Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Getting Tanka-ed


tokeru shimo [Melting frost]
atarashii kabe [A new wall]
mada tochuu [Still half-built]
ishi ga tarinai [There isn't enough stone]
kakoi naosou [I'll mend the fence]

(BTW, there is actually a pun in this poem. "Ishi ga tarinai" with one different kanji means "There isn't enough will (to do something).")

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Stack of Updates

Okay, let me take that first step "uphill" with what Snabulus refers to as "fluff". Basically, I'll tread water and maybe retain a bit of my readership by giving some tidbits of recent news. Some of it is bad, some of it is good, and this IS a moody website, so just ride the rapids!!!

(Yes, blogs do tend to be exercises in self-indulgence more often than not, so bear with me, 'kay?)

Part One - Y.O.A.
And the thing that has been dominating both my limbic and higher cognitive (but hopefully not my spiritual) functions these days has been [POST REDACTED].

Nope, I can't talk about it. Not here. I don't know if I'm still being spied on or not, but I dare not take a chance on it. Especially not now. Matters have been worsening since at least last September and, though not quite grave, have definitely reached "seriously nasty" status. I will go so far as to say that a whole bunch of promises have been broken (more like hijacked), and some key working relationships have become strained. One of the most important seems to have snapped already. I will also be so bold (rash?) as to say I went directly to the principal, explained the situation, and asked him to remove me from any further participation in the International Committee, let alone the sister-school project. He may not grant my request, but I think my presence there would be counterproductive regardless of whether or not it is still welcome. Considering I'm the reason both the Committee and the sister-school project exist in the first place, it is a very painful and embittering situation, but I know I can't change it. It's better to bow out with some small shred of dignity.

(To answer the obvious question, no, it does NOT have to do with that blog blunder of last least not directly. Indirectly, however...maybe.)

Part Two - On the Home Front
I posted before about my mother-in-law and her struggle against cancer. Last year she was undergoing chemotherapy, and it was just wearing her down to nothing. However, it was apparently a success, for the specialist in Tokyo she'd been vising gave her a very positive prognosis and switched to a far milder form of treatment. Her health, like her hair, came back very quickly. Pretty soon she was trucking around with a big smile as always. However, right about the time we took that trip together to Yokohama a couple of weeks ago her health started taking a turn for the worse again. She found it harder and harder to eat. She'd had spells like this before, but they'd never lasted more than a few days. This time it just went on and on, so I wound up taking a (much-needed) day off from work to drive her back down to the hospital in Tokyo. My wife, despite a very busy schedule that day, opted to come along, and her reasons were obvious.

My MIL is still in the hospital. From the start the doctors have been saying that it's nothing serious. They claim it's probably just a mild stomach bug brought on by her weakened immune system rather than a worsening of her cancer. Unfortunately, my MIL isn't buying it. She's all but convinced it's over. When she came for treatment last year, the doctors told her that almost all of her tumors had been eliminated. I repeat: almost all. Just one, stubborn, little bastard remained. The problem is that it's in one of her lymph nodes, and if my MIL is anything, she's not stupid. She knows as well as I do that doctors in Japan consider it their duty NOT to inform patients of a terminal condition. They believe doing so only brings unnecessary pain. Even Emperor Showa went to his deathbed in the late 80s firmly believing he was recovering from his cancer, because that's what his doctors were telling him.

Yes, things are a bit dark at home.

Part Three - A Furry Homecoming
We did have one small, fuzzy spot of good news, however. Pandabonium has already posted on his site about the surprise snowfall we had. This was followed soon afterward by some really rainy, nasty weather during which time we were worried sick the streets were going to wind up coated with black ice. Fortunately, it didn't happen. It was bloody cold (mainly because of the high humidity), but it managed to stay just above freezing till the pavement dried out. We had another surprise snowfall in and among it all, but luckily it didn't accumulate. We managed to weather the weather(?) well.

We did have one surprising and unfortunate occurrence, however. Our beloved cat Tora turned up missing on the evening of the big snowfall and remained unaccounted for during the cold, rainy days that followed. The weather cleared up, and there was still no sign of our feline family member. Everyone was concerned; all of us took turns hunting around for him, but with no success. I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that Tora had either frozen to death or met an unlucky end somewhere in the neighborhood.

After the better part of a week had passed I was woken by loud meowing on our front porch, but by the time somebody got to the door and opened it there was nothing there. We couldn't be sure whether it had been Tora or not, and there are other cats in the neighborhood that occasionally caterwaul around our place (and scrap with Tora), so we figured it had to have been one of them. A couple of days later I thought I saw Tora when I headed for my car to go to work, but the cat bolted across the street and into a neighbor's yard before I got a clear view. The next day my FIL reported something similar. I began to wonder if, cold and starving, Tora had gone feral.

Yesterday I came back from a trip to Tokyo to find that Tora had returned. When he saw me, he let out a yowl and literally climbed right up me and onto my shoulder. One of his eyes looks like it is either wounded or infected (or both), and he seems to be sneezing a bit, but he's clearly happy to be home. I also couldn't help but notice that his meow has become louder, lower, and more masculine than I remember. I wouldn't be surprised if his family jewels got him into trouble in the first place. If I ever get time to do it, I'm going to take him to a vet and have those damned things snipped off.

