

As you may have guessed, this show is not particularly good, (well, I liked the father storyline...) but it was fascinating as a kind of cultural and political barometer of modern Japan. Almost every household watches NHK during breakfast, and many workplaces have a TV set to NHK during the lunch hour. In its own clumsy and inelegant way it is tackling some of the major issues of modern Japan: women pursuing careers in traditionally male dominated workplaces, absent fathers (either from overwork or just dissapearing), families falling apart as children move to the city, and all those weird gaijin who speak such good Japanese...

Given the scarcity of Japanese speaking foreigners on television here I found the Judy character fascinating. She looked like a Norman Rockwell drawing of a twenty year old girl: attractive in a gawky knees and elbows way, with red hair and freckles. She was mostly used for comic relief. Whenever Wakaba was facing a particular crisis, along would come Judy (accompanied by a wa-wa-wa trumpet sound) involved in yet another comic argument with Wakaba's other housemate about washing the dishes or something. While shown as emotionally volatile and unpredictable, Judy wasn't all hissy fits, they did give her a more compassionate side. Osaka dialect is considered more direct and crude than standard Japanese, and hence ripe with comic possibilities, make it the lingua franca of Japanese comedy, but it was still a shock for me to see a white girl spewing out such raw language so fluently. You know you've been here too long when you see a white gaijin on TV yelling about washing the dishes in Osaka dialect and laugh in spite of yourself. It was so stupid! Guess you had to be there.

In anycase, after our daily dose of Wakaba-and-coffee (a combination I highly recommend) we would harvest some veggies for the farmer's market, do the prep for the soba restaurant, making the dough and cutting the noodles, serve the lunch rush, take a lunch break (too late to watch Wakaba again), have tea and sweets, then get as much veggie harvesting and soba drying as possible done before sunset. Dinner at 7 with the news (Fallujah footage of US Soldiers storming into hospitals, the never ending North Korea hostage issue, the price of vegetables, 15 year old table tennis sensation Ai-chan competing in the world championships), read my Japanese mystery novel (worse than Wakaba. Much worse. The professor did it. But you knew that from like page 10), bath and in bed by 12. Up at 7.

Having come back to Tokyo I have basically turned that schedule upside down. I sit crammed in a small office with two other guys while all three of us work feverishly to get this tour guide business off the ground. We stay up til 3 or so every night, up around 11, then straight up to the office again. 5 billion cups of green tea a day. We all work and live in this little two story place, taking turns cooking, doing the dishes and the laundry. And like any good Japanese household the TV clicks on during dinner.

I don't know what it is. In the states I avoid TV like the plague, but I think TV in Japan is great. The thing is that unlike American TV Japanese TV doesn't take itself seriously at all. What with the three of us cornered around the dinner table, the TV sits at the end like a particularly erudite 5 year old, yammering on without stopping. You can turn the TV on or off at any time and be able to pick up what's going on in 3 seconds. Today there was a program where they had set up a stage and emcee in one of Tokyo's entertainment districts. The people on the show would invite totally sauced salarymen to get up and sing parodies of popular karaoke songs. You don't know comedy until you've seen a Japanese salaryman, face flush red from the alcohol and teetering back and forth, moaning out a famous karaoke song, changing the lyrics to: "I'm 500,000 yen in debt and I can't move my left knee..." Hi-larious.

I suppose I should be worried when I plop down in front of the boob tube to relax, but it's been helping the Japanese. For sure. The thing is, there is stuff that blows my mind on TV every single day. The other night there was this pastry chef contest, and the three finalists were given the theme of choosing a city and making it into a Christmas cake. Let's just say that the guy who built a cake with a three and a half foot replica of the Statue of Liberty out of white chocolate, a series of skyscrapers made out of various cake types, a highway AND a working model train with Santa on it came in last.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Taiko drumming arcade game Posted by Hello

Akihabara Posted by Hello

Japanese Baby clothes rock. Posted by Hello

A shitty photo of Akihabara taken from my cell phone. Posted by Hello

...back to Tokyo

Well, I'm back in that most postmodern and dystopian of cities, East Asia's biggest eyesore and most frenetic nightspot, the big T: Tokyo.

The culture shock was more extreme than if I'd been to the States for a month. I caught an overnight bus from Isazawa, then got plopped off at the the gaping Yaesu Entrance to Tokyo Station at 5 in the morning. I had the whole morning to kill before I could meet up with my friend Nori whose house I'd be sharing, so I stuffed my pack in a coin locker at the station and decided to walk around to keep myself awake.

