Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Full service Japan

Hey! So one of the cool things I've found about being out here thus far is the overall friendliness and willingness of everyone to go out of their way to be helpful out here. Maybe it's because I'm out in the sticks, but I'm noticing it a lot more out here than I did in previous trips. There's also a certain amount of brazen lack of fear on the part of everyone in my town - they just come out and say whatever to whoever it seems. Like this one day I came home and the kids playing outside just came up and asked me a question, in Japanese, not even thinking twice about whether I would understand them or not. They wanted to know what 'melon' was in English (the same as the Japanese), and then were wondering why watermelon was called 'suika' in Japanese. I share in their quandary.

There have also been a number of kids (high school aged mostly) who've come up to me speaking pretty good English with no fear whatsoever - it's very apparent that this town, although pretty small, puts a lot of effort into looking outside of their own little corner of the world. Tons of kids have done either a homestay abroad or a longer term exchange program it seems, and plenty of others would love to go and take any chance they can to find out about other parts of the world.

So yeah anyways, moving back to my original theme, full service. I think I mentioned already that when I first got here, not only did they give me the first week pretty much to settle in, but they gave me my own chauffeur and tour guide. So this guy Hariu finds out what I need/want to get set up, then takes me there or makes calls for me to make things happen. I heard of some people that didn't get their cell phones or bank accounts for weeks, but I had all that the first day. They even gave me a car to use until I pick up my own - the only other thing that isn't sorted is internet, but that's just because Yahoo is taking their sweet time getting out to my place. Maybe they don't want to climb all those stairs, who knows.

So yeah, then there was the guy at the post office. I went over there to set up a bank account, but they were waffling over whether I should make the account with my name in Japanese or English - after I applied and left, the guy calls my office saying I needed to come back to change things, so thinking I'll handle it later I leave it at that. Then a few hours later, the guy shows up at the office with all the paperwork in hand! Then he of course apologizes for the hassle and gives me a little gift. Yeah, like that would ever happen back home. There's also the merciless onslaught of little trinkets that get passed around on a daily basis around the office - cookies and snacks and such. They're all amazed that I don't want to drink coffee and offer me drinks all the time as well.

Then there're the gas stations - it's like what New Jersey should be. In case you don't get the reference, you aren't allowed to pump your own gas in Jersey... or make left turns on main streets. Not only am I allowed to turn right (go NASCAR!), but they pump your gas for you here at most stations. I've had the pleasure of full service gas exactly one in the US (up in PA like 2 weeks before leaving on the way to OH actually), and that guy just pumped the gas. In Japan though, the guy comes out with a little washcloth for you to clean your hands/face with and asks you how much to put in. After that, he'll come up and ask if you want him to check your tire pressure, oil and fluid levels, or clean the windshield or whatever. Every time I've gone I've gotten a little coupon for my next visit as well for like 5Y off per liter.

There's little things like that everywhere too. Yesterday at a book store I asked someone at the front desk where a certain thing was, and she didn't tell me where it was, she didn't even show me, she just went and got it for me. All kinds of people have treated me to meals and drinks and whatnot as well... such is the lifestyle when people are actually interdependent upon each other.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

the Middle Ages...

I'm old. Ok not really, but yeah sort of. The last couple days have been sort of... well, tiring. Friday night was my official welcoming party. The people in my office took over this one Japanese style bar for a bit, which was cool. It was after a concert that was going on at the Kokusaimura (name of my office if you forgot - basically means International Village), but more on that later. So everyone except me had to work the next day, which meant most of the people weren't really down to stay out late... only two people stayed out after the main party - "Boss" and Hariu, who're both really cool. We went and did the obligatory karaoke run, which was weird because it wasn't the Japanese seperate room style but the big room for everyone with one screen style like you see in the States. I didn't mind, but I prefer the seperate rooms. One nice thing though was that you get a waitress to come and sit at the table and drink with you as she pours yours. After that we ate some ramen, then went back to karaoke... didn't get home til almost 5am. I felt bad for poor Hariu who had to work that morning.