Part Four-A - Still Very Much in Demand
Finding time to do things (like getting cats "fixed") has been practically impossible. One of the reasons is that music-related activities keep filling my schedule when other things don't. I admit that also includes such things as rehearsals, meetings, and shopping trips to buy music-related gear, but it all adds up. It's also all interconnected. For example, last Saturday I had a meeting in the morning related to a performance next Sunday. After that I had just enough time to snarf down a convenience store lunch before an afternoon appearance by the Flying Eggheads jazz big band at a PTA event for a local elementary school. After that I went home, changed, loaded up my BLUE RAV4 with luggage and musical gear, and headed off to Tokyo for the night and all day Sunday. I had been asked to go into a studio and record with a musician I hadn't seen in ages, and I wasn't about to say no. Next Saturday there will be an afternoon concert at Ye Olde Academy. (I'm directing.) On the Sunday after that there will be a performance by our concert band at a local international event. (I'm performing.)

I'm very happy to be doing all this, but it is wearing both me and my calendar thin...

On a side note, I made an interesting, music-related discovery recently. I was doing a "security search", i.e. Googling my own personal info, and I came up with my name in a very surprising place. Several years ago I was hired by a professional musician/songwriter/producer in Tokyo both to write lyrics for a song and to sing them. I was also asked to do a sax solo. The song was sappy by design; the writer said from the beginning (with much laughter and apology) that it was "for a video game", but he never went into much detail beyond that. I came up with lyrics that went with the (sappy) mood of the song. Then I went to the man's personal studio in Shinjuku and spent the better part of a day doing the recording work. After that he thanked me, paid me more money than I'd ever received before (or since) for music-related work, said he'd send me a CD of the recording, and promised to keep in touch. I never heard from him again.

Cut to the here and now. As I said, I Googled my own personal info and, apart from discovering that there are an awful lot of people with the same name (some of whom are apparently famous, not always for favorable reasons), I found what was unmistakably my moniker on a series of related websites. Basically, I was given singing and lyric-writing credit for that song I had recorded in Shinjuku all those years ago. Yes, it had been for a video game, one that apparently became quite popular in China. The song apparently became a karaoke hit in some quarters and is still on the charts. I think it's amazing that my name is getting spread around like that; after all, the man who wrote the music of the song and actually marketed it did so under a pseudonym. That means I'm the only one getting direct credit...although I haven't gotten a single yen (or yuan for that matter) of royalty for it.

Oh, well. It's not the first time something like this has happened. Some years ago my song "Tlesca", no doubt minus that tediously LONG introduction, got played regularly at a popular nightclub in Bangalore, India. I was told the song enjoyed some popularity and was often requested for a time at least. The DJ was a friend of a friend, and I did give them permission to use my tune. I was told they even gave me name credit for it. However, "credit" and "permission" are not the same as "royalty". I got plenty of satisfaction and fulfillment, to be sure, but not much material reward for my efforts. I guess I don't really mind, since material reward isn't really why I do music, but am I being too nice? (I'm particularly interested in hearing the answer for that from my artist/writer friends Kami, San, and Wendy as well as my musician friend Hashim.)

Part Four-B - Just Because I Thunk a Tanka:


kuroi sora [Black sky]
tsuki no shirogao [The white face of the Moon]
ko'ori ni wa [In the ice]
hikari no odori [A dance of light]
kogoeru hono'o [Freezing flame]

(picture borrowed from the blog of the Tateshima Tokyu Resort)

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

This Is a Looowwwwwww.....

I really haven't been posting all that often, have I? That seems to be a malady that has been affecting many if not most of my usual blog "family". Everyone has his or her own reasons for having the blog BLUES, but in my own case it's a mixture of things. Things going on in my life these days, particularly at work, have been sapping my energy and leaving me empty and unmotivated. I know this is just a phase, and I really have no idea how it's all going to turn out, but I'm sure things will look up. After all, I've been in much darker valleys in the past.

Besides, I can feel my muse starting to wake up. I'll have some more new music posted here soon.

Speaking of music and lows, here is Blur performing "This Is a Low" back in 1995. Enjoy:

This is a low...
But it won't hurt you...
When you're alone it will be there with you
Finding ways to stay so low...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008




It just cracked me up when HMV e-mailed me a plug for this band. It's a Japanese pop band from neighboring Fukushima Prefecture. Apparently they've been around for a while, releasing some singles independently, but they signed to a major label last year and are seeing some popularity.

I just can't get over the name. For those familiar with the Colorman legend, it's just too good to be true!

Just for fun, here's a video for their song "Aiuta" least until it gets pulled:

(Hmm...not too hard to tell who their intended audience is, is it?)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Han Kichi pt. I - A Trip from Hell that Leads to Heaven

I mentioned in my New Year post that, for my omikuji (fortune) for 2008, I drew han-kichi, or "half-good fortune". The fine print said that most of my endeavors would end in success, but I'd have to endure a lot of pain and bother getting there.

Well, consider the trip from which I've just returned.

First a little background. Back in October, my wife decided to give us both a special gift for our anniversary. Her favorite mail-order cosmetics supplier (like just about everything here) has a purchase-point program, and she had amassed enough points to get a free gift that was fairly high up on the list. She chose a couple of coupons that would allow the two of us to stay a night at the InterContinental Yokohama The Grand Hotel at a discount. The InterContinental Yokohama The Grand is a massive, uniquely-shaped 5-star hotel located on the Yokohama waterfront very near the Yokohama Cosmoworld amusement park and Yokohama Landmark Tower.

(The InterContinental Yokohama the Grand Hotel is the crescent-shaped building on the left.)

