A sampling platter of some recent happenings and thoughts:
Bowling observations: Considering how technical Japanese culture tends to be in terms of refining skills and crafts, bowling seems to be an anomaly here. It’s the most chaotic, instinct-based activity I’ve seen in Japan. My score was notably affected by the distractions in the lanes on both sides of me last Friday. I counted, in those two lanes, five times that the bowlers went airborne/slipped and landed on their backs in the lanes and gutters. Lane violations don’t seem to have any meaning in social Japanese bowling, and finger-holes are used by a minority of young bowlers. The average bowling technique reminds me of shot-put, and, at times, the moods in the bowling groups I see remind me of overzealous fans’ NFL parties in the US (or of Hulk Hogan WWE entrances when anyone scores a strike). Some of the young bowlers seem pretty accurate with their shots, but their form seems completely unrefined, meaning completely un-Japanese.
The opposite of bowling in Japan: Parking in Japan. In contrast to bowling, parking in Japan seems almost purely technical. I estimate that 95% of cars here are always parked in reverse. Most of the time I see people use almost identical technique to do it. It involves four steps: 1) drive past the parking spot 2) back in with one turn 3) pull back out of the space 4) back in again while watching the distance between the wheels and parking spot boundaries in the side mirror. I have only backed into one space while in Japan, and sometimes I feel annoyed when I’m driving behind a car that begins to park because I already know I have to wait for steps 2-4 to be completed before I can start driving again. Drivers here tend to be extraordinarily meticulous about their parking. Sometimes passengers in my car are really surprised when I park forwards and don’t destroy any cars or kill anyone. One of my friends here told me I parked like James Bond. All I did was drive in forwards.
Scootering in Thailand: Last month in Thailand, I decided to go to the zoo with a girl I met (2 hours each way via highway on my newly rented motor scooter). Based on my skill set and the driving conditions there, I most likely would have died if I had driven, so I was on the back. It was embarrassing, but I handled it well. Mid-highway, the girl driving tossed me a bottle of sunscreen and told me to put it on. It was somewhat endearing that she was worried about me burning. However, we were approaching 60 MPH on a highway full of non-lane-abiding swarms of bikes, and my two-handed grip on the sides of the seat was the only thing keeping me on the bike as she cut in front of cars and broke all the rules for how rotaries are supposed to work. Letting go seemed stupid. Getting grease on my hands seemed stupider. I quickly gave the sunscreen back. After that, it didn’t surprise me when she mentioned halfway through the two-hour ride that she didn’t have a driver’s license. When she told me we could be arrested if we were pulled over, I explained to her that I was 100% unwilling to go to jail Thailand, and she needed to form a contingency plan. My interest in their legal system doesn’t extend past discussing it in theory, and doing so from a distance. Badmouthing the king in Thailand, for example, is punishable by death. I was annoyed by my situation.
Kenji: My Japanese tutor’s husband, Kenji, hand-carves wooden Noh Play masks in his free time. There might be a lot of history behind Noh Plays that I could learn and write about, but what is more interesting to me is his process of creating them. Each mask begins as a block of wood and takes about 12 months to complete. He showed me some of his work – I think he said he’s made ten or 12 of them. Hobbies here often seem to be honed to a really impressive degree. Americans seem to be pretty good at a lot of things. Japanese people seem to be excellent at a few things.
Health care: I took my first trip to a health clinic in Japan recently. Here, the health care system is universal. When I was in the clinic, I wondered if this is the type of system the US is headed toward. There are clinics all over the country that any person can walk into whenever they have an issue. No appointment is needed. My wait was about 20 minutes. It’s a convenient system, and everyone can use it: both pluses. It also seems cheap; I pay for health insurance through withdrawals from my paychecks each month, and for the check-up itself, I paid about $20. I asked Emi how doctors keep track of personal history and follow issues. She said they don’t, but sometimes you can seek out the same doctor by going to the same clinic each time. I view this as a big negative – the default is not personalized or history-based care. Emi told me there is no electronic data base with any sort of history for new doctors to view. If this is incorrect, please blame her as my source of information. I’ve only used the system once, so I don’t have much of an experienced-based opinion yet in terms of how well it works.