So yeah, then I woke up at noon and rushed to get out to Sendai to meet people for this tour around town that was going on. I eventually ran into people by just walking around and got to see a little bit of what Sendai has to offer. It's the place to go for shopping if you want international stuff (or just a better selection), and of course is where a lot of people go to party. So later on there was a welcome party for all the JETs in the prefecture, which was at this nice Indian restaurant. It was obnoxiously loud - think 100 drunk foreigners and you're there. I, however, was enjoying my ice cold water as I had already had my fill of enebriation for the weekend... and I had to drive at the end of the night. I don't need alcohol to be loud and stupid though, so I fit right in. So what do you think we did after that? Everyone's favorite pasttime, karaoke! More craziness ensues, and eventually I catch the last train back home... which basically brings us to now, which is rather bleh.

You see, I'm smack dab in the middle of being a kid and being an adult. Part of me still wants to go out and be all wild and crazy, but then there's that part that knows I don't just bounce right back up anymore. I can't just eat whatever and not gain a pound anymore and am way out of shape (for me). On a more meaningful tone, on the one hand I enjoy it when I don't have any real responsibilities, and yet I can't really get around them as much anymore. I don't really have a problem with it and enjoy the independence it affords you, but it's definitely something that takes some adjustment to get used to. I'm not in school in more, I actually have a real job now, and I don't really have anyone I can lean on and hand stuff off to anymore if I'm just pooped. There's stuff that if I don't do just simply doesn't get done, so there's no real way around it.

So yeah, that's the middle ages, the so-called "tweenagers" or "twixters" - the bridge between childhood and adulthood. The 20's are like the new teens for my generation. Ever since I heard of that whole phenomenon I've been intrigued about the whole world trend towards just that. In Japan they use the term NEETs (Not currently engaged in Employment, Education, or Training) and there was an article in Time magazine entitled "Twixters" I remember reading about a year back. Good stuff. The more I think about it though, the more I think that I'll never really go up in many ways and find some way to juxtapose myself into an adult fascade. Do we really need to grow up? In some respects yes, but I feel that in certain aspects of life it's good if you can remember and cherish the energy of youth.

The wacky world that is the Kokusaimura

So yeah, the last couple weeks have been fun here - they have some pretty, umm, interesting events here. Yeah. I'm supposed to help out with ticket collection and seating and stuff like that, which is fun since I get to meet the town people and interact with them and stuff.

So last week's event was a hula concert. Oh yeah. Hawai'ian music and a bunch of Japanese girls, and guys, hula-ing it up. Yeah that's right, guys too. There was this one part where a gaggle of guys came out dressed like cowboys - flannel shirts, hats, boots, big buckles and all - doing the hula. Stupifyingly bizarre and highly entertaining. There were also these little girls that couldn't have been more than like 8 or 9 dancing that were really cute, but I mean come on, hula cowboys!!

Then this Friday before the insanity that was the welcome party there was another concert. This time it was a ukelele guy. It was this Japanese-descent Hawai'ian guy named Jake Shimabukuro that only spoke a few words of Japanese, which made for an interesting time. I guarantee that it was nothing like you'd think it was, but then again I doubt the words 'ukelele' and 'concert' together in the same sentence really evoke a very powerful image in most people's minds. I mean come on, who plays a ukelele, right? So he gets up there and introduces himself, then starts playing - just gently strumming at first, but he quickly delved into a rather wild and flailing hardcore full-on wailing section. If you've ever seen me dance, think of all the weird faces I make and then juxtapose that onto the body of Eddie Van Halen (with a ukelele!!) and you'll get the idea. I thought he was going to break the strings off of the poor little thing as hard as he was flogging it - he really got into it at times.

I'd say that it was a pleasant surprise and better than I ever could have imagined a ukelele concert being. I was impressed with the amount of power the guy could get out of the sound of such a delicate instrument when he wanted to. He went back and forth between extreme precision and placidity to... well, totally non-placid. It was very impressive to see though, if for nothing else than the fact that so few bands these day have someone who can really play a guitar or have solos and here's this guy having a 2-hour long solo, and actually deserving it. A refreshing eye-opener.

So yeah, good times. That's it for now.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Observations thus far

So yeah, I've been here for a couple weeks now and am settling in nicely. I'm finally done with all the training they're going to put me through (for now) and it's time to get down to work. At the 3rd and final orientation I went to last week I got my own personal training session at one point since I'm the only new guy out of 70ish in my prefecture that's doing my job (as opposed to the English teaching one). It was weird having it be me and the 3 people on the other side of the table, but it was pretty relaxed and it meant that they had time to focus more on the things that I'd get some use out of.

