Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Sometimes Miracles Do Happen...

The death toll from the Amagasaki train accident now stands at over 100. Several hundred are still hospitalized. It's the worst train accident since 1963. The worst thing about it is that it shouldn't have happened in the first place. The whole disaster was brought about by the stupidity and carelessness of one man, not to mention emergency equipment that wasn't kept properly maintained and up-to-date.

All those hundreds of people were just unlucky enough to get that one, boneheaded engineer.

On the other hand, I just found out that a former student of mine that graduated from Seishin this year, a rugby star who was also ranked very high academically, was actually waiting for that train. If it hadn't crashed, he would have gotten on at its next stop. Considering the train had been overshooting platforms and running crazily along its entire route, there's a chance he might have wound up in a deadly crash if he had managed to get aboard as planned.

He's pretty freaked about it, to be sure.

You just never know which number you're going to get until you draw it.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Doin' the Embassy, Eh?

I feel an enormous sense of relief as my dusty, BLUE car pulls up to the security gate in front of the Canadian Embassy. It is Friday afternoon, April 22nd. I took half a day off from work to come here. I would rather have taken the full day, but I couldn’t find anyone to swap out my two morning 7th grade classes, so I was stuck leaving as soon as fourth period ended…pulling out of the school at about 12:30 to try to make a 3:00 sound check.

Needless to say, I was tense as a high-E string as I headed for Tokyo.

As it turned out, I made pretty good time. Traffic wasn’t very heavy, so I was able to keep moving at a fairly good clip. I had also taken the measure of buying one of those Tokyo map books and spending at least an hour (but probably longer) in total poring over it, plotting my course and memorizing all the names and details along the way. I probably could have found my way here with my eyes shut. That turned out to be a very good thing. After the calm, smiling security guard greets me by name (after having verified my BLUE car’s make and plate number) and lets me through, I pull into my parking space to find the crew unloading the Stevemobile, which apparently has only just arrived. They planned to head out fairly early this morning, but I guess they had a bit more trouble than me in finding the place...

Yes, I’m playing the Canadian Embassy once again as part of the band backing up longtime fellow ex-pat (and chronic Canadian) Jeff Nicholson. The last time I was here was in 2000, when we were promoting his soon-to-be-released album, BANG!. Now we are promoting his just-released album, Who Do You Think That You Are?. The only constants, other than the venue, are me on keyboards/sax/backing vocals/whatever else, veteran pro performer Brad Johnston on drums, and Jeff himself out in front singing and playing his guitar and harmonica. The other two members, Steve Filiatrault on bass and Paul “Crusty” Lauritson on lead guitar, are different from before and lend quite a different air to the gig. However, unlike the BANG! gig, the same members are on the stage that made the new album. That makes it more authentic, doesn’t it?

The set this time is also markedly different from before. In 2000, we played two short sets that included more covers than songs from the album (especially if you included the little solo acoustic sing-along session that Jeff had between the two sets). This time we are playing one long set that consists almost totally of Jeff’s originals. There are only two covers, and both of them appear on the new album. There is some concern among the members of the band that the set might not be long enough to qualify as a decent gig. Jeff, however, doesn’t seem worried about that. He is worried about a lot of other things.

We load up the carts (and our backs) and head down to the Theater. Yes, the Canadian Embassy actually has a theater, an extreme rarity among the many embassies here. It’s not the biggest performance hall there ever was. In fact, it’s rather small. However, it’s still a far cry from the pub gigs that we usually do. When it comes right down to it, Brad and I are probably the only members that have a lot of experience playing on genuine stages with lights, curtains, and an audience that is stuck facing you. Jeff and Steve haven’t done that very much. Apparently Paul hasn’t done it at all, and he’s not sure how he feels about it. He and Steve, together with their blues/rock-and-roll combo “Cranky, Old Bastards”, have been doing a lot of gigging including some tours to other parts of the country (and they’re definitely good enough to be doing that sort of thing). However, it has all been in the intimate semi-apathy of nightclubs. Even the other gigs they’ve done with Jeff and me were at carnivals and dances where the crowd, though appreciative, tended to have its attention focused elsewhere. Not now. We will be up on the stage, under spots and gels, being faced squarely by everyone that comes.

Of course, that assumes that anybody does come…

Once again, our faithful sound man is Arai-san, the man who engineered the BANG! sessions and has done several of our performances. He knows his stuff, and even though he asks us lots of questions about what we want, we found out long ago that it’s better just to shut up and stay out of his way. We let him set up the sound system while we toss together our respective elements. It takes far more time than we expect, so the sound check is a bit behind schedule. That, however, turns out to be the least of our problems.

The first and perhaps biggest problem is the monitors. Though the main PA sounds fine, we just can’t seem to get the monitor balance right. It seems like there’s always a part getting buried, and if Arai-san tries to turn things up too much we start getting feedback (“howling”, as they call it here). Another problem, which seems to bug me more than anyone else, is the fact that we seem to have forgotten the songs during the time since the last rehearsal. Every tune we run through encounters a train wreck on account of someone starting wrong, ending even more wrong, or forgetting a change. Then Arai-san creates the ultimate disaster by complaining that Paul’s amp is too loud.

I can already hear alarm bells ringing.

You have to understand; Paul is definitely what I would call a virtuoso player. He approaches his instrument with all the ability, literacy, competence, and discrimination of any orchestral professional that I’ve met, and I’ve met (and even worked with) several. What do you think would happen if, just before a performance at Carnegie Hall, you asked a concertmaster to put away his expensive, Italian-made violin and perform a violin concerto using a cheap, half-sized student model? If he didn’t simply stomp out with a huff, he’d probably dump a brick in his trousers. He’d be whining about it for years afterward. There’s a reason why Paul uses a vintage Fender amp, and there’s also a reason why he plays it at that volume level. It’s something that only a real guitarist would understand. However, despite his (well-earned) nickname, Paul takes it with surprising grace. He turns it down as far as he’s willing to go, and makes it politely clear that it’s that or nothing. So we aim the amp offstage and mike it. Problem solved.

