Monday, May 19, 2008

XYZ

1D class was practicing in pairs, and I was writing on the board preparing the next part of the lesson, when a boy got up and came to the front. A few students had already started giggling before he leaned over and whispered (loudly) in my ear something in Japanese. I didn't understand all the vocabulary used, but I recognized "~aite imasu" ("~is open") and looked down to see that my fly was indeed open.

By that point, most of the class had become aware of it, and there was no point in trying to be discreet. I faced the class and made a surprised face, told the boy "thank you!" and tiptoed out of the classroom in an obvious manner. I zipped up and strutted back in like nothing had happened (though really, I was making it very clear), and I whispered loudly to the boy, thanking him once more. They all thought it was a riot.

I really do love when these little unexpected things occur. It can be great for livening up a class, especially on a Monday.

On the same topic, today I explained the English phrase "XYZ" to some students, and was amused to learn that the Japanese euphemism for the situation is "shakai no mado" which means "window of society" or "social window".

Monday, May 12, 2008

Hanami


I've been pretty busy lately and so there haven't been any new posts for a long time. I've mostly been adjusting to my classes for the new school year (which began in March) and working on creating dance music for a side-project I'm doing (more on that later). Anyway, sorry for the lack of updates.

Rather than write a lot of summary of what I've been up to, I'd like to just post a bunch of pictures from our cherry-blossom-viewing trip to Hirosaki. But first, a little explanation:

Hanami ("flower viewing") refers to the annual nationwide celebration of the sakura ("cherry blossoms") coming into bloom. They first appear in Okinawa in January, and move north through the main islands during spring. In Akita, they tend to bloom in early April. Japanese love them for their beauty and their impermanence (they were hardly in Akita City for a week before they began to fall).


Unfortunately, they were a little too impermanent for me and I wasn't able to do hanami in Akita City. Then, Caito had the idea of taking a trip up north where they were still in bloom, and that's how we ended up in Hirosaki with Casey and his wife, Chie from Odate.

Basically, hanami consists of getting together with family and friends and having a picnic in the shade of the sakura.


Before finding our own plot of land, we stopped to admire Hirosaki castle.


We then found a lovely spot directly under a willowing sakura. It was like a small room surrounded by curtains of flowers. Plus, we had a great view of the castle.


And in the distance, we had a clear view of Mt. Iwaki.




I was glad that I got to do hanami after all, especially in such a nice place and time. We were a little worried that it would be too late, even in Hirosaki, but we were pleased to find that there were plenty of full blooming sakura, and most of them had just begun to fall, like snow- which, they say, is the best time to view them.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Christmas in Tokyo: High Tea and Kabuki


On Christmas morning, we treated ourselves to "High Tea" at the Hilton. The tea was high all-right, not only in quality and price, but also in altitude, since we were atop one of Shinjuku's many skyscrapers, where, sitting right next to the windows, we commanded an awesome view of the city.

Some of us were a little under-dressed for the place, but we payed our 3000 yen and got what we came for: delicious tea, scrumptious cookies and desserts, a great view, and a chance to feel like important people (while wearing polo shirts, sneakers and the like).

In the evening we headed to the Kabuki-za in Ginza, the primary theater for Kabuki productions in Tokyo- Kabuki being a 400 yr-old traditional Japanese theater in which men traditionally play all the roles, including those of women, often wearing elaborate makeup like this. The men who play women are specialists known as Onnagata ("woman form") and they are renowned for their ability to mimic women in voice, gesture, and appearance.

We sat back in the top balcony through two of the three acts for a great discount price of about 1400 yen (including headphones for an English translation). The first act was a short dance number that had two monochrome-faced bakers making mochi- twirling around a pot, hammers in-hand, "pounding" the mochi in time with the music. The other villagers got involved and basically everyone had a grand old time.

The second work was a substantial dramatic play called "Furu Amerika-ni Sode-ha Nurasaji" (My Sleeves Will Never Be Wet With the Rain of America). It was actually a modern (1950s) play adapted for Kabuki just that year. It turned out to be a good one for experienciing Onnagata, as two of the primary characters were women.

I didn't think the female characters were particularly uncanny- certainly, not at first. After a while, though, I was pulled into the story, hypnotized into believing that they were women. I owe this more to their consistency in using the stylized voice, rather than to any realistic accuracy. I liked it, however, because it was less like they were real people or even actors, and more like they were vivid illustrations in a storybook.

Perhaps the most amusing part was the American character who spoke almost no Japanese in the play. Misunderstandings would arise between him and the Japanese characters, often with humorous consequences featuring Japanese wordplay using English words. At other times the miscommunication lead to tense situations. And it was kind of funny to hear the actor playing the American use an obviously forced, exaggerated accent.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Christmas in Tokyo: Asakusa


Near Ueno lies Asakusa, which, with the Sensoji temple (the largest Buddhist temple in Tokyo), joins Ueno in being Tokyo's center of Japanese culture. The main street leading up to the temple's entrance is lined with endless vendors selling souvenirs and food that comes on sticks.

Jon and myself, in front of the gatehouse.

Approaching the temple.

The pagoda.