Photos: The first three photos below are of Kenji’s mask making process. The block of wood is the one he will use to make his next mask. The mask photographed is his current project – it’s about 75% complete. The next photos are from Thailand. These are the only photos I took on my trip. They were taken from a ferry I took between Krabi Town and Phuket and from the dock we arrived at in Phuket. I only took my iPad out of my bag for photos once because I didn’t want it to be stolen.
Introductions and a school trip:
Nanae High School events:
Questions for the Sci-Fi Club:
A project we are working on right now between the CCHS Sci-Fi Club and the Nanae High School English Club is creating an ongoing video exchange. Ideally, this will be a way for the club members to become familiar with each other and interact. Below is the Sci-Fi Club’s first video, which David Nurenberg created with the members. For the second round of videos, each club will likely discuss questions that the other club asks. This is the first step in trying to use the videos to create dialogue between the members.
Last month, I attended two mochi-making events at nursery schools. Mochi is rice-paste made from pounding sticky rice with a wooden sledgehammer (kine). The rice is hammered in something that looks like a partially hollowed tree trunk (usu). Usually, several people take turns hammering with a continuous rhythm, while one person quickly readjusts the paste-ball between each drop of the hammer. Once the rice is all homogenized into one uniform ball, it’s divided into bite-sized mochi-balls. Via chopsticks, they are dunked into various flavors (like soybean powder). The mochi-balls are then in final form and ready to be eaten. The hammering is a full-body event if done well – abs, arms, legs, and back balanced with the hammer’s own momentum from gravity. If I am ever made into a video game character, I will likely request a mochi-hammer as my weapon. I loved it. Being the person who readjusts the paste-ball was also exciting. At the second event I attended, I played this role as well. I felt a need to focus. Momentary distraction or disharmony with the hammerer could lead to a brutal situation. Ironically, after spending a few hours making mochi, I found out I don’t like eating it. A lot of Japanese people do like it – it’s a pretty common food here.
Step 1: Watch and study
Step 3: Make little mochi-balls
Step 4: Flavor the little mochi-balls at the chopstick-station
Step 5: Discretely escape the chopstick-station when your hand gets tired
(photo unavailable due to clandestine nature of its contents)
Step 6: Eat and avoid child cleanup duty
One of the nursery schools invited me to participate in a special event last week called Setsubun. It’s a cultural event celebrated all over Japan. To celebrate, some people dress up as demons, and others throw beans at the demons. The point of throwing the beans at the demons is to make them run away so they can’t scare people – the whole event symbolizes warding away evil each year. I participated in the demon class. This class has the oldest kids in the school. We spent a week making paper-mache masks. I was meticulous with mine. The morning of the event, one of the teachers told me if the younger kids were crying, I did my job right. I was supposed to actually terrify them. The purpose of the event is to teach the kids to confront real fear and overcome it over the course of several years’ events. I liked the idea – teaching kids to deal with powerful emotions like that through actual experience seemed like a valuable lesson to me. All of the kids were showered in candy to reward them for their bravery at the end of the event. We (the demons) were given tinfoil machetes to top it all off – I thought it was a nice touch. Some kids responded better than others (see Emi’s nephew in the blue coat).
Today was the first time I shaved in three weeks. In those three weeks, I visited my family in Concord, spent a lot of time on airplanes, and did some traveling in Japan. I didn’t shave in that time because my plan was to come back to Nanae and make an event out of going to a new barbershop for a straight-edge shave. Last night it occurred to me I had to go to work today. That gave me 12 hours to find a late-night barbershop. I didn’t look. This morning was a really disappointing time in my life.
