Friday, December 31, 2010

Prelude to a Japanese New Year's - A year in Fukushima #4

With only a very limited time to write this post I found it decidedly fortuitous that there were no decent CDs in my wife’s car. Thus the drive from the Internet-less peach farm to a screaming child-less apartment would be a quiet one, as there is a law in the universe that makes it impossible for anything good to be on Japanese radio, and I would have the opportunity to think of an intelligent and snarky opening for today’s blither. But just to make sure the universe was behaving I flipped on the stereo and pushed a couple of preset buttons.
Depending on your opinion of jazz, universal law may indeed be holding constant. But I ended up in mental la-la land for most of the drive listening to a drawn-out jam session called, for no reason I could discern, Autumn Leaves. Another universal law seems to be that jazz titles shouldn’t bear any comprehensible connection to the music.
I came to Japan in September of 2001. This is the first New Year’s Eve I will be spending in Fukushima, where I have officially been living for all but two of the past nine New Year’s Eves. I drove up to the peach farm with the wife and kids two days ago, and while on the surface things appear as they always have (see this previous post), this time around the air in Arai feels different somehow.
‘How long are you staying?’ my mother-in-law asked as I dumped more bags of crap onto the front hallway floor. Yamato pushed his box of new train tracks into the living room while my wife immediately began worrying about whether Seiji needed more milk or a clean diaper or some time with his new walker-wagon as he is now spending a lot of time on his feet and my wife doesn’t want him to lose his developmental momentum. I just mumbled my Japanese greetings and lugged everything into the refrigerator tatami room where we would be sleeping for the next six nights.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Interview with Christopher Carr Of The Inductive - Part V

Fifth and Final Installment. It has been a fantastic pleasure working with Christopher Carr on this, and I look forward to 2011 when I will begin contributing regularly to The Inductive. Thanks for stopping by, and best of luck in all your endeavors in the coming year.

Christopher Carr: As for connecting with a local person, I recommend couch surfing. Other than that, I've heard Akita is a special place. It's the only area of Tohoku I've never been, and I'm planning a big trip up there next summer, so we'll see how that goes. Here is my final question for you: what do you think lies in the future for Japan and your own relationship to it?

Kevin Kato: Couch surfing, of course! How could I forget that one? I’ve actually surfed all over the place, and I’ve hosted some great people here which has actually helped deepen my own appreciation for Japan and Fukushima. Yes, definitely glad you brought that up. I must be getting tired.

Now, you want my take on the future of Japan? I’ll be honest, for as long as I’ve been here I know precious little of the machinations behind this country’s political and economic behavior, I’ll leave that to the pundits and bloggers who know what they are talking about. As far as my place in Japan, I really do feel at home here, bewildering though it can still be at times. On a personal level I’ve met and been befriended by countless wonderful people who would give me the shirt off their back if I needed it. I’ve eaten dinner with many a welcoming family and slept in their homes. I’ve been invited to partake in festivals and weddings. I’ve been forgiven by policemen and treated like royalty by strangers on the street. I wandered into the restricted area at the Hakodate fish market and found myself being given a guest pass and a complimentary sashimi breakfast. And none of it took more than a smile or a friendly word. To anyone who says Japanese people aren’t friendly, I say you aren’t doing your part.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Interview with Christopher Carr of The Inductive - Part IV

For previous installments of this interview go to The Inductive or simply keep scrolling down.

Christopher Carr: In terms of traveling Japan, I imagine going by bike is one of the best possible ways. I've always preferred using the cheapest public transportation imaginable mixed with a small amount of hitchhiking. Getting back to your point about avoiding the touristy areas, which specifically would you avoid, and which do you think are must-see? Also, could you paint in broad strokes, how someone with no experiential knowledge of Japan might go about acquiring that knowledge as efficiently (yet enjoyably) as possible.