Needless to say, it is a very fancy, high-class hotel. It was likely that it would cost us a pretty penny even with the discount coupons, but it still seemed worth it to celebrate our anniversary. Unfortunately, we were never able to work a stay there into our randomly-changing, eternally-conflicting schedules. First October vanished in a puff of fate. Then November gwugged and faded. December offered us a couple of potentially usable weekends, but our original plan of going as a couple and leaving the kids with the in-laws wound up in the NBL (Not Bloody Likely) category. But then both of those "potentially usable" weekends wound up being hijacked anyway.

Finally came January, along with my birthday, and we were faced with a dilemma. The coupons were only good till the end of March, and neither February nor March seemed even remotely doable. January turned out to be an even bigger scheduling headache than December, but we decided to take the kamikaze approach and go anyway. We each took a little bit of time off on Friday the 11th and planned to come home, grab the kids and our luggage, and shoot off to Yokohama hoping to cover as much ground as possible before the rush-hour crunch. We would then have Friday evening and all day Saturday to play with. First we thought about booking a second room for the kids, giving us our much-needed private time, but after talking to the hotel on the phone we settled on putting an extra bed in a double room and housing the four of us together. It seemed nuts by any standard, but it was very much better than nothing.

On Thursday the 10th my wife informed me that she'd had an attack of conscience and had decided to ask her parents to join us. I think you can guess what my reaction was. Having the kids with us was like having a two-kilogram-weight shackled to one ankle. It was a given that having my in-laws with us as well would be like having a twenty-kilogram weight on the other ankle. You have to understand; after a few disastrous family outings early in our marriage I made it a policy to avoid traveling with the in-laws as much as possible. Still, I could understand where my wife was coming from. She is still terribly worried about her cancer-fighting mother and would rather not cause her parents any more grief than necessary. I decided not to resist. Besides, as my wife pointed out, odds were that her parents would decline our invitation anyway.

They jumped at the chance.

Friday the 11th was the first day of classes at Ye Olde Academy after winter vacation. Most of the day was taken up by tests, so it was an easy workday. It was also brutally stressful (for a number of reasons I obviously can't discuss). When my requested off-time arrived, despite the attempts at dumping extra work on me and the related guilt trips and other psychological games when I declined, I bolted out of there like a BLUE comet and raced home to find...

...that my wife had been delayed due to trouble at her school. She got home more than two hours later than planned and wasn't even packed yet. By the time we finally got ourselves, the kids, and my MIL in my BLUE RAV4 (FIL, who had to attend a funeral, was to travel to Yokohama by train and meet us there) and onto the expressway, the rush-hour crunch was already starting. As it turned out, however, by some miracle, the expressway became jam-packed but kept moving at a decent pace. (I also had plenty of room to weave through traffic...though my poor wife was sometimes scared witless.) We somehow managed to get to the hotel at about the time we had originally planned. FIL hadn't quite arrived yet, so we checked in, dropped off our luggage, and waited for him. Then we headed out in search of dinner. FIL has a strict rule against eating dinner at hotel restaurants (Why else? Because they're too expensive!) so we went over to the nearby Minatomirai complex, which includes the Yokohama Landmark Tower and adjoining Queen's Square and Dockland Gardens shopping centers.

Here was where we began to feel the weight shackled to our ankles. The Minatomirai complex is both cosmopolitan and widely varied. There are lots of different restaurants all over the area representing a variety of classes and countries. Within a five-minute walk you can find fare ranging from Wendy's hamburgers to fancy French cuisine. My wife and I have tried only a couple of places so far (yes, including Wendy's) and have long wanted to check out some more, especially some of the classier ones. Unfortunately, FIL won't go into an eating establishment that costs more than average and refuses to wait more than ten minutes for a table. He also won't eat anywhere that doesn't serve rice. MIL, on the other hand, hates sushi and sashimi, wants her food bland, and gets out of joint if she can't get green tea. We went all over the place listening to the two of them gripe until we finally settled on a soba and udon noodle restaurant deep in the Dockland Gardens (so named because it's built in an old dry-dock, as is virtually the entire Minatomirai complex). That's when the real "fun" began.

To be fair, the food and service at the restaurant were both quite good. I also appreciated being able to drink multiple mugs of ice-cold draft beer without any harassment. However, most of the clientèle there were clearly businessmen just off work, i.e. lots of noisy drunks...and lots of smokers. To make matters worse, someone at the neighboring table was chain-smoking Peace cigarettes, one of the strongest and most pungent types made in Japan. (Yes, I do smoke on occasion, and Peace is one of the brands I sometimes smoke, but I have a problem with people that light up in restaurants, where they're clearly wrecking things for others.) My son whined the whole time about the smoke, and the rest of us tried to get him to cork it while coughing and sneezing ourselves. However, that wasn't the worst problem.

My daughter, aged 11, can sometimes have a bit of a chip on her shoulder. I'm told it's the age. At any rate, when my wife was trying to order her meal, my daughter, who had already ordered, kept grabbing her menu and trying to snatch it out of her hands for some reason. My wife asked her to quit twice, to no avail, and then finally scolded her. That caused my daughter to clam up. She has tended to do that ever since she was three or so. Whenever she gets the slightest scolding or criticism she just sits there weeping, then pretending to be sick, and won't speak or do anything for a long time, sometimes hours. I know from experience that it's nothing but a play for sympathy (which of course has always worked very well with the in-laws), but it usually goes on and on ad nauseum. Her food arrived, and she naturally wouldn't touch it. Pretty much the whole evening was spent attempting to get her to calm down and snap out of it, but in vain. That on top of the yammering, drunk businessmen, the foul air, and my son's non-stop whining just got to be too much. I finally managed to pry everyone out of that restaurant and out into fresher air. We tried to walk around a bit to take in the beautiful night scene there, but my son, who had refused on pain of death to wear a warm coat (because they make him "too hot") started whining that he was freezing, so we went up into the mall complex, where we wound up spending the whole [expletive] time with my in-laws trying to find something my daughter would eat. (Of course, she limped along with a pathetic look on her face and wouldn't touch anything.) That did it. I decided that I'd had enough and declared that I was taking her back home to Namegata that very night as soon as I'd sobered up enough to drive.

