Friday, March 23, 2007

What's in a Name?

At some point in the early stages of modernizing a certain fishing town, which was faced with a growing population and the subsequent needs produced, new school buildings were built and brought under the overarching umbrella of a branch in the city government known as the Board of Education (BOE). Those of the elementary and high school variety were given names deemed appropriate to their location or specialty. The business of naming junior high schools, on the other hand, must have been presented at the end of a long and tiring day consisting of too many dissenting opinions, too many bottles of tea consumed, and the rapid approach of the hour designated for the year-end company party.

At least, this is what I imagine whenever I am, in response to a polite inquiry, obligated to list three out of the eight schools my husband teaches at; 5-chu, 7-chu, 8-chu, using the respective Japanese pronunciations for the numbers.

In English this would translate roughly into “Junior highs five, seven, and eight”.

The buildings are depressing enough from the outside, with the cold, somber concrete walls, dirt lots and overall feel of a prison building rather than an institution of education. It seems a shame to not even have a unique name to boast of.

Now, I know the buildings themselves are not a result of the thinly-stretched budget of a city in the throes of its twilight years, but are rather a recognizable standard throughout the country. What I wonder is if they too, are known only as a number in their respective municipalities.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Time Has Come

I had been dreading this day for quite a while. Although I couldn’t accurately predict when the inevitable would take place, there was no denying that every week brought it one step closer. And then it happened… the ATM spit out the bankbook with a whirr of distaste, refusing to have anything further to do with my well-worn companion.

We’d been together ever since that sweltering August day a year and a half ago when I gingerly pulled it out of its plastic sleeve to give it a good look over. I suppose it was inevitable that we would bond- it essentially replaced my checkbook and would serve as the only record of the electronic transactions that happened on a monthly basis in the interest of keeping things like water and electricity flowing.

Every week we would make our way to the bank and go through the same routine of withdrawing money and updating its records (which happened automatically through the magic of ATM printing). It witnessed my transition from an awkward foreigner staring blankly at the kanji-ridden screen trying to match symbols with a hastily scrawled diagram to a confident resident able to breeze in and out of the building in 30 seconds or less. It patiently endured squinting scrutiny in my efforts to decipher the lines of kanji and kana that indicated what company had withdrawn what sum of money. It even held its tongue the time I pretended to be my husband in order to take care of some technical hold-up regarding a funds transfer into (as opposed to from) our account.

Thus it was with a sigh as these memories flooded my mind that I packed up my things and slowly approached one of the two staff members standing by. Both seemed slightly disgruntled, so I aligned my path with the one who still had a spark of energy in her eyes. After taking a moment to summon my courage and give a slight apologetic head bow, I told her my dilemma.

The relief on her face was almost palpable at the immediate understanding of my situation, which prompted a small grin of my own to appear. With surprisingly little thought or practice beforehand I had spoken in clear Japanese, a far cry from last year’s experience at the post office. Five minutes of standing in front of a large machine later saw me in possession of a crisp new bankbook, as well as the old faithful one, now with a hole punched in its corner announcing its retirement.

Truly, it couldn’t have given me a better farewell gift than a chance to clearly see the progress I’ve made in my language acquisition. While still miles away from proficient, or even passable, I know the next time I come across the “How well can you speak Japanese” question on a form, I can confidently fill in the bubble meaning “I know enough to get by”.

And so I smile as I gently tuck its faded yellow visage away in my folder of “Things to Take Home”, basking in one last warm memory from an old friend.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

KAT- Matsudo

(Second entry in the KAT series)
Let us not speak of the train rides. They were wholly uninteresting, except for the remarkable lack of people crushing themselves into the cars due to our trip falling in the middle of Obon.

Let us speak instead about the wonders of giant robot heads… because that’s what we saw at the Bandai Museum in Matsudo. For you toy fanatics out there who’d like a more in-depth description of the tour and pretty pictures, this site does a great job of stirring up the collector within you. For the rest of us, a little excerpt about our 2 hour stop:

Hazy daylight strikes my eyes upon our emergence from the JR station, and we cross the pedestrian bridge to the four-story shrine celebrating all that is Bandai. As my mind races to resolve the shapes meandering in front of me against a painfully bright backdrop, a part of it is filled with visions of an almost deserted building during the stretch of summer days set aside to honor the spirits of the dead. This vision is abruptly dashed as we stumble across the line of families, couples, and more families snaking away from the entrance. The museum isn’t open yet, and only 30 lucky souls get to stand in the air-conditioned lobby as we all wait the last 15 minutes before the stroke of ten peals across the city.