In the middle of my walk I realized I was just a few minutes from Tsukiji, the infamous Tokyo fish market. I'd been there once after an all nighter at some clubs in Roppongi, staggering around on no sleep and a body full of Tequila sunrises; was almost been killed by all the trucks and guys waving knives around. This time I had the benefit of 4 hours of sleep on a rickety bus and an early morning green tea wake up.

Tsukiji is a world unto itself, the largest fish market in the world, with massive deep sea monsters flown in from all over the world, then frozen and piled in rows to be auctioned off in a clipped and short dialect that is native only to this fishmarket, the legacy of centuries of bargaining. Compare this to my previous month is Isazawa, where 80% of what we ate was grown or made within the valley, and soybeans from Southern Japan are looked at suspiciously, let alone those grown in China. After a month in the mountains eating lots of crunchy winter root vegetables a full on cortex pumping sushi breakfast of freshly gathered fish netted from across the globe was scarcely concievable, it seemed almost... sinful? immoral? indulgent?

I ended up at a small sushi bar ordering a la carte from the the three chefs in front of me. I fell in love with the girl who sliced and hand pressed my tuna and salmon. She had calloused, practiced hands and a serious face with full lips and freckles that broke into a radiant smile when I got up to pay the bill. I shoulda asked for her number...

I then navigated the labyrinthine Tokyo train system across the river to Saitama, which is Tokyo's New Jersey. The house I'm staying in now is a narrow two story number with three of us living there. My friend Nori-san and his college friend Uchi are starting a tour guide business in Tokyo, and in exchange for my editing and translating some brochures into English I get free room and board for a while.

The tour Nori is creating is based in Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics district, and the biggest congregation of nerds this side of a Star Trek convention. I can't imagine a place that resembles the rolling Autumn colored hills of Isazawa less. This is the part of Tokyo that inspired so many setpieces in Blade Runner and basically all of William Gibson's sci-fi. Hunched over old women man rickety wooden booths crammed next to multistory department stores and guys with tables on the street, all of them hawking cables, adaptors, iPods, used PC parts, Walkmans, the latest Nintendo games... Apparently a lot of former USSR electronics flooded in here after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and lately North Korean spies scouring for high end electronics have been seen as well.

In addition, being a massive nerd hang out there are tons of secondary stores dealing in nerd popular products like comics, anime, porn videos, collectible anime toys, anime porn, massive video arcade parlors, porn video games, manga porn, fan drawn manga, fan drawn manga porn... I've never actually seen the legendary schoolgirl underwear vending machines, but if they are anywhere in Tokyo, this is where they would be.

Nori is a really funny guy, speaks English eloquently with fine tuned diction and an impeccable set of manners that never feel forced or strained. Which are all good traits in an aspiring tour guide. For years he's noticed the gap between Japanese tour guides and foreign tourists, with the former rattling off statistics about the measurements of Zen Rock Gardens, and the latter mostly interested in seeing those legendary schoolgirl underwear vending machines. Akihabara isn't a Japanese tour destination, but there are always lots of foreigners wandering around, looking for a glimpse of that Tokyo they saw in Lost in Translation or maybe just parts for a nuclear missle guiding system.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Tokyo Station Posted by Hello

I made this. Posted by Hello


Well, I'm back in Tokyo, after a month long apprenticeship banging out buckwheat noodles in the hamlet of Isazawa. The transition was a bit of a shock. Isazawa totally exceeded my expectations of rural Japan. One of which was the doorways, conveniently located at about forehead level. I think my IQ dropped a few points from all the minor head injuries I sustained this past month. But these doorways were attached to gorgeous old style Japanese farm houses made of massive beams with broad open rooms that could swallow 3 or 4 Tokyo apartments. Altars to ancestors were always tucked away in one corner of the house and dutifully given their portions of whatever the family happened to be eating. However, Grandpa always seemed to pass on everything, and after 5 minutes or so his portion of rice would be chucked back in the rice cooker.

The people of Isazawa talked about their little valley reverently, and with a pride I haven't seen in many small Japanese villages. It is a gorgeous little corner of Japan, with old growth forests, fresh spring water and raccoon spirits that play tricks on unsuspecting humans. These days raccoon tricks consist mostly of getting into your vegetable garden or causing car accidents. The primary income of Isazawa farmers is producing high end fruit; carefully tended apples, grapes, pears and watermelons they can sell for outrageous prices. 10 kilograms of prime Isazawa apples goes for about $80. And we ate the stuff like candy.