Kevin Kato: Which touristy areas to avoid? That’s actually a tough one to answer. I mean, by and large I’ve enjoyed what these heavily-touristed places have to offer, it’s just that conundrum of a place losing its aura because of all the people who wish to go see it. It’s just the nature of the beast. If you were out in the backwoods of Oita or Aomori and you stumbled on a Kiyomizudera that no one but the locals knew about…well, I’d certainly consider that an immensely more magical experience than visiting the ‘real’ Kiyomizudera in Kyoto. But Japan doesn’t tend to hide her treasures – I mean the ones that fit into the mainstream tourist’s interests. Okay, so what to avoid? One place that comes to mind is a theme park in Nikko called Edo-mura, which you can imagine is a recreation of an Edo-period village. Well, a very poorly-presented recreation. Really, it was terrible. Not the replicated village so much as the troupes of pseudo-bandoliers parading around like they were in some samurai movie set and hadn’t read the script. But Nikko itself was fantastic, from Toshogu Shrine to Lake Chuzenji to the gorge downriver from Kegon Falls, I can’t remember the name actually. But let’s see, a place to avoid… Maybe not so much to avoid but a place that in my opinion did not live up to my expectations was Amanohashidate. It was nice, but one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan? Great place, no debate; maybe what got to me, and if you’ve been there then maybe you can relate, was everyone up on that lookout spot standing up on that rock bent over and looking between their legs, which is supposed to make that strip of land look like it is rising up into heaven. For the few minutes I was up there waiting my turn, no one seemed to see anything more than I did, which was an upside down strip of land. But then afterward I went down and took a stroll across that strip of pine-covered sand and thought it was remarkable. Sat on the beach, went for a swim, it was great. So again, it was the human-added factor that put a check in the con column for me.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Now I Know Why My Son Calls Me Krampus

This past week I was once again rattling my ping-pong ball brain around in my skull, trying to knock loose from my miserly sub-conscience another of his multitude of ultra-creative, neuron-growth-stimulating ideas for my Tuesday evening English class. Last month I decided to broaden my students’ vocabulary as well as their intercultural awareness by showing them photos of my recent trip to California. This worked well for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that it gave my students a way to feel they were fully participating in class without having to say anything more than ooh and ahh.

With the Christmas season upon us, and with Japanese society in general not having the slightest clue how to properly celebrate, I wanted to incorporate a Christmas theme into our ninety-minute lesson that usually ends up lasting no more than an hour because someone, like the teacher, is always late. Singing Christmas songs seems an obvious option, but after teaching that Beatles class earlier in the year I knew no one would be able to hang with a tempo any quicker than ‘Silver Bells’ and personally I know my sanity wouldn’t survive the class because they don’t allow spiked eggnog in the building. Last year I asked them to translate a children’s Christmas book; my preparation for this consisted entirely of plowing through all the Santa and Snowman and cartoon ‘Zheesusu’ stories my wife had borrowed from the library and picking out the shortest one. Two hours later my students were bleeding through their foreheads trying to translate the sounds Maisy the mouse, Tallulah the chicken-like thing, Charley the alligator and Eddie the elephant made as they walked through the snow. No disrespect to Lucy Cousins but I will not be trying that again.

This year I am arguably older and wiser, and I thought it would be interesting for my students and quite easy on my ping-pong ball if I put together a list of little-known facts related to Christmas. But when I sat down to a piece of white paper, pen in hand (my printer is broken, has been for two years and isn’t getting better), it occurred to me I know pretty much jack about Christmas beyond church and Charlie Brown (not to downplay the significance of either of these). So I turned on the laptop, made a cup of hot chocolate and folded an entire load of laundry waiting for it (the laptop) to warm up, then googled and scribbled down the most easily-explainable bits of Christmas history and trivia I could find before my son came in to demand I let him use the pc to watch Barney, one of the dozens of DVDs we have from the US that won’t play on our Japanese DVD player.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Interview with Christopher Carr of The Inductive - Part III

This is Part III of a five-part interview. For Part I as posted on The Inductive, click here. For Part II, click here. Or scroll down, or click the link on the right.