There are even attendants herding people to the appropriate areas depending on one’s destination. For those who wish to bypass the museum and go straight to the store filled with Bandai goodness, by all means, make your way there. For the rest of us who will only spend the pittance it costs to enter the Gundam universe, enjoy the humidity. It’s good for the skin. After a couple minutes of confused meandering, we finally discover which line we want to be in. It’s the long one with all the children.


We spend the rest of the wait zoning out and wondering at the architectural genius who built the room we’re standing in. We’ve made it into the museum itself, but it only stands to reason there’s a line within a line to get into the actual area we have a mind to visit. There were no lines for Character World, oh no. Everyone wants to stare at the big Zaku head and life-size (which means it’s at least two stories tall) Gundam robot instead.

It’s quite a sight, so I can’t blame them.

So here we are, in a deceptively small room, all black except for a couple screens talking about (what else?) Gundams and the brightly uniformed Bandai attendant taking tickets and handing out a check-point sheet of sorts. At first glance the line looks to be no more than twenty people. Then you reach a corner that, instead of being solid, opens into a long corridor that unmasks the other 3/4ths of humanity awaiting their turn to walk through the impressive metal doors that lead to the museum itself.

If we all rushed the attendant at once, we would be as unstoppable as water flowing through a crack in the Hoover Dam.

Somehow, I don’t think the parents tenderly cradling their sleeping infant while avidly reading descriptive plaques on the wall are up to the task. Watching them makes me wonder if they’ve set their daughter on the path of robot adoration, indifference, or active dislike. She’s pretty zonked out… probably won’t remember a thing.

At last, we’re in! This is what greets us:

Kudos to Ash for taking such an impressive shot in dismal lighting conditions.

Now it’s just a matter of skillfully weaving through the crowd and seeing what there is to see...”

And see we did, everything from the history of the Gundam universe to a room I have nicknamed “The Black Hole”. It’s a place designed to rapidly, and rather unfairly, deplete your yen through cunningly devised activities while the imposing yellow eyes of the giant 1:1 scale Gundam look on. Rip-off booths aside, it was a good time, which I think has to be partly attributed to all the little kiddies running around with unfettered energy and enthusiasm. It’s infectious, you know?

We were ready for lunch at my favorite bakery in Ueno by the time we emerged, and then it was off to a popular part of Tokyo known as Odaiba.

Monday, August 14, 2006

KAT- The Beginning

(First entry in the KAT "Kickin' Around Tokyo" series)
As we peeked outside in the pre-dawn hours, it became painfully obvious that the low-hanging clouds had no intention of letting even the tiniest bit of sunshine filter through their ranks. This did not bode well for our plans to visit the seaside, photogenic town of Kamakura. We were bound by our hotel reservation to make it to Tokyo, but the two hours of travel beyond that didn’t seem quite so worthwhile as it did a few days ago, being the kind of place that should be seen in the company of blue skies and minus the threat of intense rain showers (considering all the notable places to visit are outside).

For a couple (mostly my husband) that carefully lays out sightseeing plans in order to make the most of the time spent out and about, the unfavorable conditions posed a real dilemma. There were too many other places on our list of “Things to See” in Japan to warrant a second visit, so if we followed through now, we would most likely not make it back.

Then it dawned on us. We were going to Tokyo, the urban playground of Japan. Instead of going through it and southward, why not just hop around to the locations we’ve wanted to check out for a while now anyway? We wouldn’t be nearly as exposed to the raw elements as we hopped from one soaring building to the next…

Or so we thought.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Check it out!

It was bound to happen of course, but now it's official- the splitting of my time between two blogs. Right now you may be thinking, "Great... sooo, I should expect an update here about every 6 months?" A valid point, but first I urge you to hop on over and check it out anyway.

Truth be told (for reasons described in its inaugural post), blog 2 will probably get updated more frequently, although more thought will be put into posts here. In the meantime, both will march on to the beat of Taico drums.

This will also be the last news-ish post I'll put on this site, if I can at all help it.

With all that said, stay cool! Please, please stay cool... cause it's physically impossible over here, and if you don't take the burden upon yourselves, who will?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A Photo of a Photo of a Mirror

For the first time this year, I went for a walk without my coat! My original mission was to sneak close to the wall of a neighboring home and snap some close-up pictures of the cherry tree as its blossoms waned. This soon changed into snapping photos of random things. What can I say, I'm that kind of photographer.

This mirror is what's supposed to be utilized by the drivers that roar down our narrow street to look around blind corners. In reality, it only gives false security that if there is a car you're about to crash into coming around the bend, you might be able to avoid it. The high wall in the mirror, which fences in the mega-huge nice house I wish we lived in because it has a balcony that faces the sun for the purpose of drying clothes in this dryer-less society (we'd be happy for just a corner! They'd never know we were there...), is typical of what lines most Japanese streets. There's no curb, nowhere to swerve to avoid disaster really, just a choice between crashing into the wall or crashing into the thing you were trying to avoid in the first place. This would also explain why, when people pull off and park on the side of the road, they in essence block that lane of traffic...