However, we aren’t able to solve the final problem that pops up. Only about fifteen minutes into the sound check, our official handler at the Embassy pops in waving his arms and promptly shuts us down. Apparently the paying tenants are complaining about the noise, and since they are paying tenants they have to be listened to. Our sound check is far from done, but that’s the way it goes.

I really wish we could go out and hit an Irish pub for a few hours, but this time that luxury is denied us. We still have a lot to do and little time to do it in. Steve and Brad, however, are pretty much done setting up and satisfied, so they go on a Subway run for us. As in the sandwiches. Hey, it’s a rare treat for those of us living up in Chiba/raki land! But before I can eat my sandwich, we’re taken up to the embassy lounge so we can drink Molsen and Moosehead, chat with some of the officials, and take a gander at the neighborhood (which includes a famous fashion designer’s mansion and the Iraqi Embassy) from the 5th floor balcony. Life is hard.

6:30. It’s time to open the doors, and there is already quite a crowd feasting on the wine and munchies out in the lobby. Jeff has prepared a really cool background “muzak” collection to play as the people are coming in. It starts out with some spacy, synthesizer music (e.g. Jean Michelle Jarre) and gradually builds up in mood until it suddenly mutates into an interview of Wayne Gretzky when he was just a wee lad. (*sigh* Once a Canadian, always a Canadian…) It’s a clever mood setter that Jeff has obviously spent lots of time putting together. Unfortunately, the people aren’t coming in. They’re too busy feasting on the wine and munchies out in the lobby! Already jittering and twitching, Jeff informs the light and sound crew that curtain will be delayed and sends someone out to shoo the crowd into the theater.

Finally, the people ooze their way in, and it’s showtime. We really are a sight when we hit the stage. All the way at stage left is Paul, dressed in a tux and derby Les Paul and bottleneck at the ready. Next to him is Steve, similarly attired and lugging his Yamaha 5-string bass. At the front stands Jeff, dressed the way he is on the cover of his new album and sporting his recently-acquired, funky-looking Parker Nitefly guitar (a rare, expensive, and sophisticated bit of gear that he got his hands on by sheer luck…how do these things always happen to him?). Behind him sits Brad, who is dressed to be comfortable on his drum throne. And on stage right? Yours truly, standing behind my Roland synth, holding my Keilwerth alto sax, next to a large music stand piled with various wind and percussion toys. What am I wearing? A funky, purple shirt, Levi’s, and a Rogue Ale baseball cap. From left to right, our lineup goes from dapper to anarchist beer connoisseur.

We start out just the way the new album does, with Paul playing a funny, wobbly arpeggio that kicks off the song “Who Do You Think That You Are?” The song goes well, but we look and sound tense. Concert hall jitters. The theater is packed, and all those eyes are fixed on us, no drinks in hand. Pressure, pressure… “Whole Lotta Nothing” sounds a bit more relaxed, but something is up with the background vocals. We are tight, balanced, and in tune, but either someone is coming in when he’s not supposed to, or someone else isn’t coming in when he should. Even so, it sounds fine, so the audience probably can’t tell the difference. Paul switches to his Strat, and we do “Back in the Day”, one of the more successful tunes off of BANG! (i.e. it actually got some airplay). Jeff could never remember the lyrics of the first verse during rehearsal, so he has a cheat sheet lying on the stage in front of him. It sounds fine. All in all, the song goes well, though the ending has always been, and still is, a bit uncertain. Our fadeout to leave Jeff playing the last couple of bars alone is a bit sloppy. Oh, well. That’s rock and roll.

Jeff sounds totally in control as he chats up the crowd and introduces the next tune, which is our (yes, it’s licensed) version of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. In the album version, I’m playing three different parts. This time I just have to do a lot of switching between piano, Hammond organ, background vocals, and sax. This tune rocks. It’s followed by another from BANG!, “Eventually”. The song goes well for the most part, but we never seemed to get the ending down pat during our rehearsals, and we don’t this time, either. Steve plays a nice, powerful ending note…in the wrong key at the wrong time. It’s fortunate that we added a funny, little keyboard break during the last practice, because that manages to cover for it.

Afterward, Jeff says, “Steve just had his Mulligan for the night.” That gets a laugh out of the crowd. Poor Steve. He’s a natural crowd pleaser, but I think he’d prefer not pleasing them that way.

Next is “Big Stupid Smile”, an interesting, easy-feeling tune. Actually, when we recorded it, the piano part I came up with was just a bit of spur-of-the-moment serendipity. (Jeff hadn’t even wanted keyboards in that song at first.) It wound up being perhaps some of my best keyboard playing ever. This song sounds good, and it goes over well…except for the inexplicable cymbal crash that pops up in a very strange place. (Brad later explained that he accidentally caught the cymbal while moving the stick upward to prepare for the proper crash. He figured that playing two crashes back-to-back would be overkill, so he left it at that. Oh, well. That’s rock and roll.)