I spent the month as an apprentice and all around gopher for the one guy too stubborn to cash in on the whole fruit thing, a knobby little guy named Kaneko-san. I never asked him about it, but one eye was always squeezed a bit tighter than the other, which made it look like he was constantly scrutinizing whatever was in front of him. Even when he laughed that right eyelid stayed firmly at half mast while the left danced around. He delighted in the not so glamorous farming of fresh green, sweet potatoes, daikon, Chinese cabbages, and of course, buckwheat. Japan was hit by a violent string of late season typhoons this year, which delayed the buckwheat harvest and meant I spent the first week and a half digging up sweet potatoes and waiting for the buckwheat to dry to a proper consistency. First day of work at the soba place and I get handed an XL size uniform, this blue bathrobe thing. I'm not exactly the biggest guy in the world, but in the Smurf Village I'm freaking Gargamel, so I guess to Papa Smurf XL seemed like a decent estimate. Instead I had to knead the buckwheat dough and bring out freshly dunked batches of noodles while swimming in this mass of fabric. Papa Smu..., er, Kaneko-san insisted it's supposed to be big on you, but I think the guy was just covering the mistake.

Kaneko-san was very hard to read. While working he only communicated with short grunty bursts. What with his Isazawa accent these weren't too easy to make out, writing in the roman alphabet it came out to something like "Mrbrbrllblbrdamedabe". Which can be roughly translated as; "Stop washing those sweet potatoes like a prissy city boy moron and hurry up so we can go eat lunch."His neighbors all seemed to regard him both with respect and bewilderment at this funny man who refused the glamorous world of grape farming for potatoes and turnips. He was however the main organizers of the local farmer's market, which had proved to be much more profitable than people had expected.

But every night Kaneko-san would open up over dinner with a few glasses of local sake. The month that I stayed with the Kaneko family they hosted not just me, but an array of Japanese out from Tokyo who were out in Isazawa for some reason or another. It was in conversations with these college students that he opened up, eagerly discussing things like the importance of local community agriculture, the future of Isazawa in it's youth (in his words, "The Hope of Isazawa"), the folly of Japan sending troops to Iraq, and that moronic comedian onTV who plays the guitar dressed in a kimono and making fun of foreigners. He would pour sake into me til I could barely make it back to my futon, and he'd still be bouncing up early every morning for work.

Turns out drinking is the official sport of Isazawa. I become an honorary member of the Isazawa Seinenkai ("Youth/Singles Group") during my time there, and we made sure to keep in practice, mostly with beer, but there was a local rice liqour called daburoku that they guzzled with abandon. Couldn't stand the stuff myself. It was thick and white with a slightly off taste to it. We also played volleyball Wednesday nights, which involved me trying not to get hit while the deadly serious and surprisingly talented twenty-somethings of Isazawa smacked that ball around like pros. Just in case you were wondering, Isazawa has a Roujinkai (Old Folks Group) as well. They also held occasional drinking parties, but I never found out if they played volleyball.

At the end of my month Kaneko-san was nice enough to hold a goodbye party for me in the soba restaurant. I was surprised at how many friends I'd made in my 5 week stay in Yamagata. There was the 50 year old apple farmer who played guitar in a surf rock band during the off season, the owner and chef of a local Chinese and Thai restaurant who had the unnerving hobby of grilling me on US State Capitals (he knew them all), one of the old women I worked with at the soba place who brews her own wine from area grapes, a graduate student from Tokyo writing his thesis on farming and composting techniques in the area, some of the regulars at the restaurant, plus 15 members of the Isazawa Youth Group. One old guy who I'd only met once or twice showed up with a few bottles of hard apple cider he'd brewed. As the night progressed he outlined his dream to make Isazawa a community where money wasn't needed and everybody cheered.