I spent three days at Niseko last week. It’s a big ski mountain a few hours by train from Nanae. Half the people there were Australian – some of the bartenders didn’t speak any Japanese. They said they rarely need it with all the Australians, so they never learned. The second day I spent at Niseko was the best day of snowboarding I have ever had. It snowed heavily for several days before I arrived, and it didn’t stop while I was there. The guy who picked me up from the train station told me he had only seen this much snow at Niseko a couple times in his life. The snowbanks on the road were 9 or 10 feet high at times. It felt like driving through tunnels carved into the snow. Outside my hotel window, the snowbank was closer to 15 feet. The first night I was there, I explored the mountain a bit and wasn’t very impressed. The second day, I got off the chairlift and wandered around – I saw another lift that wasn’t operating the night before. I got on to see where it went. It went really far in a new direction. I got off and saw another lift, so I got on that one too. Eventually, after a couple more chairlifts, I got to the summit and realized the first night I had only snowboarded the bottom 20% of the mountain. The top 80% was much more impressive. I could have looked at a trail map, but I liked the idea of exploring blindly. The drop from the summit was very steep and somewhat intimidating. When I dropped in over the edge and started carving across the mountain, I immediately lost control and somersaulted a bit down the slope. It didn’t hurt at all because there were about 18 inches of powder beneath me. It took a while to dig myself out, but I was excited about discovering the powder because I now had free range to go wild with very little risk of real injury. The rest of the day was incredible. The style of snowboarding required here was new to me. There was enough powder that if I kept my weight evenly distributed or leaning forwards, like I usually do, the front of my board would sink and get stuck (more somersaults). I changed my technique and kept almost all my weight on my back leg to get the nose of my board above the powder. I used my back leg to direct the back of the board like a rudder. Turning this way is less precise, but it works in powder. It felt like surfing. I was in white-out blizzard conditions – this in addition to the powder gave me the feeling I was surfing through the clouds. It was very cool. The rest of the mountain had other terrains I liked a lot – forest areas, shrubbery areas, wide-open bowls, etc. Parts felt like being in a big snowy desert. There was enough powder that I could explore almost anywhere without much risk of hitting rocks or breaking bones from dropping over small rock-faces. I did a lot of things I might not normally do. The chairlift rides were surreal. The blizzard allowed for maybe 60 yards of visibility – the chairs in front of me ascended into whiteness and disappeared into the sky.
The bed and breakfast I stayed at by the ski-mountain had a dog. I was curious if Japanese dogs are the same as American dogs, so I took him for a walk. When we got outside, I waited for him to start walking. He turned to look at me and waited for me to start walking. He looked really confused. Finally he started moving, but he looked like he felt guilty about it the whole time. Japan has a very strong sense of hierarchy among social roles – this left me wondering if maybe Japanese dogs learn that too, and he was waiting for me to choose our path. When we got back to the bed and breakfast he went straight to the couch and curled up in a ball. I think he needed some time to reflect and regain his sense of identity because of our walk.
I got back to Nanae two nights ago – I spent 10 days with my family in Concord, one night at a hotel in Hakodate (city next to Nanae), and 3 days at Niseko (big ski-mountain in Hokkaido). I’ve made two large cultural transitions now: one when I arrived in Japan and one visiting Concord. Both times, I didn’t deal with the change very well. The mindsets in each culture are entirely opposite for me, and shifting between them has been difficult. In Concord/Boston, historically I’ve found personal peace through being efficient and staying a step ahead of whatever I see happening around me, and in Japan I’ve found it by letting things unfold in their own time and way. I haven’t really bridged the two ways of life at all. I don’t know yet if they can be. I have formed a new type of relationship with the world around me in a very short time in Japan. It’s something I could not have imagined before experiencing it, and it has come hand in hand with an immense feeling of potential. The only thing that makes sense to me unconditionally is to continue to let it develop and be at its whim – doing so thus far has yielded life-changing results. I don’t know how much of this way of life is a product of Japanese culture, how much is from my specific environment/situation here, and how much of it is due to my personality. I do know that this is the only place I have felt it though, and after a very stressful few days of travel on airplanes and trains between America and Niseko, the mindset reemerged on its own within the first day of being back in Nanae. The last few months have been an amazing experience for me mentally and emotionally, and it has opened up parts of me that I didn’t know could be built on or developed. I believe this is a pivotal moment in my life that can’t be turned back.