Paul switches to a Morris 12-string acoustic with a strap-on pickup (Jeff’s, actually), and we play another BANG! tune, “Manitoba”. I play an Irish tinwhistle in this tune. My first solo sounds fine, but the second is way sharp. Either I hit the wrong holes and lipped it down, or I was overblowing. Other than that, the tune goes alright, but it feels tense again. The next one, “Indian Drum”, does not. I’ve always loved playing that tune, because I start and end it playing an extended, unaccompanied solo on an alto recorder trying to imitate Native American fluting (though I’ve been told many, many times that it sounds a lot like Japanese shakuhachi music…which doesn’t bother me at all. Actually, the two styles are uncannily similar). When Brad comes in playing that cool drum rhythm that he came up with, I feel strangely offbeat, so my switch from solo to lead-in doesn’t get played in the same manner. It gets stretched out, and it actually sounds cool. From there, the song sounds great, and the layered vocal/keyboard/flute parts that stack in at the end go very well. In the end, it’s just Brad and me again, and Brad fades out, leaving me tootling away in the dimming light, moving slowly away from the mike. It takes the crowd a while to realize that the song is over, but the applause that follows is hearty.

The lights come back up, and Ian comes onstage with his Guild pickup-acoustic. Ian and Jeff have an acoustic duo called “The Protractors”, and for a while he played bass for our band. Now he’s here to play his part in the night’s other cover, an Irish tune called “When Will We Be Married?” (which he also plays on the album). I play piano for most of this one, but in two places there is a duet between me on the tinwhistle and Ian on guitar. It’s a jig-style melody, and it goes all over the place. I’m not sure if I’m spot on with Ian or not, but I throw in lots of turns, crans, and bends, so it doesn’t really matter.

Now it’s time for the “final” number. Ian leaves the stage, and Paul picks up his Les Paul. He fires off that slide-guitar howl, and we launch into “Wild, Open Speed”, the most driving, upbeat tune on the new album. We had tons of trouble with this one in rehearsal, but this time we hit it brilliantly. It rocks, especially when Paul launches into his extended solo. I’ve worked with a number of different guitarists here, some of them good, some of them awesome, but none of them quite with Paul’s chops. Usually a traditional blues/rocker, he can still kick out the stops and go wild when the time is right for it.

The last roar of “Wild, Open Speed” wafts off into the night, and Jeff says goodnight. Naturally, the crowd, many of whom are Jeff’s students, immediately launch into a chant of “Hockey! Hockey! Hockey!” Yes, “Hockey” is by far Jeff’s most famous and most successful song, having been played in hockey venues across North America (apparently including Portland) and even used as an opening theme for Ottawa’s Hockey Night TV broadcast. We all knew the crowd would be begging for it. That’s why we aren’t doing it now.

Yes, you read that right.

Jeff’s encore is a cute, romantic little number he wrote for his wife called “Kimiko Turns 30”. However, it’s an interesting version that Paul came up with on his own between rehearsals (thank God). The album version is a strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica number with a beat...almost too tongue-in-cheek (sorry, Jeff). Paul’s version is a beautiful, finger-picked number which sets a different mood entirely. At Brad’s suggestion, Jeff and Paul do it as a duo, and it sounds great. The audience clearly appreciates it, but it seems odd to be doing such a quiet, lovely tune as an encore…especially when everyone still wants to hear “Hockey”.

But then the rest of us come in…wearing Toronto hockey jerseys (to calls of “Leafs suck!” from someone in the audience)…and Brad starts playing that very, very, very familiar opening beat. I do that “Yeeeeee-HAH!” yet again. The crowd goes nuts. “Yes, this is Canada on a Saturday night, freezin’-butt cold in the winter moonlight…” Half the crowd is up and performing a sort of dance routine. I’ve never seen the like in all the times I’ve played this tune. We’re tired as hell, but we’re also pumped up. The tune flies by…but when Paul launches into one helluva extended solo at the end, we just keep the riff going and let him play. Steve’s 5-string bass is pumping out that wonderful, seismic D, and Paul is sitting down on the edge of the stage, fingers still flying, and then he actually jumps down and starts moving around in front of the front row. He’s still going, going, going, kind of like a Duracell battery only different. I don’t know how long he manages to keep it up, but it definitely does not wear thin. The crowd is still going nuts. When “Uncle Crusty” finally comes back to the stage and signals that he’s had enough, it almost seems like a shame.

The show is over. We were afraid that we didn’t have enough material for a real gig. We somehow burned up well over an hour, and we are worn to a frazzle. The crowd is still in good spirits as it slowly oozes back out. It was a successful night, I’d say. Time to break it all down.

There are lots of old friends and surprising faces. Kishi, who played lead guitar on BANG! and bass at the 2000 embassy gig, is there with a gorgeous woman he introduces as his “girlfriend” (even though he’s married with children…hmm…). Tommy (actually Japanese), who was our drummer for a while, comes backstage to say hello. Several of Jeff’s co-workers at St. Mary’s whom I’ve met are there, loyal as always. And, outside in the lobby, Jeff’s wife, Kimiko, is dutifully gathering up the leftover wine and munchies (not that there’s all that much).

I’m actually asked to autograph a few albums. That’s a first. I hope it’s not a last.

As we’re loading up our cars again, our official handler at the embassy (the same guy that shut down our sound check) comes walking by tootling on a very interesting-sounding-and-looking flute and giving me a very obvious glance. I bite, giving in to my musical curiosity. It turns out that it’s a traditional flute from India, of which he apparently has several and has even had some instruction. He hands it to me and lets me play with it for a while. (I can blow it, but the fingerholes are in weird places, and I can’t cover them. Oh, well.) We say our thank yous and good-byes, he invites us to come play there again sometime, and then we all head off into the neon-lit jungles of Tokyo.

Time for beer.

Listen to or order BANG!
Listen to or order Who Do You Think That You Are?
See link to Jeff’s website at right. (Recently it hasn’t been working with Firefox or Netscape, only Internet Explorer, so good luck!)