I think you can imagine the scene in our hotel room that night. From our tenth-floor window the view of Yokohama's night lights was gorgeous. The room was spacious and comfortable. My daughter lay stiff as a board in one bed feeling very sorry for herself. In another bed my son lay crying both out of worry for his elder sister and sorrow that she and I were going to be leaving. Next to him lay my wife, upset to pain that our long-anticipated and well-intentioned trip had gone straight to hell despite all the effort and money that had gone into it (not to mention other personal issues). Meanwhile, I was lying in the third bed wondering whether there was something seriously wrong with my parenting skills, my DNA, or a combination of the two while wishing I knew an African chocolate plantation owner who was in need of a couple more child slaves. (Yes, I know...that wasn't funny.) Ironically, though, what saved the day in the end was my daughter finally giving up the ploy and eating one of the chocolate muffins my wife had bought. I declared the matter closed. My wife and son had already gone to sleep by then, so I calmed my nerves and my stomach by reading Isaac Asimov's autobiography till I finally felt ready to sleep.

My son was up at the crack of dawn and very much relieved. So was everyone else (when we finally got up), so there were none of the ill feelings of the night before. The in-laws decided to have breakfast by themselves in the hotel's traditional Japanese restaurant, so the rest of us went down to the buffet-style restaurant down on the pier and pigged out on very good, very cosmopolitan fare. (Oink!) That was enjoyable, and with our spirits now lifted a bit, we were well prepared to spend all day having fun in Yokohama. However, we were faced with two new problems:
  1. It had gotten colder and started raining.
  2. The in-laws, who had originally planned to do their own thing and head home on the train, decided to join us instead. Naturally, FIL insisted we do something that would entertain him, i.e. he didn't want to go anywhere he'd already been. And of course MIL made it clear that she wasn't up to walking much, didn't want to take the train, didn't want to take a cab, didn't really want to get out of bed, etc....
We weren't about to accept defeat, however. We stuck with our original plan, which was to take the kids to the Yokohama Doll Museum. There was a decent parking lot there, so I went ahead and drove...cramming the six of us into my wee BLUE RAV4

I know what some of you are probably thinking, but the doll museum is actually kind of interesting. It gives a good cross-section of the history and types of Japanese dolls plus a lot of info on dolls from overseas. It talks about how an exchange of dolls played a significant role in Japan's opening up to the world at the end of the 19th century, mainly through Yokohama. There is a fascinating room that includes representative traditional dolls from most countries of the world (kind of like the "Small, Small World" thing at Disneyland, only less annoying). This time there was also a special exhibit of toy cars, which were a passion of mine when I was little. In fact, I was amazed to look at the display case representing the Matchbox line and realize that I owned almost every single model they had in there! (Actually, I think my parents still have them, too! How much are they worth now, I wonder?) I only had one of the Corgi types they had, though...and my son has only a few of the Tomy Car models on display. It was still fascinating to look at all those metal toy cars from various ages, most from the fifties and sixties, and recall that these were models designed and crafted with pride and later loved to death by children.

My son didn't seem too impressed, though. He is definitely a child of the modern age, and he wants his technology. That's what finally got his attention. In yet another room there was a sort of interactive exhibit of powered toy cars. Actually, it was a competition venue. They had a big, old-style slot car track set up...apparently something that has come back into vogue recently. They also had something I'd never seen before: miniature radio-control cars. I mean, both the cars and the controllers were tiny! The man on duty said they could also be controlled using cell phones! They had a whole race course set up on a single tatami mat, and Taiki was on it in a flash. He was so taken with it that I gave in and got him a car. (Hey, it cost a lot less than those damned Nintendo DS games usually do!)

After that we walked in the freezing mist over to nearby Yamashita Park on the waterfront, but all the attractions there were either shut down, reserved, or due to open an hour later, so we headed over to the nearby Yokohama Marine find it closed until further notice. (Apparently it shut a year ago, as the Wikipedia link explains.) We gave up and headed back to the Minatomirai complex. The in-laws decided they wanted to drink green tea (and ONLY green tea), so we went into a famous, high-class tea shop for a break. Then FIL decided he wanted to try something new; specifically, he wanted to check out the 69th floor observation deck of the Landmark Tower. We had never been up there, either, so we decided to go for it...and just told my son to shut up. (He hates high places...and is scared to death of elevators for some reason.)

Wow. The super-fast elevator ride itself is a trip, but the view from up there... Wow. Still, in the end, that wasn't what really did it for us. You see, we found something up there we never would have expected.

One of my all-time favorite TV programs here in Japan, which I rarely get to see anymore because it conflicts with something the rest of the family always wants to watch, is "TV Champions" ("Terebi Champion"). The easiest way to describe it is as a weekly competition between super artisans. Basically, they find the best people they can find in a particular trade, usually an art or craft, and they pit them against each other in a brutally demanding competition. The one thing I don't like about the show is that some of those fantastically talented individuals and their brilliant creations have to lose! I've always been a sucker for hand-made items, especially ones that show great talent and imagination on the part of the creator. This program caters directly to that love of mine.

