Friday, January 27, 2006

Cultural Polination

So I'm watching a National Geographic documentary on the USS Reagan, and they show the crew blowing off some steam in the hangar: karaoke, sumo (with suits, of course), Judo practice ... and it strikes me, all of their passtimes are Japanese.

Kinda funny, when you think about it. The Americans conquer the Japanese, and a couple of generations later they've picked up a bunch of habits from them (especially in the military, that segment of American culture that's had the most prolonged contact.)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Birdie....

My room-mate tells me it's a hat.

I'm not sure whether to be proud or embarrased that that never even occured to me.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Chipped Paint Can Give a Sign a Completely Different Meaning....

"Ow!" said the little girl. "The birdie bit my arm!"

"Don't worry," said the nice transit worker, "We've caught the horrible winged rat. See, I'm holding it by the neck with this handy extensible claw, and we'll just hold it here until a train comes by.... Justice will be done, dear. Justice will be done."

Sunday, January 22, 2006

First Snowfall

Okay, okay ... long time since the last update. My excuse is that I was sick for a week, and really didn't feel like blogging (or doing much else for that matter.) One of my lymph nodes swelled up to golfball proportions.

Anyhow. Friday night my girlfriend came over. "It's snowing!" she said. To which I thought, uh huh, right, sure it is. I figured it was the Tokyo Snowfall I've already been exposed to (one snowflake per cubic meter, which melts within a foot of the asphalt.) The next day I looked outside, and, wow ... it was still snowing, and pretty heavily too. The air was filled with big, sticky, wet snowflakes, and the ground was comprehensively white and slushy.

I made an interesting discovery, too. Apparently, they bust out the umbrellas over here when it snows.

It snowed up until about 9 or 10 Saturday night. By Sunday evening, it had all melted....

Friday, January 06, 2006

Odds and Ends From the End of the Winter Vacation

Just got back home from the first day of work after the vacation. Ah, so slow ... so very nice. I only had three students and a placement test ... three free periods, and a fourth that was basically free. What a wonderfully relaxing day at work (even if I did have to go all the way out to Omiya, which is over an hour from Hachioji.)

I spent the last day of the vacation with my girlfriend. She introduced me to a movie by Miyazaki (that would be the guy who did Spirited Away.) It was called Laputa, and is apparently about 20 years old. The story's pretty simple - two children, aided by a band of air-pirates, try to find a flying island - but it's very well done and the animation is simply excellent. Anime is so much better than Disney that it's a wonder the latter even bothers making movies any more.

She helped me with my Japanese a bit, too. It turns out that I memorized two completely useless kanji, the ones for the verbs iru ('to exist', animate) and aru (to exist, inanimate.) They're never used, apparently. And, she helped me translate my name into Japanese:

Now, my full name is Matthew (Hebrew for "Gift of God"), Eric (Old Norse, for "King") and Shultz (German for "Village Ruler".) So, the above translates as Kamiokumono Oumurashu. The first kanji is "God", the next two, "Gift", the fourth "King", the fifth "Ruler", and the sixth "Master."

I'll try not to let all this go to my head ;-)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Christmas in Tokyo

Apologies to my (cough) many devoted readers, for the long interval between posts. I've been uncharacteristically busy these past few weeks. But now the Winter Vacation is upon me, with almost two weeks with no work, and I finally have some time to get back to posting. Incidentally, I've also updated my flickr page, so if you want to see some cool pics from Tokyo, check it out.

Anyhow, I've recently finished celebrating my first Tokyo Christmas, and it was, er, somewhat surreal. Fun, but occasionally odd. You can see a little bit of why if you check out the aforementioned flickr page. But, well, here's what I did for Christmas. First, I accompanied my girlfriend to Roppongi (the better part, where the art galleries are, not the infamous part where all the drug-dealers and hookers are) and had a look around an exhibiton of Vivienne Westwood's many interesting designs (including a sweatshirt repurposed as an evening gown.) Westwood, as you may know and I certainly didn't before Sunday, got her start in London's punk scene and from there moved on to the world of high fashion. After this, we adjourned to a cafe on the same floor of the building - namely, the 52nd - and watched the light come out over Tokyo. First time I've done so from such a height ... it's quite a sight.

After this, we met with some of her friends and went to the Millenario, an annual Christmas lights festival held in the Maranouchi district of Tokyo, normally not so crowded but for this event so packed with people that, for most of the time, we crept forward in a sort of Night-of-the-Living-Dead shuffle. The lights were, I thought, quite well done - my girlfriend disagreed, claiming that last year's had been more impressive - but they were of an odd design; said oddness later explained by the fact that this year's designer was a Muslim ... or maybe not ... I can't find any referrences to his being Islamic, though he is Italian, and I have a feeling that my notion of his being Islamic might have arisen due to language barrier issues. I'm leaving the issue open, but if it's true, well, I can only say this: only in Japan would people fail to see the humor in a Muslim designing Christmas lights.

So, after that, it was off to an Izakaya (which is sort of like a pub.) There, we ate a lot, and drank too much, as ones does at Izakayas (amongst the food we ate was raw chicken, which was new to me: I've had sushi and sashimi before, but raw chicken struck me as dangerous. Quite good, though, when suitably soaked in soy sauce and wasabe.) As always when out with Japanese people, it was an excellent chance to practice my Japanese ... by which I mean, my girlfriend (who speaks pretty good English) translated her friend's questions for me; I would then ask my girlfriend for a word or two, and then use it to compose my reply in broken Japanese.