Christopher Carr: Tell me about your travels since you came here. Japan is not all that popular with tourists these days, although it's leading the world in English teachers who come and live here I think. Most of my friends, if they make it to Asia at all, skip the neon of Tokyo and the temples of Kyoto for more adventurous tours in Laos or Thailand. Can Japan compete? I've heard a lot of seasoned travelers say that touring Japan for the most part is an academic experience, and you'll get much more out of if you speak Japanese and really do your homework before going somewhere, or else you'll have just no idea what it is you're seeing. Would you agree with this assessment? And how would you characterize your travels around the archipelago?

Kevin Kato: It’s funny, when I first got to Japan I was on the street in Tokyo, maybe Shibuya, and my overriding impression was that it looked a lot like certain parts of Manhattan; big buildings, lots of traffic and people and, what was by far the most astonishing thing, if that isn’t too strong a word, was that almost everything was in English. Store signs, restaurant menus, everything on everyone’s t-shirts, it was all in English. Not always correct English, but English. It was disappointing, really. I was expecting to walk into a world that didn’t make any sense to me. That’s how I wanted it to be. Probably the most exotic experience I’ve had here is using the toilet in someone’s old farmhouse – where they still lived – and finding a floor made of loose boards sitting above a big hole in the ground. In Laos or Cambodia or Malaysia or Peru, outside of the major cities and tourist areas this is almost what you can expect. Japan is extremely developed, so I think you’d be hard-pressed to find that permeating primitive, exotic experience though I’ve never been to the Okinawa island chain.

I tell people my first “real” experience as a traveler came after I’d been in Japan a year and a half already and went to Cambodia. My first day there I found myself in the middle of Phnom Penh with no money, not a word of the language in my head, no idea where to go and no sign of anyone who could help me even if they wanted to – which, to be totally honest, they didn’t. I never felt so utterly lost and hopeless in my life – yet I have to say I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I’ve never felt even remotely lost like that in Japan.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Interview with Christopher Carr of The Inductive - Part II

This is Part II of a five-part interview. For Part I, click here.

Christopher Carr: My experience coming here was kind of the same. I actually never really chose to come to Japan, so that's always a tough question for me to answer when the students ask. From the time I graduated college to the time I had kids I just kind of floated through life. Would you say you had a similar experience? If so, do you believe that there was a kind of force of Fate or Destiny guiding you to Fukushima, or was saying "sure" a conscious decision?

Kevin Kato: Well, I certainly made the decision on my own to come here to Japan. Coming to Fukushima was part of the job offer, something I just accepted without much consideration. “Fukushima, Shimafuka, whatever, I’m going to go live in Japan!” was pretty much my take on the whole deal. Even if I knew I could have requested another location – which I could have – I don’t think I would have because I hadn’t done a whole lot of homework on Fukushima or anywhere else. So at the moment one place would have sounded just as good as the next – as long as it wasn’t Tokyo. ‘Fukushima? Never heard of it, sign me up.’ So in a sense, yeah, I can be a bit of a floater, taking the road that happens to roll out in front of me.

But really, in my years after getting my grad degree – in forensic know, CSI Miami type stuff – I wasn’t floating; I was naively determined to wait until I got exactly the job offer I wanted, which from the outside can seem the same thing. I knew I wanted to work for the FBI as a profiler, and I was ready to accept nothing but the shortest route to that end. Fresh out of grad school I was rejected by the Bureau, so I said okay, I’ll work on the state level for a while first, or I’d go local but only in a place I thought would be cool. I applied for jobs in San Fran, Tampa Bay and Portland, Oregon, passing on jobs in Tulsa and Detroit and such. And I think I pretty much shot myself in the foot being so choosy – I ended up working further and further outside my degree until I found myself an operations manager at a storage and moving company in Colorado. ‘And you have a Master’s in forensics?’ No one could quite get their head around that one, and so a lot of people probably nailed me as a floater, even if that wasn’t the term they had in their head, you know?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interview with Christopher Carr of The Inductive - Part I

Christopher Carr writes on a broad range of subjects on The Inductive and has guest posted on several other blogs, including here (see 'On Teaching a Foreign Language'). Recently he gave me the opportunity to share my thoughts and views as an expat in Japan, something I normally reserve for long bicycle rides when there is no one else listening. Below is the first of five installments, necessary due to my long-winded answers Christopher has promised not to edit too heavily.