But I digress. This particular mirror is useless, since nobody uses the adjacent road to turn onto ours. Ironically, it is one of the better placed ones, being placed at a good angle for decent sightlines. Some I've seen are positioned so badly that you'd be no worse off if it didn't exist at all and had to deal with the blind corners alone. These are also the intersections where I've seen quite a few accidents and shattered glass & tail lights on the road while riding my bike.

That figure in the distance is a distorted picture of me taking this picture. I just happen to be wearing a turtleneck the pale color the cherry blossoms blush in their prime, which seems fitting considering we have both opened our arms to embrace the warmth of springtime.

I know what you're thinking. It doesn't matter what anyone says; it's not pink. Cause, you know, I don't do pink. But I DO do Korea, and that's where my dear husband and I are headed in a few short hours! We'll be gone for the rest of the week, so posts will begin again sometime after that.

Have a great Golden Week!

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Pity the Japanese Comedian

Or rather, pity the thirty-five Japanese comedians Ash & I were watching on TV last week. All those gathered were men decked out in jump suits and helmets, ready to begin a race. The course seemed simple enough, even mundane; with ropes on either side of the path laid out, a couple twists and turns, and a long flat stretch that eventually began a relatively steep ascent. A banner declaring “Goal!!” was at the crest of the hill, the sight of which was unhindered and would serve to encourage stragglers onwards. The overall time was unimportant, for the only goal was to finish. The men readied themselves. A gun sounded, and they were off, jogging easily and remaining in a pack. The poor chumps didn’t have a clue of what was in store.

Thirty seconds into the race another gun sounded, and from the starting line raced the first hazard of the course: women. Women comedians, to be exact, along with some men who were dressed up as women (which seems to be a favorite comic element among comedian groups) shot through the course and quickly caught up with the pack. What followed could only be described as an onslaught: the women tackled any man they could find and planted themselves on top, tormenting with slaps or kisses calculated to make even the strongest warrior shiver. Those who escaped their wiles desperately increased their speed and ran as fast as they could forward, until an invisible boundary was crossed and the women followed them no more. Seven men had been lost, and the remaining pack members milled around, composing themselves before starting once again towards the goal while nervously glancing behind their shoulders.

Before long the bang of a gun was heard once more, and the pack quickened their pace in an attempt to avoid whatever had been just released. Their efforts were in vain, for what pursued them this time was giant and menacing; indeed, each stride of its long legs made up six of an ordinary man’s. Within moments it came upon the pack, where the members of which turned around and could only gape soundlessly. It looked like a man, only in a suit of red and with a fake-as-fake can be white beard.

In fact, it was a man. On stilts. Wielding a giant sword, with which he proceeded to whomp on the runners mercilessly and with impressive balance. The hilarity that ensued was extraordinary, with the poor harried men running wildly about, ducking the sword, dodging the stilted man’s legs as well as each other, sprinting out of the way only to realize they’d backtracked and having to turn around and run the gauntlet once more. Amazingly enough, only five men were lost this time around, and the rest continued on.

Just as the runners began to relax, the dreaded bang of their impending doom again rode upon the wind. Six blurs tore around the track, followed by a cloud of black-clad stagehands racing to keep up. The course-planners had unleashed their ultimate weapon: kick-boxers.

Overtaking their prey, the kick-boxers proceeded to do what they do best. It was really more of a slaughter than a fight, for as the stagehands caught up, five or six of them would quickly lay hands on any runner they could find, and the kick boxers would then plant a good hard wallop on their trembling rear end, causing the runner to collapse on the ground and roll around, yelling with pain and indignity.

Only a shade more than ten runners made it out of that trap intact, but lo and behold, they were almost upon the finish line! The banner fluttered in the wind invitingly and the comedians, with hope shining from their faces, began to trudge up the hill towards victory and freedom. Just as they crested the top… the banner began to move. Before long it was clear that it had been mounted on a huge dump truck, the back end of which was beginning to tilt, soon releasing the final bane: big black cannonballs. As high as a man, they tumbled down the hill with increasing speed, bowling runners over and smacking into those already laid prone.

This time the comedians left standing turned and helped up their fallen comrades, and as one big screaming mob, they came across the goal line and proceeded to chase the hosts waiting at the top off into the distance.

So ended a half-hour of surprise and amusement that seems unique to Japanese culture. Glancing at one another, my husband uttered what both of us were thinking:

“We really need to get a VCR.”