Monday, April 25, 2005

Felis Catus

Ode to Spot
Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,
An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature.
Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses
Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.
I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
A singular development of cat communications
That obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
For a rhythmic stroking of your fur to demonstrate affection.
A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents.
You would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aid in locomotion,
It often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.
Oh Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display
Connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array,
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.
- Lt. Cmdr. Data, “Schisms”, Star Trek, the Next Generation

Indeed, the cat is a very intriguing creature, sometimes lovable, sometimes irritating, sometimes confusing, sometimes totally indispensable, sometimes making one tempted to reach for a handy, blunt object.

Then there is Aka.

I’ve spoken of that lovable, red tabby before. He is my in-laws’ baby, apparently outranking even my wife in their hearts. Ever since his mother Mi died last year, he has been the undisputed master of the estate. Although he does his share of leaving mutilated birds and mice on the front doorstep, most of the time he can be seen lounging about on a convenient flat surface, preferably in the sunlight, happily greeting anyone he sees with his readily-identifiable, loud, “MAAAAAAAAOW”. Yes, he is a very vocal cat, and also everyone’s buddy.
As with most felines, even neutered males like himself, Aka knows his territory, and he is quick to defend it from alien cat-forms. At the first site of an intruder, he starts letting out a bloodcurdling yowl that can (and sometimes does) wake up half the neighborhood. Needless to say, unwelcome visitors don’t stay very long.

However, at the same time, it would seem that Aka is a sucker for hard-luck cases. I say this because, strangely enough, he has brought them home from time to time. About six years ago the in-laws came home to find him standing next to the door leading to his food dish, yowling desperately to be let in. That wouldn’t be unusual except for the fact that he was escorting a rather sickly-looking, stray kitten (which dad-in-law named “Gray” and more or less adopted…much to Mi’s chagrin. Gray was friendly, if a bit ugly, but he died mysteriously of either disease or poison a few years ago). A couple of years ago Aka came home carrying a badly-injured kitten by the scruff of its neck, set the poor thing on the back doorstep, and began yowling pathetically. (Unfortunately, even with a broken leg and a torn abdomen, the kitten panicked and bolted into the junk that is strewn all over the estate. Not even Aka could find it…till the smell led dad-in-law to its body weeks later.)

Well, it would appear that our lovable, red furball has done it again.

Last Wednesday, as I was heading for my car to go to work, I spied Aka sneaking through the brush next to the greenhouse, his tail puffed out. I paused, watching the mighty hunter in action as he stopped, settled into position, and readied himself to spring. However, to my surprise, the vicious purr-puma stayed where he was. Then he started meowing gently as his tail slowly thinned out again. He was still there, meowing away, as I got in my BLUE car and left. I never did see what his quarry was. However, when I came home that evening, I apparently heard it. I was greeted by the plaintive keening of a kitten. As I headed across the car port toward the house, the animal itself jumped out and came running. Meanwhile, Aka stood nearby, evaluating the situation with a rather uncertain-sounding MAAAAORH. It was obvious that the Furry Samaritan had struck again but wasn’t so sure he was happy about it.

As it turned out, it was a beautiful and extremely affectionate calico, probably just under a year old. Clean and healthy-looking, she had clearly been brought up in someone’s home. Far from being afraid of the kids, she seemed to prefer their company, chasing after them eagerly whenever they went outside. It didn’t take her long to figure out which of the two houses the kids belonged to, and when we stymied her best efforts to get in, she set up a vigil on our front porch. Mao, by now totally in love with the pretty, little furball, set up a sort of hidey-hole with a bed right under the outdoor shoe cabinet and gave her some food. That pretty much settled it. The calico made herself right at home.

The next morning, as I tried to head off to work, the calico immediately popped out of her hole and greeted me with her cheerful, little cry that always rises in pitch at the end. It’s like she’s constantly asking something…or asking for something. “Mew? Mew?” I took that to mean, “pretty please”, so I put a bit of milk in her dish. She, however, was far more interested in cuddling than eating, so I bent over and gave her head a little scratch.

As soon as my hand made contact, a rather forlorn-sounding “MAAAAAAAOW” sounded from the nearby bushes. Aka was just standing there, peacefully observing the newcomer with rotating ears. I didn’t want my old buddy to feel put out, so I went over and gave him a scratch on the head. That seemed to cheer him up, and afterward he turned and casually strolled away like nothing happened.

After a few days, it was pretty much obvious that we had a new member in our family whether we liked it or not (but most of us definitely seem to like it so far). The amazing thing about it is that the calico is a spitting image of Mi when she first appeared about thirteen years ago. Her coloration, cry, and personality are remarkably similar. Inevitably, my wife wanted to name the new kitten Mi, too. Mao, who treats the kitten as her very own, (which makes sense since it arrived a few days before her birthday,) thought that was a singularly dull idea. Instead, she modified it to “Mint”. (My wife doesn’t really care for mint, and she doesn’t like the name either, but Mao is adamant, so there we are.)

It would also appear that Aka has established some ground rules. He has made it clear that he doesn’t consider Mint a threat and doesn’t really wish her harm, either. In fact, just yesterday I saw him allow her to come up and sniff noses with him without so much as twisting an ear. However, if she comes anywhere near the doorway leading to his food dish, he immediately and resolutely dissuades her from doing so. At the same time, he has been keeping a respectable distance from her food and hidey-hole. In other words, he’s being a fair host. Firm, furry, but fair.

However, he’s not altogether happy about it, and he has been showing that to everyone in no uncertain terms. He usually sits and watches quietly while the kids play with Mint, but if they try to approach him, he immediately shows them his back. If a neutral observer then calls to him, however, he immediately answers, “MAAAAAAAOW” and comes a-running.

Yes, cats are complex creatures with a well-developed cognitive array, indeed.

Sunday, April 17, 2005


That, sung along with a sort of samba drum beat, was the characteristic cheer of the Kashima Antlers for a long time. I don't know if it still is, since their home games haven't been getting quite the coverage that they used to, but it's the only real Antlers cheer that I know, so I'm using it now.