It has been a great pleasure working with Kevin Kato for the past several months. Kevin and I have worked together at the same English school in Japan, and we have both done various work for NOK, Fujitsu, and the Japanese government. Kevin has written a guest post for The Inductive comparing and contrasting his trips to Angkor Wat and Yosemite National Park; and he has been kind enough to allow me to post on his blog: Travel. Write. Drink Plenty of Fluids. Kevin is the author of one book, The Tunge Pit, a collection of interconnected short stories which I described before in this blog as a pungent mixture of the American Gothic, ensemble tale, horror nouveau, and pulp suspense genres.
In addition to publishing the Tunge Pit last year, Kevin has recently translated from the Slovenian Damjan Koncnik's Greenland - The End of the World, an account of an adventure to that massive island in the far north.

I was originally planning on reviewing either or both books for this site; but now I believe such reviews might be a superfluous conflict of interest, since Kevin has agreed to write for the Inductive on a regular basis from 2011. Without further ado, I present part I of an interview conducted via email with Kevin Kato over the last month or so, with parts II through V to follow later this week:

Christopher Carr: Please tell me about the changes in your life, outlook, view of Japan, and view of the U.S. since coming here.

Kevin Kato: Wow, you’re going to hit me with all that right off the bat? Can’t we start with something simple like, “Hey are you on Facebook?” Well, for starters, as far as the obvious goes, I came here with three bags of clothes, a bicycle and a camera that used film; now I’ve got a digital camera, two bicycles and three other people in my home – this being my wife and two little boys. I still have three bags of clothes, but now they’re mostly buried under toy trains and picture books.

But regarding my outlook on things, I’d say straight off that I’ve gone from one who lives for today to one who works for tomorrow. This I blame completely on the family I’ve acquired. For the first half of my life here in Japan I put in my classroom time and that was it; everything else was socializing, cycling and sumo on television. Now as a freelance teacher, writer, publisher, husband and father the concept of free time does not exist, unless you count sleeping. When I am not on the floor playing with cars or clay, or at the park with the kids, I am at my computer hoping I turn out to be the one monkey out of the infinite number of monkeys typing away on an infinite number of computers who happens to bang out Shakespeare. I don’t even know when the next sumo tournament is until I happen to catch a glimpse of the broadcast before my boy switches to some show with a dancing chair or a magic peach-headed thing.

Regarding my view on Japan, I think whenever we travel we tend to have this romanticized view of our destination – if we are not scared shitless of course. Our imagination makes either fantasy or nightmare of the horizon, and it rarely turns out to be either of these. Coming to Japan I was on the fantasy side of the coin – I soaked up everything I could about this totally alien environment and – I think at least to a certain degree – I spun it in my mind into the best possible perception. Of course my opinion on some things has not changed since those first days and weeks: I love the atmosphere imbued in traditional Japanese architecture, and sushi and beer is still tough to beat on a summer evening. But other things have lost their magic. I can say with fair authority that not every schoolboy and schoolgirl here is an intellectual prodigy, as seemed to be the ongoing, permeating perception growing up back home. And always sitting on the floor can get old really, really fast.