Anyway, there were two artists up there, a man and a woman, who had both appeared on "TV Champions". The female artist, Azusa Kuwahara, had actually been the second-place finisher. I'd seen that particular contest on TV and remembered it to an extent; it had been for caricature drawing. Both artists have other lines (Azusa is both an illustrator and a model, while the man, Kazufumi Matsubara, makes impressive wall and ceiling murals often designed for black light viewing), but they and some other illustrators apparently formed a professional team called "Chef's" for booking and mutual support. (On the linked site, Azusa's sample collection is at the upper left, while Kazufumi's is to its immediate right.) One of the things they do is appear regularly on the Yokohama Landmark Tower observation deck doing caricature drawing. Needless to say, they're quite good at it, too. I couldn't resist. First I had Azusa draw the two kids. Then, while she was still at it, I had Kazufumi draw me and my wife. Both artists were really interesting individuals, and it was a lot of fun. Since it was a slow work day, i.e. we had been their only customers so far, they really gave us the works. My wife, who had been extremely reluctant at first, was finally so excited by it that she ran and got her parents to come and have their own caricature done. They weren't too sure about it, but they were also very happy with the outcome. As it turned out, we may have helped drum up business for them. A number of people who had come to watch us being drawn wound up having it done themselves. Anyway, the artists were great people, and it was a special honor to meet and have my picture drawn by skilled individuals who had competed...and placed...on "TV Champions"!

azusa caricature

Just for fun, here is the picture of my kids drawn by Azusa. I think she captured their personality perfectly!

kids n caric
(Here's a shot of the kids for comparison.)

kazufumi caricature
Here's the picture Kazufumi drew of me and my wife. This, friends, is a classic!

(Actually, the first time I had my caricature drawn by a pro was when I went to Hawaii in my school days. That caricature cost far more than this one and was nowhere near as good!)

Caricature kinen
I don't have the caricature Azusa drew of the in-laws, but here is a commemorative photo we took with the artist with my MIL holding the caricature. It's brilliant. I might also add that the artist is, well, rather tall... (Kazufumi was drawing someone else behind them at the time and couldn't be in the picture. A pity!)

We were all feeling pretty happy when we finally came down from the observation deck and had a very good, healthy buffet-style lunch. That had pretty much made the whole trip. After that we went back to the Landmark Tower mall, hit the bookstore and the Pokemon store, and then crowded into my BLUE RAV4 for the drive home. It was still rainy, but there was very little traffic, so it was a nice, easy drive home.

Yes, as a trip it was all kind of a pain in the posterior, but I think it was worth it. At the very least it was one to remember.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Completing Yet Another Cycle

You'd think at my age I'd have come to treat my birthday as a mournful if not frightful occasion. I haven't. Considering that I a.) refuse to let my age dictate my life and b.) am 100% opposed to the whole aging bit anyway, I still do my best to enjoy the anniversary of my having entered the world (feet first).

Not that they made it easy for me this year. As with everyone at Ye Olde Academy, I'm assigned "day duty" on at least three weekdays and one holiday each year. The holiday post means a full day of being cooped up in the main office keeping tabs on everything that goes on in our sprawling campus. The weekday assignment, on the other hand, doesn't really come into force until evening, when it entails shooing any remaining students out of the building and locking everything up for the night. It's not particularly difficult or unpleasant work, but it is kind of time consuming (since it's such a large and spread out campus). Wouldn't you know it, I got assigned "day duty" on my birthday. It wasn't so bad, though; it was a special work day, so there were no students there at all in the evening, and a group of teachers was going to be there late. I was able to complete the final patrol quickly, hand over the keys and logbook to the night owls, and shoot on out of there like a BLUE tornado.

Speaking of tornadoes, did I mention that weird storm that swept in on an otherwise calm, sunny day just before New Year's Eve? Seriously. It was sunny, then we heard a BOOM of thunder, then the sky turned BLACK. Not long after that the wind suddenly picked up...a lot. The center of the storm included a funnel-shaped cloud that was most definitely spinning, though it thankfully never made it to the ground. The hail that followed in its wake did, though. It was sunny again just over an hour later. That was spooky.

But I digress. I hurried home (within the legal limit, of course), ran inside the house, and this is what I saw:

2008 Happy Birthday

...and the Japanese version...

2008 Otanjoji omedetou

Needless to say, my daughter really knocked herself out. (Unfortunately, she used double-sided tape, so cleanup was a bit of a bother, but oh well.)

My wife came home late from work, as usual, so she bought a cake from the bakery instead of making one. This is what it looked like:

2008 birthday cake

I really have to wonder about this. She says she forgot my age, and that's why she supplemented the numerical candles with a couple of regular ones to make the total correct.

2008 birthday cake II

My wife forgot my age?

Dinner was definitely a feast. The main course was baked salmon, and my wife got a really big, high-quality fish. It was total nummers. This was paired with mashed potatoes (a rare treat for me here!) and bread plus a number of more conventional Japanese dishes (to make the in-laws happy). It was great! It was like Christmas or Thanksgiving all over again, only different. I only regret that I didn't think to take a picture of it.

As for my birthday presents, it was a rather interesting combination. My in-laws kept it practical, giving me basically one day's full set of clothes. One of my longtime blog friends sent me what should have been a lovely gift, but it unfortunately didn't survive the trip. (Thank you very much anyway! You know who you are!) Other than that, this is mainly what I got from my wife and kids:

2008 B-day presents 1

Do you see any kind of pattern here, perhaps?