Hey, everyone, the Antlers are NUMBER ONE!!!!!
(At least for the time being...)
(We all know how fast the world of sports changes. Just look at the Portland Trailblazers, not to mention the entire NHL. I have nothing more to say about either of those...)

Friday, April 15, 2005

Standing on the Corner...

It’s a glorious, sunny morning, and my position in front of the Lawson convenience store doesn’t award me a wonderful view of the sprawling valley encircling Lake Kitaura below. I’m also totally unable to see the spectacularly blooming cherry trees that line the entrances to the campus. Still, after the bizarre, muggy, mid-summer weather we had all last week, and the sudden, even more bizarre plunge back into winter the past couple of days, it’s actually quite pleasant today. It’s shirt-sleeve weather. So here I am, standing on the sidewalk dressed in a blue-gray suit and tie, a school armband pinned to one shoulder.

Traffic safety detail is so much fun, I can tell you. There’s really nothing like standing on a street corner scrutinizing the dress and behavior of the students as they come piling into the school in the morning.

I take that back; there is something kind of like it. You know those street preachers that you sometimes find standing on sidewalks in busy, urban shopping districts? The ones that give their spiel in a droning, vacant manner because they’ve long since given up on anyone actually listening? Well, traffic safety detail is kind of like that. Most of my co-workers dutifully give their warnings to any offenders that they see. They do so in a droning, vacant manner because they all learned long ago there’s no hope of anyone paying attention.

As it turns out, I have a problem with that, so, once again, I’ve got to be the gaijin. I tend to let the minor infractions pass. However, anything that actually catches my attention leads to my halting the offender and pressing the issue till I actually get a response, preferably the prompt correction of the problem.

I’m such a barbarian.

Needless to say, when the students see me on the street wearing that armband, they usually say a cheerful greeting and then give me a wide berth. Through the magic of cell phone technology, they then quickly send out an APB to everyone that hasn’t arrived yet, advising them to come to school via a different route. At least that’s what they usually do. This time, however, I’ve got them trapped. I’m standing in front of the closest convenience store to the school. It’s the regular watering hole and magazine stop for all those individuals that come to school by train. It’s either deal with me or suffer painful Pepsi and/or comic book withdrawal.

Naturally, quite a crowd ends up coming my way, but they’re actually being good. Almost all of the uniforms are up to specs. They’re crossing within the crosswalks in obedience to the signals. They’re greeting me in a both polite and friendly manner. I only end up giving two rather small warnings, and the offenders immediately respond. Amazing. There must be an epidemic of decency going around or something.

Then again, it’s only the first full week of classes. The new school year has only just begun, and the students are in a sort of New Year resolution mode. I’m sure things will wilt back to normal in a few weeks, but for now things are close to picture perfect…almost too perfect…just like the fact that I’m wearing a suit and tie. That has become a sort of annual ritual for me. I wear suits for the first few weeks of a new school year, and then I remember why I rarely wear suits. Then it’s back to the semi-professional, semi-casual blend that is my usual work uniform.

As always this time of year, I keep overhearing female students and members of the faculty muttering regretfully that I look a lot better in a suit. I have nothing whatever against that sort of attention. (Actually, I rather enjoy it!) However, I have never liked the idea of being reminded of the worst yuppie [expletive]s I had to suffer in my university days every time I look in the mirror. And of course, there is also the fact that suits just can’t be cleaned quickly or often enough (definitely a problem in muggy weather…phew…).

There are lots of students from other schools passing by on their bicycles. Most of the ones I see are headed for Itako High School, which is a good seven or eight miles away. It’s definitely a good way to stay in shape, I’d wager, but I’d hate to be in their shoes in any other kind of weather. I draw a lot of stares, naturally, but fortunately none of them veers out into oncoming traffic. After all, by now they’ve developed a sort of third eye to help them maneuver on crowded, narrow streets while engaged in deep conversation with their friends.

Japanese youth seem to have refined the art of completely ignoring one’s surroundings while still unconsciously dealing with them. This ability is demonstrated by a group of students from Kashima Gakuen, the other private high school in this city, when they zip across the street against the signal and shoot past me without at all acknowledging the existence of either the cars on the road or one of my colleagues who steps forward and drones a vacant warning to them. They are threading their bicycles around moving obstacles and talking to each other with their faces firmly buried in their cell phones. Now that takes talent!

The sun is making me sleepy. The fact that I only got five and a half hours of sleep last night doesn’t help. Neither does the fact that I’m bombed on antihistamines, though I’m still snorting like a Mack truck, and my eyes are burning. After having lived in these islands for a decade and a half, I’ve finally fallen prey to the scourge of the Japanese cedar. At least half of Japanese living in the Kanto and southern Tohoku regions have to deal with the torture brought about by all those millions of grains of pollen spat out by those obnoxiously beautiful trees this time of year. And, wouldn’t you know it, the school is surrounded by a forest of the things. I think it’s a conspiracy.

Speaking of conspiracies, the news is still filled with talk of the violent anti-Japanese protests taking place in China. I can somewhat sympathize with the Chinese point of view in this matter. After all, it’s bad enough that the Japanese government still refuses to own up to the atrocities inflicted in Asia by the imperial regime back in the 30s and 40s. It’s even worse that a group of right-wing teachers got together and produced a series of history textbooks that make a point of whitewashing that history and somehow managed to get it approved. However, the fact that several municipalities and private schools have adopted those textbooks, stating that the important thing is for children to have pride in their country, is positively unbelievable. Well, as it turns out, the Chinese have also taught their children to have pride in their country. That’s why there are thousands of twenty-something-year-olds in China vandalizing Japanese chain stores, pelting Japanese embassies and consulates with eggs and rocks, attacking Japanese police and government websites, and beating Japanese exchange students with glass bottles.