As far as my perception of home, the U.S., I should note that I came to Japan ten days before 9/11 – thus the world in general was a very different place when I was still in the States versus what it was from almost the moment I got here. Add to this my sudden personal interest in politics and world events beginning on the morning of September 12th and yes, my views have changed appreciably since I arrived in Japan. Perhaps the most telling experience I can relate has been the change in my attitude – that’s not really the right word, though…maybe my inner response is a better term – regarding how I’ve felt when someone asks me where I’m from. In the first few days it was a veritable ego trip. The Japanese, at least the recent generations, love anything relating to the U.S., and when I’d tell someone I’m from America they’d invariably react with something bordering on awe if not mere admiration. It was really kind of silly. Then in those weeks after 9/11, I would answer the same question with a twinge of…oh crap, I need the right word again…Living here so long I’ve begun to lose my English, it’s crazy but it really happens, I swear. I don’t think I used to be this stupid. Anyway, when I told people I was from America they’d have this sudden sadness in their expression, their voice, you know, ‘Oh I’m so sorry what happened’ or whatever. And I mean it was sincere. Turned out I didn’t know anyone personally who died on that day but it was a national tragedy and at least in this part of the world people were mourning with us.
But then G.W. rolled in with his ten-gallon agenda – all right, this has been hashed out a million times, I don’t need to go into it. But as time went on I began feeling embarrassed when I told people, whether in Japan or Malaysia or Chile, that I was from the States. Not because I suddenly thought my country was bad but hey, that fiasco was all the news anyone was getting practically, so for a while, that was the tipping point as far as the world’s view of the U.S.. And it wasn’t entirely unfounded. I would be immensely proud of my son if he stood up to the schoolyard bully to keep another kid from being pounded for his lunch money; I wouldn’t be a proud or a happy dad if he started lying to me about why he was throwing rocks at people. Beyond this, though, I’ve had so many people tell me they loved the U.S. when they visited, or would die for a chance to travel to the States, and this makes me immensely proud.

Also, having done a fair amount of traveling in these nine years, from Asia to South America to Europe and Morocco and Australia, my view of the U.S. has not been shaped merely by whatever my students think and what I can get off the web. To see how so much of the rest of the world lives - and I mean seeing it firsthand, which is worlds apart from watching the same thing on 60 Minutes, or checking out some magazine article on what Brad Pitt and Angelina Voight are doing – actually being in these places, living them, I see how very very lucky we are in the U.S., from our standard of living to our freedoms to just how cheap we get everything. And since the only exposure so many people are getting to the outside world is through TV - where nothing is real, really - so few people can appreciate the extent to which we are blessed. I go home and overhear people complaining about this or that and I want to club them over the head.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Carrying a Tune

Last week, among the many mentions of and references to John Lennon on the 30th anniversary of his death, I spotted an interesting thread on facebook. Okay, using 'interesting' and 'facebook' in the same sentence shows a lack of qualitative judiciousness, so let me say instead that it was simply amusing. Of course, the thread became instantaneously more amusing once I jumped in. (I believe, by believing this, that this puts me in the self-aggrandizing facebooking majority.)

So in this thread on or around John Lennon's tragic anniversary someone mentioned the song 'You Won't See Me,' which was written by Paul. I don't recall the reason or significance of the song with regards to the original conversation, I only remember how the mention of the song was meaningful to me. (This because I am in the self-absorbed facebooking majority.)

My brain, like God and Google, works in mysterious ways. The connections that form up there in my spongy gray matter fall well within the cross-over realm of miracles and algorithms – or, in non-believer math hater terms, coincidental, self-deluding hooey. Usually these associations arise in the context of riding my bicycle, when my mind is clear of needy kids and writer's block and basic traffic safety rules. And, usually, it involves a song I haven't heard in years.

Biking through the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, fresh off a spectacular wipeout involving a preoccupation with my rear tire and an old man with astonishing powers of spontaneous materialization, I was beginning to worry. Back on Koh Chang Island in Thailand I found out that my derailleur was sorely misaligned. Trying to shift onto my Frisbee (the largest chain ring on the front half of the chain drive) my chain refused to catch on any of those forty-eight teeth and wedged itself quite impressively down in between said Frisbee and the middle chain ring. Thirty minutes and a dozen bloody knuckles later I finally pried him free. Less than an hour later I'd forgotten it all – Koh Chang is quite nice – and ended up leaving more blood and shreds of skin in the sand on the side of the road. Small miracle and a fortunate turn of physics that I didn't then snap my newly-gouged chain pushing my loaded tandem up over mountain roads that make Lombard Street in San Francisco look like a wheelchair ramp. I had a chain tool, so mechanically I was ready; thing was, I had no idea how to use it. Nor did I have the slightest idea how to correctly replace a broken spoke (or ten) if I happened to get another close-up of an old man doing his Star Trek thing. By the time I busted the cable on my drum brake in the Vietnamese highlands I was already hearing the first notes of a melody that would remain with me for the next two months.

