Monday, July 29, 2013

A smoky nation

   One of the risks of line drying your laundry in Japan is that sometimes when you take it down, it smells like smoke. That's because people in the countryside love to burn little piles of weeds in their yards. I assume that's what they're doing, anyway. All I know is that I often see little fires burning in people's yards.

    Japan is also more liberal with smoking. There's a smoking section in every cafe and restuarant. And in bars or izakayas, the smoking section is usually just the whole bar. One exception is Starbucks, where smoking is banned inside, period. They post a polite little sign outside saying that they don't want the smoke to interfere with the enjoyment of coffee. Other exceptions are McDonald's and KFC. Notice a pattern?

    So often when I come home after I've eaten out or even just wandered around a city, I'll notice that my hair and clothes smell like smoke. 

    Sometimes I see these whacky posters which I guess are supposed to be part of an anti-smiking campaign. In the US, anti-smoking campaigns usually tell you about how you'll get lung cancer and die an ugly death, but the Japanese posters take a more subtle approach.

   I love how these posters always have perfect English. Clearly they hired a native speaker to translate them. I think I should have that job.
   If you want to see more of these hilarious posters, google "japan tobacco posters."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

You can see it in their eyes

   Sometimes my students ask me why I wear glasses.

   At first I didn't understand the question. They had classmates who wore glasses. Surely they knew that some people have bad eyesight.  But then I started asking around and discovered that a lot of people in Japan choose to wear contacts because they don't like the look of glasses. I guess hipsters haven't convinced everyone how cool they are yet.

   I blame this on Japanese tv shows. Usually when characters wear glasses, they're either evil or dorky. If they're dorky, someone eventually makes them take off their glasses and their eyes get ten times bigger and then everyone realizes that they're pretty. And then they finally find someone to marry and they never wear glasses again. Cause that's how things work. If they're evil, their glasses will often glow opaque as they plot and scheme. You can't see their eyes so you know they're evil. Often they'll menacingly adjust their glasses while they're calmly explaining how they are going to murder everyone.

   My glasses usually start to glow evilly when I'm scheming, too. Such a give away.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Castle in the Sky

   This weekend I visited a nearby city with a friend. Compared to other cities I've visited, it was a ghost town. It seemed less cared for, and the streets were emptier. The stores that were open had an old-timey air.

   We visited the castle -- most major cities seem to have one. The castle was at the top of a mountain on the edge of the city. When we arrived at the park at the base of the mountain, we walked past an unattended bicycle holding four bunnies in two baskets over the front wheel. The rabbits were panting in the heat, and their owner was nowhere in sight. I felt pretty bad for them. 

   We took the gondola up the mountain because we read that the hike to the top usually takes an hour, and it was in the nineties that day.  When we got off, we still had a bit of a hike to the castle.

   I've only been to two castles in Japan, but I'm pretty sure the insides of them are always mini-museums. They don't try to preserve the castles as they were so that you can see how powerful sociopaths lived back in the day. But we did get to see some cool weapons, including these ninja throwing stars. I was never really convinced those actually existed until I saw them on display in this castle. 

The top floor of the castle was ringed by a balcony, so that you could see in all directions. 

   You might notice all the crows hanging out on that metal contraption. Crows in Japan are ridiculously big. One time at school I heard what I thought was an angry old man shouting "baka! baka!" (idiot, idiot!) over and over, but when I looked out the window it was just a crow.

   We decided to hike down the mountain because the gondola ride was really expensive. I've been hiking in America a few times, but this was hiking on a whole new level. We asked around for the easiest trail, and its entrance didn't look too daunting. But all too soon, we encountered this:

   That's the trail. A craggy waterfall of rocks, some of which were loose, and all covered in plenty of dead leaves to trip on.  It was a lot of fun, but it probably would have been easier to climb up, since we could have just gone on all fours.