I’m afraid that it’s there that my “somewhat sympathize” ends.

I can understand demonstrations. I can even understand noisy demonstrations. However, violent ones do nothing but kill my support. I don’t see the logic in expressing anger at Japan by vandalizing stores whose franchise license is owned by Chinese and which employ only Chinese workers. Beating and injuring Japanese students that are in China because they are interested in China is definitely not a good way to encourage sympathy among the Japanese. Disabling police and government websites only serves to make Japan look like the victim. I feel the same way about all that that I do about leftists in America trying to fix injustices by jumping up and down on police cars or rampaging through shopping malls. I don’t care how righteous you may think you are; you’re not going to win converts by pissing people off.

(I once expressed that sentiment on a discussion site frequented by leftists. I was told by a frothy-mouthed “hero” to “stay the f*** out of the way of those of us that are sick of this s*** and determined to do something about it”. Okay, I will. Go right on digging your own grave.)

I have to admit, though, that I’m a bit suspicious of a demonstration against historical wrongdoings when neither the people participating in that demonstration nor their parents were even born yet when the wrongdoings are said to have occurred. While we’re at it, the Chinese government could very well own up to some of its own historical atrocities, but I guess that’s irrelevant.

A black truck pulls into the convenience store parking lot. On its trailer is a beautiful, silver coupe. The truck itself is emblazoned with the words, “Movie and Stunt Car Finishing”. What’s that all about? I know that there are a few celebrities that come to Kashima in order to go fishing or stay at their beach cabins. The well-known pop singer/TV personality Takuya Kimura (“Kimutaku”) has been seen several times at the 7-11 just a couple of blocks down the road together with his fishing buddies and bodyguards. There are also all those well-paid soccer heroes that play for our beloved Kashima Antlers, who have just returned to the number one spot…at least for the time being…after bouncing around in the ranks for the past few years. (I only wish the Blazers would do half as well.) Does that silver machine belong to one of them, or is someone filming something around here?

Now is definitely not a good time to be driving that sort of vehicle. Not only are oil prices up, but the government just jacked up the gasoline tax, probably in response to all those Priuses that are appearing on the road in ever-increasing numbers. I don’t blame people for buying those things. Right now the price of regular gas is almost 120 yen per liter (close to $4.00 a gallon) at the local self-service stations. I’ve read that my BLUE RAV4 has the best gas mileage of any non-hybrid SUV, but that’s still not saying a whole lot when I have to pay $60 a pop to fill the tank, especially with my sixteen mile commute up and down all those hills.

Right now a Dodge Viper is definitely out.

At 8:30 the rush peters out. The last regular commuter train has already come and gone, and morning home room starts in five minutes. Student traffic has wound down to a few, individual stragglers. Mr. Arakawa, one of my partners on traffic safety detail (and also my new grade chief as well as our school’s well-loved, resident mad scientist and champion drinker) suggests we call it a day. As he and Mr. Otomo head for their cars, I make a quick dash into the Lawson. As long as they’ve graciously put up with our cars occupying their parking lot (and our presence frightening away some of their clientele), I figure giving them my business is the least I can do. Besides, it also means one less day of cafeteria food.

P.S. This afternoon, while I was doing a bit of web searching at the school, we suddenly lost all outside internet access capability. I mean the whole school. That included both the school's network and the English department's own. The LANs were unaffected, of course, but all internet access was lost at exactly the same time even though the two networks are totally separate from and independent of one another and even use different provider services. (The school is on a local cable service, whereas the English department uses NTT's ADSL service linked through a wireless remote hub. There is no connection between the two systems whatsoever.) My cell phone was able to access the internet without any trouble (NTT Docomo), not that it really did me any good. After about an hour, the two systems were able to connect again. I wonder what happened. Was it another cyberattack from the Middle Kingdom?

Whatever it was, it was spooky.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Back in the Day

Here's a stroll down memory lane, fitting for the upcoming release gig for "Who Do You Think That You Are?". This was the release gig for "BANG!" The only constants are myself (with my old synth and hairstyle), Brad (on drums), and Jeff. There's Kishi on lead guitar, Izumi on...other lead guitar, and (what was his name?) on bass. We were playing at a club called "Stella's" in Ikebukuro. The place was packed solid. That stage was REALLY small...too small for me to fit except when I played guitar on "When I Build My Boat". I'm really looking forward to playing at the Canadian embassy. Posted by Hello

Back in the Day, pt. II

Here's something you won't see at the Canadian Embassy gig. Jeff and I are playing "When I Build My Boat" as a duet. Ah, memories... Posted by Hello

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

An Even Older Temple in the Kashima Area

My ex-pat friend in Kashima just made another amazing temple discovery. In the northern part of the city, in what used to be Ohno Village, there is a temple that dates from the end of the Heian Era (late 9th to early 12th centuries). Apparently it was so remote back then that the daughter of the defeated leader of the Taira clan sought refuge there at the end of the 1100s, when Japan first wound up falling under the control of the shoguns.

The amazing thing is that I've lived in this area for 15 years and drive fairly close to that temple every day on my way to work. I had no idea of its existence even though it's significant enough to have its own website (see link...not much there, though).

Clearly I need to get out more often...

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Guest Post: A Backyard Adventure

One of my fellow ex-pats here recently e-mailed me this story, which I really enjoyed. I asked for his permission to post it here so I can share it with you.
- t.M.M.

We've had a couple of days of cold rain and/or wind this week. Yesterday, as the weather was fine, I decided to get some exercise and go for a walk - something I do several times a week. What a delightful adventure it turned out to be. The sky in the morning was clear, wind calm, and air a comfortable 60 F. After a few minutes through familiar paths, I started down a dirt road I had never explored before. Turning a corner, I saw man pruning some tall bushes and I startled him when I said konichiwa. I apologized for sneaking up on him, and we talked a bit about how pretty his camellia flowers were and then I went on my way.

