Saturday, August 29, 2009

You're Welcome!

Over the last few years I’ve read my share of horror stories about Americans living or traveling overseas who have been treated with nothing but utter contempt. Here is a story that’s going to tip the scale in the other direction. One Saturday, not too long ago, I was traveling through Tokyo via one of the countless steel-clad rail huggers that relentlessly crisscross this overcrowded concrete jungle. It was the Kehein Tohoku train line to be exact and when the doors of the car I was riding opened at Ueno Station, I heard this gasp of what seemed to be extreme elation. When I looked up to see the face from which this joyous utterance emerged I beheld an expression of total surprise and from behind a pair of black framed glasses with lenses as thick as the bottom of a glass coca cola bottle there were two eyes bulging wide open that pointed straight at me like an unavoidable oncoming hail of bullets. When the doors of the train car slammed shut, sealing all of its occupants in together, the elated middle-aged man who had just entered turned his body 360 degrees, extended his “back pocket” in my direction, pointed to the protruding posterior part of his anatomy with his index finger (which was pretty hard not to notice in the first place), and then turned his head around with a come hither expression as the words “thank you” rolled off his tongue in accented English. It looked like it was going to be a long ride.

Then as he continued to strike what on perhaps a more appealing figure might have been considered a seductive pose he spoke again. Index finger pointing south, the words “Levi’s, thank you,” once again fell from his lips. Then he straightened out, turned around, looked me squarely in the eye and asked, “What country?” I told him “America.” Upon which he returned to his bent over position, pointed again and said with a smile, “Levi’s. Thank you.” That's when it finally hit me. He was thanking me, an American, for giving him that distinctly American brand of dungarees.

Within seconds we reached the next stop, Uguisuadani, (only six stops away from my destination) and he didn’t get off. Since I was the only apparent representative from the birthplace of Levi’s dungarees I told him, "You're welcome." Seemingly overjoyed by my response, he began to walk up and down the entire length of the rail car demonstrating kendo techniques with, thank God, an imaginary sword. Now while that may seem strange, what’s even stranger is that the entire time this performance was going on every other passenger was totally oblivious to it. Everyone was either “dozing” or had their face plastered to the pages of a book. Nobody looked up for a second.

When my somewhat loony friend returned to his former perch across the aisle from where I was sitting, the train was just pulling into Nippori Station and it looked like he was going to get off (yes!). No such luck. After topping his kendo show off with a couple of inscrutable jokes, which I may have inadvertently encouraged with a couple of forced chuckles, and a couple of train stops later we were both still there. That’s when I imagine the music started to play inside his head because from the top of his lungs came, “Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try. No hell below us. Above us only sky. Imagine all the people. Living for today… Imagine there's no countries. It isn't hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too. Imagine all the people. Living life in peace...” By the time we had reached Kami Nakazato, just two short stops away from where I was definitely going to get off, he had delivered a stirring rendition of the entire John Lennon classic. It was a touching performance, carefully crafted to break down whatever barriers that existed between our two nations and pave the way to peace for all humanity. Unfortunately this wonderful performance caused all the other passengers to fall into a deep, deep coma. It would have been rude not to applaud and so, carefully avoiding to wake anyone from their slumber, I clapped as quietly as I could. Smiling from ear to ear, my crazy crooner gave a deep bow of appreciation. This time with his rear end thankfully pressed up against the door of the train and not my face. When the train came to a stop at Oji Station the doors suddenly opened and our brief interlude ended, strangely, just as it had begun. There was a huge gasp and when I looked up to see the face from which this utterance emerged it had an expression of total surprise with eyes bulging wide open that pointed straight at me. As the doors that supported his backside suddenly parted, his body spilled out on to the platform. Miraculously he was uninjured, but even more miraculously was that at the exact moment this strange fellow’s bottom hit the concrete, something, perhaps the jolt of the impact, awakened every last one of the afflicted riders from their comatose state. Imagine that!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Fantastic Fireworks

Japan is renowned for its magnificent fireworks displays. The other day I headed down to the banks of the Tsurumi river in Yokohama to catch one of the last fireworks shows of summer. I must have taken about 25 pictures or more. All of them just like this. I need to get a camera with a faster shutter speed or learn to time the shots better. Either way please look forward to more magnificent photos of fireworks in the future.