Quick, name a song by the SOS Band. Here, I'll give you a hint: 'Just be good to me, in the morning. Just be good to me, in the afternoon...' The song came out in 1983 and I might not have heard it since, but there it was in my head, the chorus going round and around and around. 'I'll be good to you, you'll be good to me, we will be together, be together...' The cool part is, all the begging and pleading worked. My bike carried me through the rest of Indochina with only a flat tire in Vientienne and a sticky brake cable, the plastic casing having partially melted somewhere among the sado-masochistic road system in northern Thailand.

On a scorching afternoon in Cambodia, on the same trip, I was pushing down an endless dirt road searching for a place I could get some water – preferably the bottled, non-malarial variety. I didn't want a coke; I didn't want to stop for a coke-sized water that I would completely sweat out just getting my loaded tandem moving on down the road again. I wanted the until-then ubiquitous liter size. And, evidently, my brain thought singing about it would help me deal. This time, not only did I get a song, I got two verses worth of original lyrics to go with my burgeoning dehydration.

The next time you have Bonnie Tyler's 'Holding Out For A Hero' stuck in your head, try these alternate lyrics:

I need a liter!
I'm holding out for a liter till my throat runs dry.
It's got to be fresh and it's got to be cool
And it's got to attach to my bike.
I need a li-TER!!
I'm holding out for a liter if the price is right.
I'll give you the cash put your fingers up fast
But it better not have parasites...

Okay, I'll concede it's not as poetic as the original but this was not something I worked on. You (I) can't come up with stuff like this with a parched throat, angry legs and a sore butt surrounded by nothing but the Cambodian countryside. Hooey on the surface maybe, but miraculous somehow underneath.

Every time I bike through a fishing village in Japan, or anywhere else for that matter, one particular Japanese song gently, merrily explodes in my head. Translation: 'Fish, fish, fish, when you eat fish, head head head, head gets smarter.' I usually head for the mountains when I get on my bike now.

In Nagano Prefecture there's a scenic mountain road called the Venus Line. Guess what song I had in my head for all 32 kilometers of it? Heading out of Malacca, Malaysia I passed a street vendor selling bread and rolls and such, which got me hooked on 'Do You Know The Muffin Man?' That was a fun four hours.

Despite my general innocent disregard for safety I rarely forget to bring my headlamp with me when I am heading out on the bike at night. I do, however, sometimes forget to recharge the batteries. And there are days when I leave with plenty of daylight left but still end up not making it home until after dark. Of course, having a (working) headlamp helps me see all the cracks and potholes and curbs in the road before I hit them, but for the most part it is much more important in its function of letting other people know I am about to slam into their fender. (The same goes for the headlights on your car; if you don't believe me try it sometime.) Thus when my headlamp is less than fully operable (or fully present) I have to keep in mind that while I can see that car pulling out of that side street five yards up ahead, that person can't see me. And my brain, ever on the lookout for opportunities to drown me in songs I would otherwise never hear, in or out of my head, starts in with that Beatles song again. But only the one line, repeated over and over and over and over because it is the only line I know. Of course, it is the only line I need. If my wife suddenly starts ignoring me then maybe the rest of the song will come to me. Though more likely the words to 'I'm Free' by the Rolling Stones would fill my head. 'Yes I'm free, to do what I want, any old time...'

Winding up yet another blog post reminds me of one other example of a song in my brain melding seamlessly with circumstance. This one too involves a Beatles song – specifically, the only line in 'Eleanor Rigby' written by Ringo.

'Father McKenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear...'

Because I suspect I am alone in the Kevin Kato-absorbed facebooking minority.