The road went down hill into a tall stand of bamboo with very thick trunks, then turned and I soon found myself in front of an empty wooden pavilion where a large temple bell once hung, and beyond, a very old temple in a small clearing. In the yard were three apricot trees in full bloom and the stone path leading up to the temple was lined with daffodils. There was an evergreen by the path, trimmed and twisted like a bonsai. Someone is clearly keeping things up there. There is a small house, no doubt for the priest, but no one was home at the time. The house itself is fairly old as I could tell by the foundations and walls, but has a new roof and storm shutters. The temple is perhaps 25 feet on each side, with a veranda surrounding it. It is very weathered and the only color remaining of the paint that once adorned it is the red of the eyes of animals in the wood carvings. There are very intricate carvings all around the entrance. The roof supports of the entrance are topped with a carved lattice depicting lotus flowers. Lions, dragons, and Bodhisattvas inhabit other carvings. The solid wood pillars of the entry are warped in two graceful arcs, as if tired from their burden. The tile roof is high and rises to a single point with a chrysanthemum crest near the top. Behind the temple, against a backdrop of bamboo, there is a small grave yard with some very ornately carved stone markers. Some have reliefs of Bodhisattvas on them and are covered with lichen. It is well maintained and there are fresh flowers at many of the graves.

I walked on down the road and entered a long narrow valley covered with rice paddies and surrounded by trees. The nearest house I could see was perhaps two miles away toward the mouth of the valley. No cars, no electric or phone lines. It was very quiet except for the sound of insects, frogs, and birds. There were "uguisu" (Japanese bush warblers) in the trees making beautiful music on either side. One paddy had just been tilled, as it is getting to be planting time. I turned up the valley on the gravel road. There were three older women, on the road. One was in a rice paddy picking some plant, the other two were sitting on the road by their bicycles sorting through piles of the plant. I asked what it was, but all I heard was a long sentence that I did not understand. Excusing myself, I continued to the end of the valley and found a newly constructed small reservoir which was stocked with fish, and there were two men fishing. Soon, the road became covered in tall grass and ended at a creek amongst the trees.

On the way back, I stopped by the women, determined to learn what the plant was, and asked again what they were picking. It was "seri", Japanese parsley. I had seen it before because it is one of the 7 herbs served in "nanakusa-gaiyu" (literally seven herb rice gruel) on New Years at Shinto shrines. They asked about me, where I lived, what I did and so on, and I tried my best to answer. That was fun.

I told my wife all about it when I got home. She wanted to see, so after lunch we went back. There is a sign by the temple and my wife read it for me. The temple, of the Rinzai (a Zen sect), was originally built in 1765 but burned twice and the present temple was built in 1805. I showed her the graves and she read the older ones and learned they were from the early 19th century, during the Edo Era. She had never seen the temple before. That surprised me as it only a 30 minute walk from where she has lived most of her life. Of course, I've been exploring this area on my walks ever since I got here and only today discovered it myself. When we reached the reservoir, we noticed a red torii at the base of a hill, indicating a shrine. We went under the torii up a very steep slope of earth steps framed by small split logs. At the top was a small shinto shrine. The old shrine was perhaps two feet wide and five feet high with small stone foxes (inari) protecting it. A shelter of wood with a corrugated aluminum roof had been built over it to help preserve it. Another path led us beyond the shrine and we came out onto a paved road that we were familiar with and we followed that home.

It was amazing to find such an isolated valley, old shrine and temple so close to home, unknown even by someone who grew up in the area. Before the mid twentieth century, many areas around here must have been like that - small valleys of farms, separated by low hills, each little community with its own temple and shrine. I hope this little time capsule can remain untouched by the blade of the bulldozer.

Later addendum:
After reading my story, my wife thought about it and corrected herself about the date on some of the grave stones. They are older than she first thought. Some of them say "Genroku" which was the era during the Edo period between 1688 and 1703.

Moody Minstrel's comment:
That last date correction makes sense. The Kashima area, considered sacred ground since ancient times and thus kept largely uninhabited, was settled by the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1670s, first for agricultural development and then to help with the construction of the canal system. That's something I just found out a few months ago. What an amazing coincidence that an acquaintance of mine has found concrete evidence of it!

Friday, April 01, 2005

Parting or Permanent?

“Are you an English teacher?”

I patiently stifle an inner sigh. I’ve been asked that question so many times even though the answer is painfully obvious. It’s even sillier since she already knows where I work. However, I understand perfectly that her real intent is to start the conversation. That’s not always easy to do. She probably could have said, “So, do you come here often,” instead, or asked about the weather, but I presented her with something different. For her, at least, it is a unique situation.

“Yes, that’s right,” I reply, my chin yanking the towel on my face out of position.

She readjusts the towel with one hand as she hoses off my hair with the other. “I only remember a little bit of my first-year English,” she says cheerfully. “I’m sorry.”

I chuckle. “That’s still better than some of my students. Some of them go off to college and come back barely remembering how to say their name.”

“That’s surprising,” she says, readjusting the towel again. “It must be very frustrating for you sometimes.”

As usual, this is my first visit to the haircut place in months. I usually only make it there two or three times a year. It’s hard finding the time for it. I go there and get my hair cut fairly short; one might even say “respectable”. By the time I make it back again, I look like John Lennon. No, actually, now I look more like Yung-san, that Korean soap opera star that has surprisingly become the latest heartthrob among Japanese women. I wouldn’t mind so much but for the looks of contempt I keep getting from my male peers and superiors at work.

