Friday, March 21, 2008

um·brel·la [uhm-brel-uh] –noun

I have been wanting to start this documentation of collection project for a while. Seemed like after/during a big windy messy day was a good a time as any. On the way to Kanazawa, I began collecting evidence. Let's learn of our oft neglected and unappreciated friend.

1. a light, small, portable, usually circular cover for protection from rain or sun, consisting of a fabric held on a collapsible frame of thin ribs radiating from the top of a carrying stick or handle.

2. one of the top two most stolen or "borrowed" items in Japan, the other being bicycles.

3. as cheap as 100yen a pop

4. the most common variety is a conbini purchased clear vinyl model.

5. every umbrella I have ever bought or was given to me over the past 3 years has been stolen, with the exception of a tiny magenta one I don't know the origin of

6. in a more esoteric vein, umbrellas remind me of the status of older people in many societies. once their usefulness has expended, they are unceremoniously discarded and ignored

pictures to come...
Of Books

I haven't had a whole lot of time to read in the past few months, but I recently managed to finish a few books that have been neglected on my shelf.

First was started a LONG time ago. It's a book that nearly all JETs have heard of, or have read a passage from at the very least. Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson, took me forever to finish. It's not a difficult read at all. It's easy to swallow, suited well to chunk reading (some would say "toilet reading") as he hops from city to city, driver to driver. I suppose the book is a bit dated now, since it was published 10 years ago. Things have changed in both the JET programme and Japan. It was entertaining, but often struck me as a tinge racist. Nothing flagrant, but you could sense a deeper vibe of the author being disenchanted with Japan as a whole, that just increased as you went on. Some of his interactions were rather embarassing, and really frustrated me, as a foreigner living in Japan. It's the same reaction I have when I see a foreigner behaving in a particularly obnoxious manner. In North America, or Europe there is more of a blend of races to meld into and the average caucasian isn't particularly noticeable. In Japan, however, the group is judged based on the actions of the few. It's an issue of culture and perspective, but I like to see travelers take consideration of how their actions effect their nationality (or assumed nationality, since the author routinely passed himself off as American) as a whole.

All in all, meh... Some of the authors descriptions of Japan were poetic, and it was interesting to hear about the Japan of recent past. In the end, I really didn't gain anything from the book. I was not as enthralled as I had anticipated being. Zannen.

In more enjoyable book news, I also finished The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. I have heard whinging about de Botton's snobbish attitude coming across in his books, looking down on the intellectually inferior and dumbing down the teachings of famous philosophers into pithy platitudes (the alliteration was completely unintentional). I didn't feel any of that in this book, though. Perhaps I am just not intelligent enough to have been offended by his philosophic handholding. I will be the first to admit I need it! There is no shame in reading a book with your dictionary at hand. I want to understand, I am trying to understand, and if someone out there is willing to lend assistance, then who am I to complain?

Some of the ideas mentioned about traveling and appreciating detail through drawing were really interesting, and helped nudge me a bit into focus again. I have been looking for creative outlets lately. My schedule is fairly brutal, but I need some way to get the crazy out of my head and on paper or at least in some form of media.

In irrelevant news. We have a load of homestay students coming this afternoon, and it seems I have lost a pivotal battle. Tomorrow, we are supposed to hold a cooking class with them, and introducing a Japanese recipe. So what are we making? Curry rice. Sigh... seems the lengthy discussion I had with a co-worker about the origin of curry and the international adoration of sushi did nothing.

Sometimes I really wonder...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Irrational Fears

Living in Japan has become quite comfortable. I can carry on basic conversations, run errands, have a laugh with my student who works at the local supermarket, order my coffee like a pro, fill up my tank with their wacky machines or at full service (makes you feel like a superstar for yennies more!), buy tickets on all forms of transportation, and find my way when/if I get hopelessly lost in the countryside. With all of these previous worries under my belt, one would think I was confident.

Well, today I will share with you some fears that I still have about living in Japan.

Fear 1. The dry cleaners. J thinks this one is quite funny, and I agree it is silly. It stems from my lack of experience in dry cleaning ever, no matter what country I was living in. I realize all I have to do is walk there, drop my suits/futons/etc. on the counter, give them my address and name, then skeedaddle out of there. But, for some inexplicable reason, I haven't done it. Maybe it's not fear, I think it's just laziness.