Visitors burning incense out front, wafting the smoke onto their heads.

And more (
Thanks goes to Caito for all the pics.):












Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Christmas in Tokyo: Ueno

The first hotel we stayed at was in Ueno, "the cultural center of Tokyo." Ueno's main attractions (several temples and other old structures, various museums, and the zoo) were all located in one big park (Ueno park) next to the station, making them all easy to get to, but hard to decide where we wanted to go (we could have easily spent a couple days just going to the museums).

We discovered a free English tour guide service, and a nice woman gave us a personal tour of the park (no one else showed up). We learned about the battle that took place there a century and a half ago and saw a temple gate perforated with holes from bullets and cannon balls.

At the museum of Western art we saw a great exhibit of Edvard Munch paintings, and several Rodin sculptures, including one of the three original casts of his Gates of Hell.

The museum of science featured a special "Robot" exhibit that had, among many others, a robot that you could ballroom dance with and a robot that played the theme song to "Totoro" on a trumpet. They also had a display of "old-fashioned" robots, containing gears and springs instead of microchips. These were some of the most impressive, I thought. There was one, a delicate-looking painted Buddha-like doll with a calm pleasant smile, that could draw an arrow from a nearby quiver, leisurely nock it to his bow, and release it, hitting the center of a target. The highlight, however, had to be Asimo, Honda Motor Company's talking, walking humanoid robot, who was apparently designed for the sole purpose of getting his groove on:


video

OK, he also walked, ran, served coffee, and kicked soccer balls. Just imagine, in the future we won't need to bother with such menial tasks because we will just get a million-dollar robot to do them for us! And just like all Japanese robots, he spoke with that abrasively high, childlike voice that is the standard for all female customer service workers and public announcers in Japan, presumably because it sounds polite and nonthreatening. We can rest assured that these robots will never turn against their masters and enslave us all, because they all sound like three-year-olds.


The zoo was fun. It wasn't markedly different from zoos in the states. Here are some highlights (Thanks goes to Jon for the photos):






I especially like the last one of the seal. There's just something very human about the way he's leaning against the wall with his head cocked, like a guy soaking in a jacuzzi.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Christmas in Tokyo: Overview


When winter holiday rolled around, I chose to stay in Japan, intent on getting to know some of the more distant parts of this country. Tokyo was an obvious choice, if not my first, but it turned out to be the best compromise between someplace warm, fun, and affordable to travel to, and it was a blast! Caito from Noshiro came along as my travel buddy, and in Tokyo, we met up with Jon from Honjo and his friend Kisa. We were there for four and a half days and saw a lot in that time. So much so, in fact, that I think it's best if I write about it over a series of posts.


And this right here is the Japan Railways Seishun 18 ticket, the cheapest way to travel locally for anyone living in Japan (if you don't live in Japan, you can buy the even niftier JR Pass). This ticket gives you five days (consecutive or no) of access to all regular trains in Japan. The downside, of course, is that you can't take any of the express trains or Shinkansen (bullet trains). For us, this meant that it would take two days to travel to or from Tokyo, but we didn't mind. The countryside views as we crossed the "Japanese Alps" were beautiful, and in all, we each paid about the equivalent of $100 for a round trip to and from Tokyo.



Tokyo is huge. It's effectively twenty-three independent cities in one, each with it's own unique attractions and atmosphere. There are more than 8 million people living in the city itself, and as much as 30 million in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, making it the largest metropolitan area in the world with a fourth of Japan's entire population.

I've decided to divide up my posts based on the different areas we visited just to make it easier on myself. Up first will be Ueno and Asakusa.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Japanese Cheese

The Japanese don't appreciate cheese the same way Westerners do. At least, that's what I gather from shopping at local supermarkets here. In the States you can go to a your local Ralphs and find an entire display island of assorted cheeses with various sizes, colors, and flavors, but here, my "cheese section" consists of a couple different brands of maybe two or three cheese flavors, which are all pretty much the same flavor anyway: processed.

OK, none of this is really surprising. If you're at all familiar with Japanese cuisine, you should know that cheese isn't a big part of it (though glatin is pretty popular here). The real reason I'm posting is just to share this:



This bright red box caught my eye as I walked by the cheese and butter section. Closer inspection revealed a picture of pre-sliced cheese with a curious pink middle layer in every slice, and the word "ham" prominently displayed. Ham and cheese, together, in one stack of cheese-like slices, for the ham-and-cheese fan on the go. Of course, I added it to my basket.

All right, so it wasn't real ham. The box actually says "ham-flavored cheese" which may or may not be less strange. I still find the box interesting. Let's take a closer look:



Here you can see the distinct pink and white stripes labeled "ham flavored cheese in the center" and "60% gouda on the outside." Apparently being 60% real cheese is a selling point. What I really like, though, is the picture they have in the lower left corner. The ideal way to eat ham flavored cheese, apparently, is on a plate with some slices of real ham, some lettuce and olives, and a tall glass of beer.

Anyway, I'm just having some fun because I found something I'd never seen before. I know this isn't any more strange that some things we have in the States. It's certainly not as weird as our Jimmy Dean Chocolate Chip Pancakes and Sausage on a Stick.