2008 B-day presents 2

Then there's this wonderfully cosmopolitan collection: cheddar cheese from New Zealand, cappuccino liqueur cake and paté from Germany, chocolate fondue from Belgium, a dark Toblerone bar from Switzerland, two different kinds of Tim-Tam chocolate cookies from Australia, and anti-perspirant from the U.S.A.. (??)

(Let's all sing: One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong. Can you guess which thing is not like the others before I finish my song? Actually, I requested the American anti-perspirant, and it was from my parents...along with a hackey-sack and bottle opener in my college colors. Maybe that's a hint that I need to party more.)

I think it all did the job just fine. So the cosmos has suffered my presence for one more year without any supernovae or spontaneous black holes forming nearby. Hopefully the next year will be at least as good if not better.

But I still refuse to grow up. If you saw the way men my age tend to act in this country you'd probably understand why. No thanks.

(Er...did I say "nummers" a bit ago?)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Sheltered Society: A Holiday Catch-22


Ya wanna be let in on a delicious, dark secret?

I just heard about a really cool website. Apparently lots of people have been going there. According to its counter it has gotten tens of thousands of hits. It's a photo site. It has lots of cool pics. Pics of teens, to be exact.

Do you know what those teens are doing? (evil grin)

Having lunch. Cleaning the classroom. Doing afterschool extracurricular activities. All fully clothed, of course.

Yes, I know. That was my reaction, too. But judging from the tone of voice of the speaker and the sudden, shocked hush of the people at the meeting, you'd think it was the greatest scandal in the history of teenagers.

My, god...they posted cell phone pictures of each other on the internet having LUNCH!!!! OOOOOH!!!! SOCIETY IS DOOOOOOOMED!!!!!!


Actually, the offending website has been shut down and the culprits are being punished, but they're still making a really huge deal out of it.

Yes, that's the paranoid and privacy-obsessed society we live in now. It's the society in which one of my coworkers is STILL apparently sore at me because two years ago I posted on this blog a picture of her standing next to an Australian policeman. It's the society in which I was told I could be sued because I also posted a (very positive) picture of a student tutoring a child with no names mentioned, but the (kanji) school logo could be seen on her clothing. (Both photos, as well as others, have long since been removed from this site.)

It's the society in which, thanks to this privacy witch-hunt, paramedics, hospital emergency centers, and the police have found their work hampered because they no longer have emergency access to people's health or personal records without their expressed permission...which is kind of difficult when they're unconscious or missing. Services for helping people track down estranged parents, siblings, or other relatives are no longer able to function.

It's also the society in which I'm supposed to send nengajo (New Year cards) to everyone I know and o-seibo (year-end gift) to the people who have helped me the most, but I can't track most of them down because our school no longer gives us a staff directory, and even the phone book white pages no longer include personal phone numbers. Certified deliverers do have access to online directory assistance, but apparently the default is for your address NOT to be listed unless you give permission. Needless to say, it was a very frustrating New Year for me in that regard.

However, I can see the other side of the story. Stories of teachers being attacked by students have never been all that uncommon here, but recently I've been hearing more and more about teachers being sought out and harassed if not parents. We also hear of people tracking down people they've met on online chat sites and causing problems. Although not directly related, the sad fact of schools being turned into walled fortresses in recent years because of teens who can't handle stress, twisted geeks with pedophilic fantasies, and chronically dirty old men with nothing better to do than try to molest little girls are all indicative of a society that has completely lost its moral compass. People not only have privatensphären, more and more they are living in their own, enclosed glass bubbles, buried in their cell phone worlds, shutting out the people around them, living in fear and contempt of their neighbors.

But that only serves to make the problem worse. When you don't need other people, other people cease to matter. If other people don't matter, there's no reason to have any regard for them. If you have no regard for other people, there's no respect for life or property. If there's no respect for life or property, everyone around you becomes either competition or prey.

In short, when people become too obsessed with their privacy, too wrapped up in themselves, civilization falls apart. For all we know it may have already crumbled beyond repair. While developing countries continue to breed and grow, the developed world launches itself headlong into cell-phone self-destruction.

Oh, and by the way: in my own school days a community newsletter publicized a picture of me playing my sax at a school event wearing a very bizarre costume. In fact, now that I think about it, another community publication printed a pic of me and my friends eating LUNCH!!!!

Know what? It didn't bother me at all.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

It May Be My Problem, But It's YOUR (re)Solution!

This morning's newspaper featured an old Calvin & Hobbes comic strip dating from 1988. In it Hobbes asks Calvin about his New Year resolutions, and Calvin replies by going into a fussy fit, insisting that he's perfect the way he is and insisting that it's "high time" everyone else changed to suit him. (In the last panel of the strip, Hobbes observes that his own resolution, that of trying to feel better about human nature, was clearly mistaken.)

That got me thinking. [RED ALERT]

I didn't make any formal New Year resolution this year. I usually don't. Instead, I just try to treat the new year as a new beginning and hope I'll get it right this time. If I don't, I (hopefully) know what to do...or not do...when the next year rolls around. But what if I do like Calvin and insist that other people make resolutions to help make my world a better place? Would that be called a passive resolution? Or perhaps a causative one? At any rate, my causative resolutions for 2008 would probably be:

To students on bikes and to families in shopping malls - If you must go slow, don't go abreast. If you must go abreast, don't go slow.

To drivers of light utility trucks out on the road during commuting hours - Figure out that there is a reason all those cars are stacking up behind you. Find the empathy to understand that, unlike you, they don't have all day. Realize that your vehicle is perfectly capable of moving at least the speed limit if not the legally allowed ten clicks over (or unofficially allowed twenty clicks over).