Everything Is Backwards

Here is an amazing video gleaned from Youtube under the title Japan Rewound.

This is exactly how I feel sometimes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

There's a Girl in the Boy's Bathroom

The first time it happened I was in near agony. Before the agony though, I was flushed with embarrassment and sheer perplexity. It happened within the confines of the men’s lavatory inside the Craineview Train Station along the Kehein Tohoku train line that traverses Yokohama and Tokyo. I walked in there, minding my own business, when all of sudden I was startled by the strangest of sights. I skidded to a sudden stop along the slippery tile floor and then right in front of my face, there she was. A woman in the men’s bathroom! Or worse, maybe not! Suddenly the horrific thought that I was a man in the women’s bathroom flashed across my mind along with a vision of me being handcuffed and carried away by the local guards and locked away forever in some dank dark castle dungeon, branded a social miscreant, my children left utterly alone to wander the face of the earth in eternal shame. I scrambled out the door as quick as I could and checked the sign on the adjacent wall. It was a stick man, or at least I assumed it was a stick man. Without the anatomical configurations it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between stick man and stick woman. So I quick glanced back at the sign to the door across the way, the door I didn’t choose to enter for some reason in the first place. Once again it was a stick figure, only this stick figure was wearing a dress. It was the almost universal symbol for the women’s room. I was so relieved (well almost) to learn that I had been correct all along. It was a woman in the men’s room and not the other way around. So I waited, patiently in practically excruciating pain for her to leave, so I could do what I came to do. When she finally did emerge, oh boy did I ever give her a look and shaking of the head that she will never forget. 

To top it all off she appeared to be one of those cosplay fanatics who wear those strange outfits based on characters in Japanese comic books. Lots of them wear maid’s uniforms. This one was wearing a pink-hued maid’s outfit. Anyway the wait was all over in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes. I went inside, used the plumbing and the whole incident was water under the bridge as far as I was concerned. 

That is until the very next day. I go into the same exact bathroom. This time there are three guys pressed up against the urinals and out of the corner of my eye I spy her once again occupying one of the stalls for gosh sake! 

This time she was wearing pink rubber gloves and up to her elbows cleaning the inside of the toilet bowl. Then it hit me, “she’s the cleaning lady!” I scrambled out of there 1,2,3 and as I did the previous day, waited outside until she left (sans the dirty look) before I went in again. Despite everyone else being okay with her presence, I just wasn't comfortable doing my business there until she was finished with hers and out the door. 
Some cultural divides are deeper than others, the toilet is one of them.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

When Life Gives You Limits Make Limitade

Yokohama - On the tiny island nation of Japan space is at a premium. Nowhere is that more evident than on this backstreet of Craneview Ward, Yokohama. The residents of this neighborhood have erected a sandbag-reinforced, highway cone-studded barrier to keep people from blocking the pathway with parked bicycles. I can't figure out which takes up more space, the barrier or the bicycles.

Then there are those who openly defy the barrier proving once again that the only limitations in life are the ones we impose on ourselves.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Root of All Evil

Yokohama- The other day my son asked me to empty my pockets. I obliged him and he happily proceeded to take one of each denomination of the Japanese coins he disposessed me of and asked me to add them up. I once again obliged him, quietly adding the figures in my head as I returned each coin safely to my hand. Caressing the face of each coin with my finger, I counted, "500 yen plus the 100 plus the 50, plus 10, the 5 and last and least 1 yen. Let's see that makes:


That proves it. Money is the root of all evil.
Get rid of it as fast as you can.
Here is the address you can send it to:

Danger Everywhere!