   As we descended, a few ojisans (old guys) casually strolled past us, going twice our speed. Then a family passed us by. The youngest daughter hopped, skipped, and jumped her way down, while her father half-heartedly warned, "That way's dangerous, walk on this side," and the mom and older daughter ignored the dad and followed the crazy little girl.

   It took us about an hour to get to the bottom. If we were Japanese I guess it only would have taken us half an hour. Later I read about it on Wikipedia. Apparently we walked down the trail that Kindergarteners take when they visit the castle on school trips.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A stranger in a strange land

   The rainy season ended in a bout of thunderstorms. Now that the skies have cleared, the temperature has risen. It was body temperature today. My head felt like a baked potato.

   This weekend a friend drove me around. We stopped at a rest area near this awesome dam. The area I live in (and maybe most of Japan?) has a lot of rivers and streams. In fact, there's a small dam on the river behind my apartment, a couple miles to the east of where I live. But this dam was huge. We drove up winding mountain roads that gradually climbed until finally we crossed this ridiculously high bridge spanning the distance between two mountain peaks. Way below us, tiny villages ran between the mountains like streams.

   I've been hanging out with some local foreigners lately. I've noticed that other foreigners are pretty easy to befriend here in Japan. People make plans more quickly, offer help easily, and are more inclusive. People offer you rides, ask to do things with you, and even offer to let you crash at their place - and they don't wait until they've known you a while. They do it the first or second time they meet you.
   Part of it is that they want to speak their native language and be with people who share their own culture and values. Another reason is that foreigners in Japan, especially ones in the countryside, tend to be a pretty lonely bunch. Japanese people are often kind and almost always polite, but as a group they are pretty reserved. And for foreigners with limited Japanese skills, it's even more difficult to build a social life.

    As someone who's pretty reserved myself, it's an interesting experience. I've become more forward about befriending Japanese people, too. It's fun. It's made me realize that you don't have to have known someone for a long time to have an adventure together. Other people are interesting.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Peeled plums

   Every day during school lunch, a few of the students announce the menu over the school intercoms. They usually add something about how the food is made, or why it's eaten at this time of year, or how it got its name. These announcements are an important part of school lunch, because the kids are supposed to be learning about what makes up a balanced, healthy meal. The other day, we had plums on the menu, so in the announcement, they talked up how delicious and wonderful plums were. They also informed us that you can eat the skin on a plum, and in fact, you should, because it's very nutritious. 
   The room was immediately filled with shocked teachers saying, "Really?? You can eat the skin??" One of them had already started peeling his, and he dutifully stopped and ate it whole. 

   Meanwhile, I was making a mental note. 
   Fermented soybeans: Yes, please!
   Fish heads: Oh boy, they look delicious!
   The skin of a plum: I don't know man, are you sure?


   There are some nice things about living alone. But there are also some downsides. For example, I discovered that I am incapable of finishing a pint of milk on my own before it goes bad, unless I really put my mind to it. A pint! It's not that much milk. Of course, the real tragedy is that it's not even milk I want to drink. I'd rather buy cream, because the only time I use milk is when I make coffee or curry, and cream would do a much better job in both cases. But in Japan, you can't find cream. They do sell whipping cream, but nothing in between. Whipping cream doesn't taste that great in coffee.

   When you live with other people, food builds up. People buy things and don't eat them, and then days or weeks later, someone else enjoys them. You have stocks of spices, soups, and broths, and you always have a bag of onions lying around. I tried buying a bag of onions. I used two of them and the rest slowly molded until I finally threw them out.
   On the plus side, if there was ever a country to do grocery shopping for one in, it's Japan. You can buy tiny portions of just about anything. They sell eggs in packs of four, six, and ten. You can buy anywhere from 3-8 slices of bread. (Not more though. They don't eat that much bread, I guess). You can buy bunches of six asparagus stems, a single pepper neatly packaged in its own plastic bag, or a couple of ounces of chicken, already cut up into bite sized pieces. I don't know if they just don't eat a lot of the things I like to eat, or if most people only cook for themselves.