Round about 1 in the morning people started filtering off, taken home by patient spouses, taxi's and bicycles. All 12 attendees from the Isazawa Youth group piled into a 7 person van, yelling and cheering as they pulled away. The graduate student and I stood in the parking lot waving as the designated driver lurched out of first gear and sped off into the chilly night. "There goes the hope of Isazawa..." he said to me. We turned around and hurried back inside to sleep by the fireplace.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Saturday, December 11, 2004

A List of Things We Have in America

I don't what it is, but a lot of people in Japan have this bizarre notion that somehow EVERYTHING is different in other countries that the laws of physics subtly change when you leave Japanese airspace. You'd be surprised how often I hear: "Since you don't have any rice in America, what do you eat for dinner? Bread?" Granted I get a lot of that in rural areas, but you'd be surprised how often I hear it in Tokyo. So here's a list of some of the stranger things that I've been asked if we have in America. Email me with any additions you have to this list.

  • sushi
  • honey
  • chopsticks
  • tea pots (for that matter, ceramics of any kind)
  • rice
  • lightning
  • cherries
  • Japanese people
  • bears
  • Winter
  • Spring
  • Summer
  • Autumn (Japan invented the four seasons, or didn't you know that?)

Friday, December 10, 2004

Why I'm Still Here...

So here it is. My blog.

I've gotten a few emails out of the blue from old friends who say stuff like "Shit, you're still in Japan? One of my housemates is moving out, come to Brooklyn and we'll start a country-punk band and rule the world." But no, I'm still here, (ostensibly) learning Japanese cooking, mangling the langauge and wookin pa nub in all the wrong places.

So WHY am I still in Japan? Maybe this blog'll help me figure that out. Whenever I actually stop think about this, my mind always circles back to Alan Booth's The Roads to Sata. This is one of those books that just about every English speaking ex-pat in Japan has read but nobody in the US has heard of, and can always be found in the English section of a bookstore next to a stack of Abridged Classics of English Literature and "Letters to Penthouse" compilations 1-3. Alan Booth spent most of his adult life in Japan, coming here in his early twenties. He originally came to study Noh, but soon found contemporary Noh in Japan staid and boring. But he never ended up leaving, eventually working as a travel writer. Booth's writing is mostly about his walks through rural Japan, the people he meets, and the vast amounts of beer he consumes. His writing about rural Japan is amazing; totally unsentimental, very funny, and moving at the most unexpected times. At the end of the Roads to Sata Booth stops to consider why he has stayed in Japan for seven years and still can't come up with any particular compelling reason. And all the ex-pats I know who stay without a set date to leave by have the same problems defining exactly what keeps them here. At any rate, my current work visa is up by next year in August, so it comes down to these next few months.

At any rate, lets look at some of the major reasons Americans stay in Japan, see which ones apply to me.

1) With Little or No Experience You Can Get Paid An Exorbinant Amount of Money to Teach English. Teaching English is a devils bargain. The problem is that very few people in Japan actually WANT to learn English. English is more of a status thing than a practical thing. They want to be able to impress their friends or appear sophisticated. But the number of people who have a genuine interest in the language, whether for work or just as a hobby, is miniscule. So you're stuck with the shallow flakes who don't actually put any effort into learning the language, and it drives you crazy, wondering what you're doing wrong, how these people can be forking out $30 to $100 an hour to sit there silently. I left full time English teaching after my first year here. I still teach occasionally to pay the rent, but I avoid it full time, too much crap involved.

2) It's Easy to Score With Japanese Girls. Umm, nope, can't say this one applies to me. White guys (and lately black guys as well) are fetishized like crazy in Japan. But only by lame people. Ironically some of the people with the best English here hold the most stereotypes about foreigners, drawing the strictist line between what is "Japanese" and what is "foreign". And since they already have developed these stereotypes about you, they're interested in the stereotype, not in you. The most interesting people I've met in Japan (both guys and girls) rarely speak English.

3) I Have A Japan Fetish. OK, some of my favorite movies are anime (Spirited Away? Come on, who didn't like it?) And, well, yes, all my first initial reading in Japanese was manga. OK, I majored in Japanese history at school, but not samurai! I majored in post-samurai stuff, looking at serious subjects like labor history and... identity formation. You know, real useful serious academic stuff. I'm no geek, not me. You'll just have to take my word on this one.

4) I Am A Political Refugee Hmm, good ring to it. I wish I'd be doing radical enough stuff when I was in the US to warrant this. I have been enjoying being outside the US during all the bullshit of the past few years though.

5) I'm Just Used To It Even when I was living there I felt the US was pretty messed up, so it wasn't such a leap to come to another messed up and conservative country. Here I feel like I'm constantly learning and growing, there's always more to know, more to learn. It really comes down to the small things, the pace of life, the food, and of course the people.