Yesterday was the birthday of Hans Christian Ørsted, the father of electromagnetism, which only reminded me of electromagnetic fields and the possible dangers lurking behind every electronic device in my home. A few months ago I went out and bought an electromagnetic field meter in hopes of putting an end to my constant trembling fear of the electromagnetic waves that may be pulsing through my body. The meter has three color bands, green, yellow and red. Green is the safest and red the most potentially lethal. I started out by testing my laptop. It was green. “This can’t be,” I said to myself and quickly moved on to test the TV. It was green too! “Something is definitely wrong here,” I thought. There has to be something wrong with the meter I bought. It was the cheapest model available. It’s probably defective. I thought for sure I was living in a red-hot zone. I have to invest in a better one. I won’t be satisfied until I uncover the truth about the hidden dangers around me. Only then will I be able to put my fears to...? Well I’ll keep you posted and let you know the results of the tests using the new meter.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Beat Goes On

Drawing by Jiro

A while ago I joined a wadaiko (Japanese drumming) group. I thought it would make picking up the language a little easier. Close interaction with a group of native Japanese speakers in a casual setting where the conversation would likely focus on hitting a raw cowhide covered barrel with a stick was the exact ticket to fluency I was looking for.

Boy, was I ever wrong. Japanese and the language of wadaiko are worlds apart. After immersing myself into the cultural waters of Japanese drumming, which is divided into a myriad of islands with their own unique styles and philosophies, I soon found myself floundering. The brand of drumming I adhere to is known as hachijoudaiko, originating on the semitropical Japanese island of Hachijoujima. Hachijoudaiko drummers position the drum so that it sits or hangs vertically, allowing two drummers to play opposite heads of the drum at the same time. It’s an improvisational style in which one drummer plays a continuous beat to provide the canvas upon which the other paints a unique rhythmical composition that fills the air. Now when wadaiko teachers try to teach a particular rhythm or convey how something should be played, they might explain it like this: “ka ka don don ka ka don don don su don su don su don su don don dadon don ka ka ka su don.”

Get the picture? Neither did I at first. “Ka” is the sound that is made when the drumstick hits the rim of the drum. “Don” is the sound the drum makes when you bang its center. Then there is “su,” the sound the drum makes when you don’t hit it??? That’s just three. The Taiko Dictionary, a glossary of terms used in wadaiko, or taiko for short, lists no less than 30 similar onomatopoetic descriptors. When I first started out playing my son tried to help me navigate through the difficult musical passages with little signs that said “ka” or “don” which he taped to the various drum parts that would correspond to those particular sounds. The problem was that each reverberating beat of the massive drum would send the little slips of paper flying into the atmosphere. After retrieving my crib notes, I couldn’t for the life of me remember where they all went so I was constantly mixing up my “ka ka’s” and “don don’s.”

Another quandary I had was that darn “su,” the sound the drum makes when you don’t bang it. I wasn’t puzzled by the “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound” aspect of it. My problem was that in Japanese “su” can also mean vinegar, that essential ingredient which adds so much flavor and helps keep food from spoiling. Whenever I practice with my group, everybody always tells me I should add more "su," or that I add it to late or too early. More vinegar, hmm? Whatever it is, this unheard, unseen “su” is the essential ingredient lying at the heart of wadaiko and maybe elsewhere too.

Give the drum a bang with your mouse and transport yourself to the world of hachijoudaiko

To learn more about Hachijodaiko read:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Drink Your Blues Away

The Abashiri microbrewery on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido has added a whole new twist to drinking your blues away. Dubbed, Okhotsk Blue Draft, the water that goes into this emerald tinted brew comes from floating ice that makes its way south from the frigid Sea of Okhotsk to the shores of Hokkaido each year to herald the coming of spring. The secret ingredient that gives these suds its blue hue is seaweed, a true blue favorite anytime of year among the inhabitants of this island nation.

Go to the The Inventor Spot to learn more about Abashiri's palette of artisinal drafts.