Saturday, February 26, 2011

Going By The (Immensely Popular and Profoundly Flawed) Book

We were making unbelievable time; seriously, I thought we had entered some kind of worm hole. The trip from our hostel (way overpriced – and no breakfast) back to Bratislava Station went much faster than the initial walk across town to the Linoleum Sheraton now that we knew which way was hore. We hopped a train to Trenčin, a small city with a quaint old town and phenomenal ice cream, then traveled on to Ružomberok via a silky smooth connection in Žilina. (Switzerland, I thought at this point, had nothing on Slovakia’s rail system – except maybe in the sanitation department…and in overall comfort…and on a baseline decibel level.)

Right outside Ružomberok Station we jumped on a bus (after a stuttering, embarrassing back-and-forth with the driver). The seats and aisle crammed full of students (wonderfully forgiving of our bulky bags), we stood for the ten kilometers down the road to Vlkolinec, an idyllic one-dirt-road village whose residents’ lives have been turned upside down since its appointment to Unesco’s World Cultural Heritage list. After a prying look around we would take another creaky bus back to Ružomberok for our last train ride of the day; if things continued to proceed as they had since our fortuitous encounter with that blessed street vendor in Bratislava we would make it to Liptovsky-Mikulaš in plenty of time to find a place, fire up some dinner and relax as the sky turned dark over Jasná and the peaks of Chopok Sever. We started walking, me pushing a suitcase, a loaded pack on my back, my wife pushing our son in his stroller right behind. According to the map in our guidebook, Vlkolinec was right there along the main road…

Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Hour in TV Land - A Year in Fukushima #8

The following account of my Saturday evening is completely true and totally uncensored.

The clock on the wall was ticking toward 10:30. I had just finished hanging the laundry in the living room. (Just go with it, this is Japan remember.) A familiar snoring reverberated from the bedroom, an unintentional but unmistakable message from the wife that I could go ahead and play Lone Ranger again tonight. Twenty-four hours ago I had sketchy plans to meet up with a buddy for that ever-elusive beer; unfortunately on this day, like most recent days, I had been deep into my work and the fascination of how slow my microchips move, and I forgot to get back to him. So there I stood, all alone, between two racks of wet clothes and my sleeping family. It was 10:25 on a Saturday night.

This, by the way, is not the bad part.

The bad part is, I decided to turn on the TV.

I stepped on train tracks and tripped over dinosaurs as I scrounged around for the remote. Then I fell onto the couch and clicked that baby, hoping for…well, anything. After a moment staring at a blank screen I got up and walked over to our TV with built-in VCR, which you have to turn on manually if that’s how your son turned it off. Then I plopped back down as the picture warmed up.

First thing I saw were three walking, singing pollen spores getting their lights punched out by a psychotic football player spray-painted the color of aluminum foil. After a pleasant jingle someone breathed easier, and the scene switched to a computer-generated garden. A woman in red smiled as she walked along, seemingly unfazed by the line of grinning red birds following her. They had a conversation and sang a song before another woman came on, marching down the street in front of a row of levitating tubes of some kind of crème.

At this I went downstairs and dug desperately for the last two cans of beer in the house. As I settled back onto the couch again I swore to never forget to call another friend.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Love Rules In Japan

The Choco-Laws of Valentine's Day

It's time once again for English class here at the manufacturing company. My students are sitting quietly, waiting while I scribble out a blog post idea that just came to me. The whole first paragraph is coming together in my head, I need a few more seconds to get it all down.

I toss out the old stand-by: ‘So what day is it, guys?’

I keep scribbling. And scribbling. It's not that hard a question, guys.

My students usually enjoy the easy back-and-forth. It helps them get into English mode. It’s nice for me too since I usually don’t know what day it is. As far as I’m concerned, that we’ve shown up on the same day at the same time is cause enough to celebrate.

"Let's cancel class and go out for ramen and beer!" I always say.

I’ve yet to find a student who doesn’t see this as a breach of some vague rule system.

I'm still scribbling, enjoying the extra writing time though it's getting ridiculous. I look up - and see Michiko staring back at me. Just...staring. The three guys in the class are staring at her, all of them smiling like they just figured out a secret. Something's up. And they know what it is.

And then it hits me too.

Valentine's Day!

Immediately my mouth starts watering.

As February comes to Japan it’s hard to miss the chocolate-covered excitement of Valentine’s Day. In supermarkets and department stores all across the country the racks and aisles explode in red white and pink manifestations of love. On the surface it looks like your typical Valentine’s Day in any number of countries around the world.

But in Japan, where showing affection ranks just below understanding football on the scale of social importance, the enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day seems utterly illogical. I've seen houseflies show more passion than these people. (It's true, I have. It was weird.)

There is an explanation, however. And it's right where you'd expect: in a thorough set of guidelines that tells the entire population how to properly express their roiling emotions.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Between Two Pictures

The day after we moved into this apartment two years ago I set up a bookcase in the living room. My family and I were fresh off an extended European vacation, and most of our material world, such that it was, still sat packed in boxes at my in-laws’ house thirty minutes away. We had no table to eat on. We had one bath towel to share. My son wanted his CDs. And with the chill of winter hanging in the March air the kerosene heater would have come in handy.

Naturally, all this would be addressed in due time.

‘We need more blankets,’ my wife yelled from the top of our new staircase as I was grabbing the car keys.

Blankets and books, I said to myself. I need a few good books.

I imagined the warm sun coming in through our sliding glass doors as I flipped through picture books of Iceland and Hokkaido and a dozen US National Parks. I had a couple of kids’ adventure books from Germany. I had a series of books on learning Mandarin, along with a variety of books on Japan – the language, the culture and a smattering of literature in the Japanese original. My wife kept handy a stock of travel magazines; I would add a few tomes on the world’s major religions. Together, these rows of printed and bound treasures would serve as the catalyst of my aspirations.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Luck & Sardines - A Year in Fukushima #7

I am in big trouble.

Something bad is staring me right in the face, and this time it has nothing to do with my son, my short attention span or personal injury (or, most recently, all three). It has nothing to do with anything I’ve done, actually. In fact, it has absolutely nothing to do with anything that has even happened yet. But I am on a collision course with destiny, and there is no getting around it. That is why tomorrow I am going to jump on the horn and set a date with my local exorcist.

To most outsiders Japan is a safe, peaceful place, decorated with cherry blossoms and veiled in a kimono of serenity. Not true, my friends. This country is a dangerous, devilish place.

Take my friend Eriko. She’s a pleasant mix of gregarious, intelligent and modest. She works at a bank, travels abroad on her own and goes to the gym regularly. She’s confident yet self-effacing, and has probably never crossed the street against the light. Yet recently she did something to warrant a trip up the road to Fudohsan Shrine for the ominous yakubarai ritual.

Recently, Eriko turned the dreaded thirty-three.