The place I’ve been going to for the past seven years is a fairly fancy, European-style styling salon in Kashima’s largest shopping mall. It is rather pricey. I also know it drives them nuts that I always ask for just a cut. (I got a soft perm there once, which made them happy, but my wife made me promise never to do it again.) There’s also the fact that I’m probably the only male in my age group that goes there. While I’m waiting my turn, I’m usually surrounded by staring middle-aged ladies, spoiled-looking young women that try very hard to pretend I don’t exist, and the occasional sheepish-looking teenage boy or girl. A forty-year-old American man sticks out like a nail about to be hammered down. So why do I go there? It’s partly for the atmosphere. It’s pretty much just like the salons I went to in the States in my school days. As if to humor me, the stereo is usually blaring 80s music (ah, nostalgia!). They also have some cool magazines to keep me occupied while I’m waiting. However, I mainly go there because, unlike some of the traditional barber shops I’ve been to here, they have yet to screw up. If I’m going to look like a geek anyway, I’d rather be a somewhat stylish and well-groomed one instead of walking around with a dopey-looking, lopsided haircut.

With my visits to the salon as infrequent as they are, it’s not surprising that things change in between. The crew of stylists has largely remained the same, at least over the past five years or so, but the assistants are always different. As usual, the young woman that is washing my hair now is a new face, and a pretty one, at that. She’s also a lot less frosty than they tend to be. In fact, she’s downright warm…and talkative. But at least the conversation is entertaining.

As she washes my hair, it comes up that I’m also a music director and a musician. She tells me (quite excitedly) that, as a euphonium player, she was very active in her school band in her junior high school days. That might explain some of her eagerness to chat with me. Just about anyone who has been in a junior or senior high school band in this area during the past fifteen years knows who I am. Anyway, we talk about music for a while, and then, after a pause and a muffled, nervous giggle, she asks me a startling question:

“What do you think is the biggest difference between Japanese and American women?”

Wow. I’m not sure how to answer that. It’s not that I don’t have an answer. Assuming American women haven’t really changed all that much, I could probably name a few points, but they would probably make this poor girl upset. On the other hand, saying something like, “Japanese women are prettier,” would undoubtedly make her very happy, but that’s just a bit too cliché for me (pardon my being a bit of a snob). Instead, I just reply, in all honesty, “That’s a very difficult question. What’s considered ‘normal’ for Japanese women has changed a lot while I’ve been here.”

“Right,” she says thoughtfully. “Women here have gotten to be a lot stronger recently, haven’t they?” Strangely, she says it as if she’s not sure it’s such a good thing.

When I indicate my agreement, she sighs and adds a little bitterly, “It’s the men, too. Japanese men have had it. They just don’t try very hard anymore.”

“That’s true,” I retort. “But the women are trying hard. That’s good, isn’t it?”

She pauses as she starts rinsing my hair off. I hear her muffled, nervous giggle a couple more times. Then, quietly, she says, “But everybody ends up getting old…”

That’s a very surprising comment, but understandable. The media has been talking about it a lot, and I’ve been seeing it first hand at my school every day. Young Japanese men have become weak, lazy, unmotivated. Childish. On the other hand, the women, long oppressed throughout history, have suddenly become aggressive and assertive. They also tend to be very self-centered. It’s an almost complete reversal of traditional personality stereotypes, but without any change in traditional roles. That means that women are finally taking charge of their lives, but without any promising goals to look forward to. Initiative without an objective. It’s no wonder that the norm now is for young women to give themselves completely over to a decadent lifestyle, living with and sponging off their parents, blowing all their income on brand-name fashion goods and weekend romps, often until their thirties. The government, while raising all kinds of alarms about the dangerously-falling birthrate, actually supports the idea of these “parasite singles” because all that disposable income that they toss around helps keep the economy running.

And what are the men doing? They’re sitting there waiting for someone to take care of them. Their parents direct their education and their lives. A company recruits them and tells them how to do everything. Their spoiled, assertive girlfriends tell them what they want and when they want it, and they either say, “Okay” and go along with it or whine until they get dumped again. No direction. No motivation. No spine. No family jewels.

Marriage? The man will do it if mommy tells him to, provided she also finds him a bride. The woman will do it when she finally gets tired of playing.

But everybody ends up getting old…

It must be hard on those that don’t really want to play that game.

My regular stylist finally comes over and starts attacking my hair. He always does a good job, but he seems rather hasty today. He’s not being as careful or as thorough as he usually is. His conversation seems a bit more wooden than usual, too. He’s a busy man, but that doesn’t seem to explain everything. Clearly, he wants to finish up quick and get me out of there. Perhaps it’s because he started on me more than fifteen minutes later than my appointment. Perhaps it’s because I only want a measly cut. Perhaps it’s because, well, I’m a forty-year-old American man, and I probably don’t really belong there in fashion-land.

Looking in the mirror, I notice a familiar face behind me. It’s Yatagawa, a boy who has just graduated from my school. When he sees me, he bows politely. When my cut ends (rather abruptly, it seems), I turn around and greet him in a warm, friendly manner. He always used to be a real pistol, spunky and talkative. Now all he can do is eye me blankly and bow repeatedly. Fresh out of high school, and he’s already acting like a modern, young Japanese man.

I head toward the front counter, and the woman who washed my hair comes running over, a big, eager smile on her pretty face. After I pay, she hustles past me and holds open the door. When I turn to the coat rack instead, she lets out a cry, nearly trips over me in her rush to beat me to my coat, and helps me into it rather awkwardly. She is giggly and tongue tied, and she stands at the door, waving and blushing, as I head out into the darkened parking lot.

Poor girl. Pretty, pleasant, and probably lonely. It goes without saying that they don’t get adult men in that salon very often, particularly not American ones.

But, you know, everybody winds up getting old.