Speaking of which, this past Saturday I got to work a double shift since the Argentinian diplomat to Japan came through to have a look around and I was supposed to interpret (thank God he brought his own interpreter so I didn't really have to do much), and there was a hula event in the evening I had to help out with. Pictures are on the way - as soon as I find a way to get around the cord that's probably sitting in the 'rents basement as I type this.

Then Sunday I got to go out and see some of the sights - I got up to Matsushima, which is a town about 20 minutes from here on the other side of the bay that boasts to have one of the three best views in Japan. There was a special event going on that only happens every 33 years, but I'll give you more on that once I actually get the pictures uploaded.


For now, I'm just going to rant about some stuff that I've noticed since arriving here. First thing: mold. It's everywhere. I never really had a problem with it in Chiba, but now I live pretty much on the beach and the humidity is horrendous. For the duration of the afore-mentioned 3-day training session last week I left my windows open so the place wouldn't get all stuffy. Big mistake - I come back and there are green spots on the floor! Apparently humidity has that affect on tatami mats... who knew. My neighbor got it worse than I did though as atleast half his floor was a nice slimy, sludgy green. Don't worry though, it comes right up with a good vacuuming, although with 3 tatami rooms it does take a little time.

Oh, and I know I mentioned it before, but the bugs are abundant and frickin huge! It's like they were exposed to gamma radiation or something - I keep waiting for Mothra to fly over head. At least this time around I haven't run across any cockroaches. I guess that's one of the (few) advantages to living on the 5th floor: you know, besides working on my buns of steel on the way up and down the stairs and not having to worry about crazed girls stealing my boxers (no dryers in Japan, so laundry is hung outside) or other equally weird things.

Regional differences

So what's different from Tokyo/Chiba? Well I still haven't really been to Sendai yet, but walking around I have noticed a couple things. I've picked up on a couple dialectical differences that mostly show up with older people, but it's usually minimal when they're talking to me since I have enough trouble trying to figure out what they're going on about even without it. My bosses both have pretty thick accents though - I'm gonna have fun with that one I can tell.

So in general, three main things stand out:

1) People aren't in as much of a hurry and things certainly aren't as hectic. You don't see people frantically running about trying to look busy as much as I did down there. I hear that in the city a lot of times you'll get people doing this fakish run-like thing that's still the same speed as walking around the office just to give the illusion of appearing busy at all times, but no one cares about that here - at least not in my office. I am at least comforted in the fact that people do indeed drive well above the posted speed limits around here, so I should fit right in there. Then again, the fastest posted limit I've seen has been 50kph on local roads.

2) Things are also more spread out, so parking and traffic aren't really that much of a hassle in my daily life. I actually have a free parking space, which in the city can cost you. You have to have documented proof of an assigned parking space in order to register a car in Japan by the way, if you didn't know. Oh and speaking of space, I've been to a sit down ramen place up here, which is unheard of in the greater Tokyo area. Up until now I'd only seen places with bar stools in some little hole in the wall restaurant, but up here they actually have tables and stuff. Woo. Now on the topic of food...

3) There are more fat people up here! Again something you don't run into as much in the city in general, but still surprising. Talking to my boss the other day it seemed like he and the people he was chatting up were of the opinion that someone needs to give all those Harajuku girls down in Tokyo some onigiri or some rice cakes or something, cause they're too skinny. I myself don't have much objection to this, as long as they don't reach average American proportions. Seriously though, I've seen some girls in Tokyo that were skinny enough that you could see their rib cages 'n stuff. Bleah.

As for other random thoughts, my phone absolutely rocks! It has all the standard stuff: internet, a camera with better resolution than my digital, a high-res display, tv, mp3, gps and all that, but this new thing that I'm simply revelling in is this IR port thing that's all the rage now. When you meet someone new you just line up your phones and go to the right option and it transmits all your info instead of you having to punch it all in the old and boring way. Sweet! I also love having a picture come up every time someone calls since I'm so horrible with names.

Oh and lastly, one interesting thing about the trains - even if the train is stopped you have to push a button in order for the doors to open. They do this in order to save the AC (or heat in the winter I'm guessing). There's an 'open' button on the outside and both an 'open' and a 'close' button on the inside. Go figure.