Fear 2. Japanese vegetables. Often, I feel a bit brave and purchase some mystery veg at the supermarket. I bring it home, ponder over it's origins, and attempt to cook it in a way I think would suit it. Sometimes I succeed, but more often than not, I fail miserably. I eat dinner at my sensei's home every Wednesday, and routinely quiz his wife on her recipes, making mental notes of which veg to use where, and what spices and oils they are intended to marinate in. My experiments have become slightly more successful. Huzzah!

note: this photo is of another ken's gomi instructions

Fear 3. Crazy gomi day. Japan has an elaborate garbage/recycling system. It is divided by neighborhood, where the obaasan mafia get together and decide what insane rules will be instituted so as to drive the other residents mad. Also, it gives them something to do a few times a month, where they can yell at all their neighbors and feel self-righteous. Ahh... to be old and insane. My neighborhood uses the 3 bag system. Stay with me here.

Blue bags are used for anything burnable. This sounds simple, right? Well and good until you consider that at a high enough temperature EVERYTHING is burnable. To simplify, food waste, plant waste (as long as it is in small quantities), discarded clothing or cloth (as long as it is cut into small pieces and distributed throughout the rest of the trash), paper, plastics that are too dirty to clean off (they get pissy about this one, though), and things that don't make sense to throw into the other bags (but you have to wrap them in thick layers of paper, so that the gomi ladies don't find out that you sinned). Also, you must purchase the blue bags from a local store, and they must be the official blue gomi bags, or they won't accept them. I made the mistake of buying opaque blue bags by accident once. That was an ugly incident. I still have nightmares.

Now pink bags. This one is still perplexing to me. I was babbled at by a little old man this morning, as he rifled through my bag and told me it was wrong wrong wrong. I just smiled brightly and said "I have no clue what you are saying!" In Japanese of course. What I gathered from watching was styrofoam is not legit pink bag content afterall. It gets put in a clear bag (where does one acquire such a thing?) and on a different pile. So, in the future, I will have to separate all the styrofoam and either bring it to the local foreign food store, or cross my fingers and hope that same little old man doesn't break them for disobeying him. Soft (grocery bag) plastic seems to go in it's own bag, and hard plastics, like a bento package, in another.

On to yellow bags. I don't have to buy these or the pink, they are delivered several times throughout the year, and I have actually accumulated enough to build an inflatable couch. I should get on that project soon... Yellow bags can contain glass bottles and jars, aluminum cans, and tin cans. Wow, you think, this one sounds easy! No no no. Each different type of material requires its own bag. Glass bottles and jars in one, but not the lids or caps. Also, large glass bottles, like sake bottles get placed in a row alongside the other trash. I think that's just an aesthetic preference on the part of the gomi collectors. Or, they are performing a social experiment and seeing how much alcohol our neighborhood consumes bi-weekly. If the glass is broken, you must wrap it in paper and place it in the burnable garbage, kinda like a bomb (I am not being sarcastic here, that one is 100% according to the written regulations). The tin cans must be rinsed, labels removed (ha ha, nope), and put into their own bag. The aluminum cans share a similar fate. At least the last two are simple. Instead of dealing with that nonsense, I took all the aluminum cans out and will deposit them in the recycle container at the conbini late at night instead. Mwaa ha ha. Oh no! I nearly forgot PET bottles! This is the name for your average plastic beverage container. There are two sizes of PET bottles that must be separated. The really big ones, that you would take camping, or that (if you are an old or superstitious Nihonjin) you fill up at "holy" or particularly "oishii" water sites around the ken. Mine were from Kamiichi's infamous delicious AND holy water. Beat that! The big bottles get their own bag. Then the normal to small sizes are put in a separate one as well. I didn't even mention the hard plastics like household cleaner bottles, dishsoap bottles, etc. Those likely get their own bag, too.

If you are keeping count, I would have had to have 8-9 different bags in 3 colors, and still am not sure if I am correct. In addition to all that...

Cardboard. It must be cut up to a B3 approximate size (not specific, but small enough to carry comfortably, think briefcase size), and bound together in a stack with twine. All lables and tape must be removed.

Oversized gomi. Today this included my old broken vaccuum. Blessedly, this seems to be the simplest section because it has the least amount of stuff for the gomi-folk to sort through.