To middle aged and elderly ladies - Remember that roads, sidewalks, and hallways are there for people to move on. There's plenty of room for your conference off to the side.

To people annoyed by the above - If we start ramming slow-moving, side-by-side pedestrians or cyclists, running slowpoke light trucks off the road, or plowing our way through those cackle-sessions in the middle of the road, they just might actually get the idea.

To Japanese TV Companies - Realize that just because a certain TV personality is popular right now doesn't mean he or she has to be on every f*****g program. Understand that TV personalities with only one shtick, such as one memorable song/dance routine or one notable physical attribute (or deformity), are only interesting for the first few viewings. Try to make documentaries or event-oriented telecasts actually focus on the content instead of the inane prattle of the totally unnecessary celebrity guests....especially if it means those same few "in" personalities doing those same, nauseatingly hackneyed shticks AGAIN!

To the Japanese TV-viewing public - If you'd actually pick TV programs for their content from time to time instead of just flipping to wherever the supposedly "in" personality happens to be at the time, TV programs might actually offer content from time to time! (Yes, some of us actually DID turn on the opening ceremony of the last Olympics hoping to see said ceremony, not the celebrity morons' brainless chattering that we got instead. PLEASE don't do that to us again in Beijing this year!!!)

To Japanese women (and a lot of men) - Realize that your natural hair color isn't necessarily evil, but the weird shades you often insist on dyeing it with sometimes are.

To Japanese girls and young women - Short shorts or miniskirts and bare legs may be considered sexy, but when it's near freezing outside they also make you look terribly stupid (and are probably wreaking havoc with your health).

To gas stations
- You know perfectly well that a rise in the price of crude oil won't affect you directly for quite some time. Realize that jacking up your gas prices as soon as the news breaks only encourages people to drive less...or slower...or buy hybrids or much smaller cars.

To manufacturers in general - Stop canceling products as soon as I come to like them.

To the lawmakers and law enforcers - Understand that a law is meaningless if you have no intention of enforcing it. Understand that law enforcement is meaningless if you have no intention of acknowledging the law. Understand that the public will ignore laws and law enforcement if both appear irrelevant.

To the Japanese government - Try very hard to use some basic logic. Dealing with the problem of falling revenue as a result of slumping consumer spending by doubling if not tripling the consumption tax (which will probably cause spending to slump even more) is SHODDY ARITHMETIC. Complaining about the quality of schools, teachers, modern curriculum, and children's academic ability while talking about slashing education subsidies is SHODDY ARITHMETIC. Publicly supporting the "War on Terror" and calling for more measures to protect the nation and its interests from terrorism (including more draconian security measures and clamping down on free speech) while calling it "illegal" and "embarrassing" to provide non-combat assistance to coalition forces or reconstruction efforts is SHODDY ARITHMETIC.

To the parents of certain students - The Ministry of Technology and Education has once again made it officially mandated policy that disruptive and/or troublesome students be removed from class so as not to infringe on the rights of the other kids. That means you gave us the right to do the same with your brat precious snowflake when you signed on the dotted line. Now shut the f*** up and deal with it.

To certain coworkers of mine - Congratulations on earning a bit of authority. Now try to earn and maintain some respect by not abusing your position or letting it go to your head.

To practicers of any religion - May your faith grow even stronger and give you both peace of mind and a better life (or afterlife)...but I don't need it shoved it down my throat, and neither does anyone else. Also, don't start killing people for your god until He or She can come and vouch for you in person.

To practicers of non-religion - More or less same as above. And leave our beloved traditions alone.

To people who whine on their blogs - Never mind. :-[

To people in general - Can't we all just get along and get a life?

Happy New Year, everybody (even if I said it before)!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Ringing In the Year of the Rat or Landing with a Dull Thud?

So, how did you ring in the new year?

As I've already said many times on this blog over the years, the New Year festivities are the largest and most significant in Japan and most of Eastern Asia, easily the equivalent of Christmas in the West. So how, you might ask, did I celebrate the arrival of 2008, the Year of the Rat, with my family? (And even if you DON'T ask, I'm still going to tell you, so put a cork in it!)

Well, the New Year season in Japan always starts with a massive bout of house cleaning and redecorating so that each household can start the new year fresh. It usually takes several days. I had originally been scheduled to head down to Tokyo for the 29th and 30th of December so I could do some studio session work for a friend. That wound up being canceled as a result of the recording engineer's untimely catching of the flu. In all honesty, it was probably a very good thing. You see, over the past few years our New Year cleaning always got disrupted by either my wife's tennis club coaching, preparation for the construction we had done on our house, or a combination of the two. When we started this year's work, we moved some furniture away from the walls and found what must have been several years' worth of accumulated dust and debris. We also found a lot of old clothes and things that had been rendered useless long ago. Needless to say, we tore into the cleaning with a passion, and we left the house more sparkling and better smelling than it has in ages. Had I actually gone to Tokyo to do the recording, my wife and kids would never have gotten it all done. I'll put it down as a case of good fortune (with deep apologies to the fever-stricken recording engineer!).

I don't know what it is about a newly spic and span house, but it always just feels better inside. The vibes just feel more pleasant. Is it just purer air, or are the spirits happier? I dunno...