Well that's it for now. Hopefully I'll have the picture thing sorted sometime this week, because my camera's full and I can't take any more pictures without erasing some stuff. Tataa!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

One week in

Hey guys, time to give you a little update while I have a chance. I don't have internet in my room yet, so the only time I can really check the web is at work. So yep, you guessed right - that means that I'm sitting here in the office on a Sunday morning. Woo.

My office is really laid back, which is good, and my boss is pretty cool from what I can gather. He likes to be called "boss", in English no less. Then there's the guy above him (who likes to be called "big boss"), who will talk your ear off if you give him an opening. The guy that's showing me around town warned me about it, but basically you should expect to be talking for a good half hour if you ask him a question. So that brings us to Hariu, the guy that shows me around. He rules. I had a cell phone the first day we went out and a bank account set up the next. Internet's on the way, and they want me to have a car like yesterday. In the meantime, this guy drives me around everywhere I need to go - we were in the office for maybe an hour over the course of the first 2 days.

On to the apartment: it's old, but big and free. Climbing up to the 5th floor is a workout, and I have never seen as many spiders as there are in the staircase leading up to my place. And just to add to the ambiance, there's this swampish area off to the side with all these frogs which sing me to sleep. They keep my neighbor Joe up, but luckily I sleep as heavily as my mom does so I don't have that problem. I have a feeling a frog could hop on my face and start croaking in my ear and I probably wouldn't notice... especially the way I've been sleeping lately. I still haven't slept past like 6 or 7, which if you know anything about my sleeping habits is quite peculiar. I don't think I've stayed up past midnight yet either and crash pretty hard at the end of each night. I'm not sure if it's jetlag, or if I'm just mentally exhausted from speaking Japanese all day long.

And the surroundings: the beach is awesome, although dirty as hell. We went out there last night to hang out and there were a few groups of people out with fireworks, shooting them off indiscriminately in every direction. The roads are all windy and narrow, so driving looks fun. Riding around in Joe's little Suzuki Alto is a trip - we've gone out and gotten lost in town twice already. Every time we venture out is like a little adventure. Where are we gonna wind up next - who knows? It took us about half and hour to find this train station on the other side of town picking up this one girl from a couple towns over. She's a Chinese Jewish American... yeah. We all met up yesterday, basically to revel in our mutual westernness. Whether you speak Japanese or not, at least for now at the end of the day I'm soooo ready to speak English to anyone who can understand me. 8 hours straight of nihongo is seriously fatiguing to me, so I can only imagine what it must be like for the people who came here not knowing more than a few words like my neighbor did. I'm sure I'll get into a groove in a couple weeks here and start forgetting English again in no time though.

Friday, August 04, 2006


This is 3am, Friday, but I can't upload this for whatever reason. So anyway...

Yes, the word of the day is... pirates! Arrrr!! Not only are pirates cool, but it also seems to be the common theme of the day for me. After awaking from my slumber at a leisurely hour, I flip on the tv to the history channel. There was this show about the canal system along the Atlantic coast, and the name Blackbeard came up. Apparently back in the 19th Century when pirates were a problem, they used to use the canals in an attempt to avoid pirates. They also just found Blackbeard's main vessel, whose name evades me at the moment, off the coast of I believe N. Carolina.

So feeling slightly more enlightened, I venture out to begin my day. First stop: haircut. I go in and sit down, and as the stylist is going to do whatever stylists do in that back room, I notice a book in his area that simply reads "Blackbeard." So of course I ask him about it as soon as he comes back, and this man is a walking wiki of Blackbearded knowledge and goodness. It was one of those moments where you catch someone in their element and it's just fascinating... sort of like if you asked me something about Japan and actually cared.

So he's sitting there telling me all about the pirate's code and their rules and ethics and stuff and I'm just eating it up. For instance, did you know that the only time a captain was actually in charge was when they went to battle, and that the captains were elected? Apparently all other decisions were made by a purely democratic election. Go figure. Then I pop him the magical question - pirates vs. ninjas. Surprisingly (to me at least), he went with the ninjas due to their determination and the fact that they were dedicated warriors unlike pirates. I thought for sure he'd throw a conditional in there like "unless they're on water" or something, but nope.