So, that was my Tokyo Christmas ... about as different as one could possibly imagine from my accustomed ritual of gigantic meals and endless present-opening. But Christmas is different here: where in Western countries it's a family holiday, in Japan, it's basically a sort of Valentine's Day.

Oh, and the plastic Christmas tree that my room-mates found in our closet, some weeks ago? Still in the closet. You can walk in our house and never even know that 'tis the season....

Correction: Turns out the the designer was Italian, not Islamic ... but, the original designer was a Muslim. That was several months ago, though; the organizers must have changed their minds, or the original designer became unavailable.

New Years Day: Climbing Mount Takao

Most New Years that I remember consisted of staying home and nursing a hangover. This one was different: not the hangover part, but the staying home. I actually left the house ... to go mountain climbing.

This is less arduous than it sounds: they had a chair-lift that took us most of the way up (incidentally, the chair-lift didn't have a guard-rail, unlike every other chairlift I've ever been on. This is not a country that feels the need to idiot-proof everything, in stark contrast to back home, where coffee comes served in cups that are careful to inform you, 'careful! hot!' But I digress.)

Now, before I go any further, I should mention that one of the many Japanese New Year's traditions is visiting a shrine (other traditions include: giving money to your children, nieces and nephews; and watching the first sunrise ... not everone does this last one, as it involves getting up Really Early and, well, there's that whole hangover thing....) Anyhow, my girlfriend and I decided to visit the shrine at Takaosan (ie, Mount Takao: in Japanese, the suffix 'san' is used both as a unisexual equivalent to Mr., and for the names of mountains.) It was closer than the Meiji shrine, after all, and - given it's presence halfway up a mountain - likely to be less crowded.

Once we got off the chairlift, we purchased a small pine box full of sake, to warm us for the climb (it was cold up there. I got to keep the box, too: makes for a pretty cool souveneir.) The path up was lined with a variety of interesting shrines, gravestones, and monuments, some of which are pictured here. There was a lot of other stuff, too, all very interesting and beautiful, but very little of which I was allowed to take pictures of (it's rude.) And for the rest, it rapidly got too dark to take any decent pics with my camphone (lacking, as it does, a flash.)

There were also some amazing, ancient, gnarled trees to be seen, which I was informed are called 'god-trees' (as they are, I suppose, inhabited by gods, or at least godlings.) Oh, and the view was, well, see for yourself:

The shrine itself was impressively large, consisting of several buildings in the traditional Shinto style: swooping tiled roofs, curling up at the edges, decorated with guardian spirits. On either side of the gate were several fountains, presided over by statues of gods, heroes, tengu, dragons, and other fantastical creatures. We paused there, dipped out some water with wicker baskets, and cleansed our hands (the water was ice cold, always fun when your hands are already frozen.)

Thus purified, we entered into another part of the temple, where we purchased bundles of incense, which we burned (getting them to light wasn't easy), stuck into a truly mountanous pile of ash, and and then wafted the smoke over our heads. The ritual is somewhat similar to blowing out the candles on a birthday cake: while the smoke drifts past you, you keep your wish for the next year at the front of your mind. The smoke catches your wish and relays it up to heaven.

After this, we prayed: we waited in line, made an offering, clapped our hands twice and bowed our heads. I felt a little silly doing this, because I couldn't help but think that all the Japanese people around us were thinking, "What's this silly gaijin doing?" A little like a muslim receiving communion, maybe ... except that the concept really doesn't quite map, as Christianity (and, for that matter, Islam) are post-ethnic religions, whereas Shinto is an organic outgrowth of two thousand years of Japanese culture. It's just not a relgion that makes converts, which is why it must have looked kind of weird to them to see a gaijin doing it.

After visiting the shrine, we climbed the rest of the way to the top (only another twenty minutes), passing two more shrines on the way. Both of which were noteworthy, the first for being surrounded by a small army of two-foot high guardian spirits, and the second for being decked out in gold, lions, and dragons.

Then there was the cable car. We nicknamed it 'Takao Disney', because it's at about a 45-60 degree slope, and we took the whole thing standing (or, occasionally, hanging, as the case may be.)

Stupid #$%&ing Banks....

So I walk down to the bank today to pay my rent - yeah, yeah, technically a day late, but the 1st happened to be a Sunday this year - and, of course, the bank is closed. Until Wednesday.

Fair enough, I sez. Everyone needs a holiday.

So I go down to the 7-11, where there's a cash machine; can't pay rent there, sure, but I can make a withdrawal, and I'm running a little low on cash after the weekend. It is at this point that I discover that, apparently, in Japan the bank machines need a holiday too. Withdrawals will not be available until Wednesday morning. As I have approximately 1000 yen left in my wallet (and might be able to scrounge up another thousand or two out of my overfilling change jar) this means that the next two days will be somewhat more, er, low-key than the last two.

(It's times like this that I regret my gaijin habit of never having more than twenty thousand on my person at any given time. Here, people feel so safe that they regular walk around with fifty thousand on their persons ... whereas in Canada (and of course the U.S.) anyone who carried more than a hundred or two would be regarded as foolish and possibly insane.)

This isn't the first time this has happened, incidentally. On probably four or five occasions over the past six months, UFJ (that's the bank I'm with), and it's entire network, have shut down for the entire weekend. One time, this almost left me stranded in Yokohama: luckily, I had just enough money on me for train fare back home. This time, thankfully, I have plenty of food and don't have to go to work ... but still, spending the next two days of my vacation with next-to-no-money is gonna suck.