The 31st finally rolled around, and (while the kids and I continued with the cleaning) my wife spent pretty much the whole day making o-seichi ryori, or a traditional New Year feast. O-seichi ryori usually consists of a variety of dishes, most based on winter vegetables and seafood, placed in stacked and/or interlocking lacquerware dishes. They are then eaten little by little over the three days of the New Year season. Sadly, it's yet another tradition of the Land of the Rising Sun that seems to be fading. It used to be that the women of every family spent all day on the 31st preparing it. Now more and more families are either ordering out for it or simply doing without it altogether. Not us. My mother-in-law has always had a ball preparing o-seichi ryori every year, preferably with my wife and daughter's help, and it has always been a matter of great pride for her. This year, however, out of concern for her mother's delicate health, my wife declared that she was going to do it all by herself for the first time ever. In fact, she insisted on doing it without any help. She knocked herself out for it, and she really did a good job.

Here are some of the o-seichi dishes that my wife prepared this year. There were a LOT more.

As it turned out, however, my mother-in-law (as usual) didn't pay the slightest attention to anything anyone said, and she went ahead and made some o-seichi dishes of her own. To add insult to injury, some (rich) friends of my in-laws' (read "people whose arses they have been shamelessly kissing for the past several years so as to milk them for favors later") gave them some boxes of obviously rather expensive, catered o-seichi food.

Needless to say, my wife's o-seichi efforts wound up being largely wasted, but we still enjoyed them.

New Year's Eve here is far from the explosive revelry it is in the West. It's a much more muted and serious affair. The TV media heralded the countdown to midnight, not with screaming crowds, fireworks, and lighted balls, but with scenes of bells being rung at temples across the country. Buddhist temple bells have such a mysterious, hypnotic sound. It's not one of jubilation, it's one of meditation or even mourning. The sound heralds a death and rebirth as the old year passes into the new. After midnight, representatives of each household (my in-laws, in our case) go to the local Shinto shrine to make offerings to the local guardian spirits.

My wife and I celebrated the coming of the New Year by quietly enjoying the "feast" we had intended to have on Christmas Eve but hadn't: caviar, salmon pâté (great stuff!), cheese, Ritz crackers, and sparkling wine. It was low key, but it was warm and intimate. (Unfortunately, my wife, having zero tolerance for alcohol, wound up plopping right off to sleep. Oh, well...)

The next morning we got the whole family together for the first New Year greeting, a toast with sake (rice wine), and a breakfast of o-seichi. Then I was off to an annual duty of mine that I wound up shouldering when I moved here: the New Year's Day meeting of the Neighborhood Association (brash but off-key fanfare). It's a gathering of male representatives from every household in our neighborhood (kind of like a Homeowners' Association, but with more camaraderie and less bullshit). Actually, the meeting part occupies only a very small percentage of the thing. Basically the new chairman and his assistants give a greeting, name their staff for the year, go over the money balance for the previous year, and then offer a toast before the whole thing dissolves into drunken male bonding. Unfortunately, boat-rocking gaijin that I am, I noticed a very obvious flaw in the money balance and actually pointed it out (diminished 7th chord), delaying things while the staff frantically double-checked the bank records, found the trouble, and then apologized to everyone in turn. Fortunately, most of the representatives being laid-back farmers who'd rather just wave it off anyway, it all came to an only slightly uncomfortable end, and the drinking quickly got underway.

A number of years ago, when I was still fairly new in this neighborhood, I unfortunately managed to establish a reputation for myself at the New Year Neighborhood Association Meeting that I'll probably never live down. You see, I'd always thought it sad that most of the participants drank beer, meaning all that rice wine gifted by households and the city government was going to waste. I'd decided to join in the rice wine drinking, which delighted the old men considerably. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that rice wine is a bit stronger than regular wine and a lot stronger than beer. I also allowed someone to slip some shochu (the Japanese equivalent of schnapps) into my cup and slogged it down without knowing any better. That year I wound up being carried home from the meeting by a couple of neighbors, spent half the day making sacrifices at the porcelain altar, and finally woke up at 9:00 that night not knowing where I was. A number of years have passed since then, but I still have an indelible reputation of being a heavy drinker. Not only that, but every year since then I've tended to get constantly badgered to drink more, the old men urging me to do the rice wine thing again, and the younger men teasing me with the shochu (which I avoid like the plague). As it turned out, my body came to my rescue. After only a few glasses of beer my head started pounding (probably because of the champagne the night before and the rice wine that morning) and my stomach went into violent acid reflux (probably because of overeating of my wife's o-seichi...not to mention all that salmon pâté and cheese the night before). I finally wound up leaving the drunken bash meeting a bit early over the protests of my neighbors, many if not most of whom are cousins-in-law. I felt bad about that, but I then spent all day in bed feeling a lot worse while my wife and the kids had a ball hitting the New Year sales at our favorite shopping malls. The nasty feeling continued well into evening, and my soba dinner wound up returning like an unwanted Christmas present.

I felt much better today (the 2nd), so I and my wife and kids did the hatsumode thing, that is, a visit to a shrine or temple to pray for the new year. As usual, we went to Kashima Shrine, since it is the most significant shrine in the area and kind of like an old friend. We said our prayers, bought our good luck charms, and tried the o-mikuji, or fortune drawing. My daughter drew dai-kichi ("greatly good fortune"), the most favorable result, for the third year in a row. My wife and son both drew kichi ("good fortune"), a favorable result, the second year in a row for my son and the first time in years for my wife. As for me, I drew han-kichi ("half good fortune"), with the fine print saying specifically that I would have success in the coming year, but only after a lot of difficulty. (Hmph. That seems to be the story of my life these days, but at least success is a good thing, right?) After that we spent the day running around Kashima a bit before coming home and having...(wait for it)...o-seichi and homemade gyoza for dinner.

Yes, it has been a quietly eventful New Year season so far. I just hope my poor stomach holds out till the end.

Happy Year of the Rat, everybody!