So that's that. The rest of the day was even more magical than that, but it's not the theme of the day. It's basically just me meeting up with various people and telling them the theme of the day. I will say though that I met a very cool person this week, and although I'm dissappointed that I don't get more time to know her I am definitely glad that I met her and definitely expect to be hearing more from her in the future. You know who you are. I'm just now starting to feel like I'm actually about to leave, and yet I just met someone new... it's good in that it balances out all the goodbyes that I've been forced to say lately. Thanks!

And I still haven't started packing. Looks like I get to pull another one of those all nighters before the flight, because tomorrow's going to be just as busy, I'm sure.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

So what am I doing anyway?

Since I realize that not everyone knows exactly what I'm doing and where exactly I'm going, I figured that it'd be a good idea to preempt all your questions and just spill the beans on the table (oops!).

So where am I going? Well, if you look at the map on the left then you'll see a map of a magical place called "Japan", and if you look even closer you'll notice an area highlighted in a darker shade which is known as Miyagi Prefecture. If you have trouble remembering that, just think Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid and you're set. This place is 2 hours north of Tokyo by bullet train... roughly about as far as NYC is from DC I think. If you're wondering where Tokyo is on the map, look directly down from Miyagi and notice the Florida-like peninsula. That's Chiba (where I was last time), and Tokyo is directly to its left.

So I'll be in a town right outside Sendai, which is a city of 1 million, in a place called Shichigahama. Think of it like Jersey minus the whole "armpit of the country" thing. The weird part is that even though I'm 20 minutes outside of town, the train doesn't go to my area so I need a WRX, err, I mean I need a car. More on that to come soon.

The name of the town I'm in directly translates to "7 beaches", so there are beaches there... most likely 7 of them. It's north enough that they get real snow, so I need a WRX, err, I mean an AWD car. Oh, and the local specialty since every town in Japan has one is cow tongue. Yummy. All in all I'm happy with the placement - they ask you where you'd like to go and then put you wherever they have open, and not only was Sendai one of my first 2 choices but I also asked for a suburban placement. Add a big (for Japan) apartment with free rent and parking to the mix and I'm happier than a pig in slop!

So that leaves the question of what the hell I'm doing in Japan. Quite simply, I'm going to be the token white guy. Less simply but more accurately, I'm going to be a CIR for the JET Program, which is short for Coordinator of International Relations. No, I am not an English teacher, but I probably will wind up doing a little of it as part of my job. Still not helping?

Well, I'm working at the Shichigahama International Village (七ヶ浜国際村), which is basically a modernish, artsy looking community center with an international flair. They even have a nice looking concert hall and an amphitheater. I'll wind up helping to run events and eventually setting up my own, running a cultural club and holding seperate international cultural classes for both little kids and adults, giving occasional speeches or writing columns on international stuff (in Japanese!), acting as the contact for the sister city of Plymouth, Massachusetts including helping out an exchange student and such, as well as the occassional translation and/or interpretation job.

Basically, for me it means a chance to work in a Japanese working environment, improve my Japanese further and find out what I want to do with it. Hopefully along the way I'll meet some people and have some fun. If I can, I'll be sqeezing some capoeira, soccer, snowboarding, and random traveling in there as well. There's a capoeira club not too far away, the slopes are a driveable distance (as are hot springs!!), and I plan on checking out the rest of Asia this time around.

Ok, I hope that covers a whole bunch of the general questions, but if you want to know more - well that's what this whole thing is all about, right? Just ask!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

It begins...

Ok, so it finally happened like you all knew it would - I'm back online and on my way back to Japan! I leave in just under a week now and time is flying by. I'm putting all the final touches into my preparations, but really I know that no matter how much time I take I'll inevitably forget something so I'm not really stressing things. I've done my shopping, I've done my homework, and I'm pretty much set.

So what's this blog going to be about? Well mostly it'll be me giving everyone back home the 411 while I'm in Japan, but I'll stick random factoids, discoveries, and thoughts in there as they come to me. There will also be a slew of pictures as there were last time, so don't worry about that one.

Now first thing's first - a good blog needs a good name! I stuck something up there, but I'm not really happy with it so let the suggestions fly. I'll keep the wheels churning on my side as well.

Oh yeah, and happy birthday to me!