All of this information came through 3 years of trying to decipher the illustrated instructions, screams of dismay from gomi-folk, and whispers in the garbage scented wind. This morning, I managed to learn a lot, as I brought my gomi 5 minutes late to the drop-off site, and thusly had 6 gomi men (we are lucky that we have men instead of crazy ladies!) rooting through my trash. If I had been earlier, others would have stolen away their attention and they would have been none the wiser to my evil sorting ways. Alas, I was alone with a LOT of gomi to unload. The men were really sweet, and knew exactly where I lived. Apparently, I am now the only foreigner in my neighborhood, so they were really kind and tried to help me understand the proper gomi techniques that have been passed down through the generations.

I must do them proud. Next time, I am going to sort like they've never seen a gaijin sort before! I will amaze them with my separation. Wow them with my twine bundling! They shall fall at my feet praising my prowess. Or maybe the ojisan just won't babble at me angrily anymore.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Abandoning Doraemon

Notably, this week, we lost a friend. J sent a package a few weeks ago from Bangkok to Japan. He and his kuroneko-ed (yeah, I verbed the romajified noun) a rucksak to my address from Fukuoka a few days later. I received the rucksack about 2 days later, and we anticipated the usual tardiness of Thai post to take it's toll on the package.

On Tuesday, I found a slip from the post office in my door, saying that I needed to come pick up something. I assumed this was the package. Nope. I was instead handed a letter from customs in Yokohama. Why they didn't just put the damn thing in my mailbox is beyond me. The letter stated that hey were holding the package due to import restriction violations. ? The package contained some suits J had made in Thailand, and possibly a few knicknacks from his students. Upon further reading (with my dictionary in hand) I came across an odd mix of katakana and hiragana. ドラえもん Doraemon? Yup. Turns out, customs opened the package and found a knockoff copy of a stuffed Doraemon, which had been a gift from one of J's students. I was sent an official document asking if I would... hold on, they say it better than I ever could
I hereby swear that I have complete and full authority and legal capacity to dispose of the article(s) given bellow, and also declare that based on my authority I voluntarily abandon the said article(s).
I left in the misspelling of "below" as well. Good to know there are still jobs available for translation over at the customs department.

So, after killing trees to send me this letter (and a lovely color pamphlet on illegal imports), I have to sign, hanko, fill-in, and mail off the Declaration for Abandonment of Articles for a stuffed animal before they will send the rest of the package to me. They had already (get this) sent Doraemon to the official Doraemon manufacturers, to have it evaluated for authenticity. Yes. That is where the government is spending the nation's money. They should have received my response by now, and hopefully sent the package on its way to me. I hope I hanko-ed in all the right places, or who knows, they may send the form back to me!

Friday, March 07, 2008

A break, for my poor finger

I suppose that sounds a bit filthy, maybe not... maybe that is just me. I am in the weekly process of making between 50-90 kanji flashcards. After writing so much, my finger KILLS. My new book is prep for 2kyuu (Japanese Language Proficiency Test level 2), and that is about 1000 kanji if I remember correctly. Remembering the little bastards is one thing, but learning all the vocab that comes along with is the real killer. Wooo 78 this week, all including じ ず そ た good times. I admit, I am bit concerned about retaining a lot of the vocab, but if I somehow manage to review continuously, there is a chance. It has been done before. Plus, I will have J here to beat me with the old hockey stick if I slack off.

My kiddies had graduation this week. It was tearful at times, but I was more proud than sad. I have some photos to post as soon as I get around to uploading them. I really need to get a new camera, sigh. Mine is being held together with packing tape. No lie.

The Toyama JETs Team Teaching Handbook of doom is finally finished. I went in on Monday to get the damn thing completed, and after pasting 165 tiny numbers onto individual pages (hurrah for numbering the old-fashioned way!) finally filed it in the finished file. Just for clarification, the finished file is a recycled cardboard box. Stay classy GEC.

Rounding out the week was downloading some fantastic music I have been meaning to for a while. I have Caribou's The Milk of Human Kindness on repeat, currently. I could listen to "Pelican Narrows" for 3 days straight and never tire of it.

Last, but not least, I have a few hidden Saipan photos that J posted on Facebook, and I have the privilege of putting up here! (the opening photo, and the one below) I love seeing old photos that I forgot were taken. They always make me happy.