Thursday, February 27, 2014

Will Miss #535 - laundry pole trucks

The sounds of Japan are something I miss as much or more than the sights. I was telling my husband at one point in the past month that I missed hearing the 5:00 p.m. "children go home" music that used to play near our home. It was always a little melancholy because of the tune, but also comforting in the way it was trying to let people know what time it was.

Among the other sounds that I will never forget and miss is the sound of the laundry pole truck driving by. The video above (embedded from YouTube - it is not my video) does a good job of letting you know what it sounds like as well as looks like. When I learned that there was a business which did nothing but drive around selling replacement laundry poles, I thought that was most peculiar, but the longer I lived in Tokyo, the more it seemed to fit their cultural ethos. They care about how things look and work, including the poles that they hang their laundry out to dry on. I should note that I lived there for 23 years and never once replaced my laundry pole. It looked pretty dirty and worn by the time I left, but never changed in functionality.

I miss the sound of the announcements when the laundry pole trucks drove around our neighborhood, and what the fact that such trucks did any appreciable business said about the culture. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Random Thoughts: The Extinction of Love Hotels

The hotel pictured above offered rooms for 2980 yen ($29.16 USD) for 2 hours. 

One of the things that my husband and I wanted to do before we left Japan was to stay at a love hotel. For those who don't know what such things are, they are what they sound like. They rent the space out for a limited time so that people who want to have trysts can get a room. They're also billed as being for relaxation or other activities, but few people check into a room with a bed just to chill. It's a lot cheaper to go to a coffee shop and buy a $5 cup of coffee and use their free wi-fi. In a culture in which many young, single adults live with their parents and in cities in which few people have cars or public spaces where they can get privacy, love hotels have served an important purpose.

Unfortunately, my husband and I ran out of time and we never had the chance to enjoy the dubious pleasures of a love hotel. That may sound weird from two people who lived in Japan for 23 years, but, after deciding to go back to the U.S., we had an enormous bucket list of things to do before leaving and it didn't make the cut. Obviously, as two old married people with an apartment of our own in which to do any dirty, sinful business that we wanted to get up to, we didn't need to go to one. We just wanted to experience the atmosphere and see what it was like. I also would have taken a ton of pictures inside the room and written a blog post about it at the time had we actually done it.

Though I didn't stay in a love hotel, I did learn quite a few things about them which you can only learn from someone who knows them from outside of what happens in the rooms. There are plenty of sites out there which will tell you what it's like inside of one. There aren't so many, if any, that will tell you in English what they're all about and what their future is likely to be.

One of my former students was a man who was in charge of managing a large number of love hotels. He worked under an owner who was looking to divest himself of them. The reason the owner of these properties wanted to walk away from them was that the rules in Japan regarding them had changed. He told me that love hotels are an endangered species. He said that the law currently says that there can be no future creation of such businesses. The ones that currently exist can continue, but no new ones can be built.

I'm not sure why this happened, but I can make a few guesses. One is that they aren't something that people welcome in their neighborhoods. They look seedy in some cases, tend to attract sex workers and their clients (obviously), and they also see a steady stream of short-term visitors, not infrequently arriving or leaving in an inebriated state. I don't think people who live near them likely feel entirely comfortable with the furtive business going on or perhaps with the atmosphere those places create.

My student wasn't entirely happy with the way things were going. He didn't want to lose his work and the plan that he hoped to follow through on was one in which he could buy the businesses from the owner before he surrendered them to another entity. Selling the love hotels was not going to be an easy thing, after all. The main reason for this was that they were losing popularity anyway. He said that part of the reason for this was a loss of interest on the part of clientele (something which would occur as a result of the increasing loss of interest in sex that we read about in Japan), the shrinking population of young people, and the limits imposed on remodeling and expanding existing hotels.

I asked my student why he wanted to buy out his boss's love hotel business when the industry was being bureaucratically suffocated and the customer base was shrinking. He had a plan, and it was based on sound thinking, but I wasn't sure how it was going to go over in Japan. After acquiring the hotels, he wanted to slowly convert them into retirement homes for those who needed assisted living. With the aging population growing, and families increasingly lacking the capability to look after their infirm relatives, he felt that former love hotels would be ideal because they had rooms with private baths that offered a lot of privacy and amenities. That privacy, for those who don't know, include shielded entrances for discrete coming and going, but also unobtrusive staff positioning.

The bigger questions about the business that I asked him were a little harder to address. The primary one was whether or not older Japanese folks would feel comfortable inhabiting a place that used to be devoted to fulfilling carnal desires. If they knew what it used to be, and it would likely be easy to find out or already known, would they avoid it? The other problem was regarding how the inhabitants medical needs would be met. While the rooms were easy to make comfortable and could be altered to remove their sometimes garish and lurid decor, and the baths were certainly large and accommodating, it's a sure bet that none of them had anything resembling medical support. He did say that it was not an easy thing or a sure one, but that was his hope.

In the end, I think my student gave up on his idea. Finding the money to acquire his boss's chain of hotels was too difficult and the uncertainty of his proposition was daunting. Though I had no particular interest in the preservation of love hotels, I did feel a little sad that this unique and somewhat amusing aspect of Japanese culture seemed to be facing extinction.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Won't Miss #48 - instant dust (reflection)

When I was growing up, my family lived in the boonies. Well, speaking more accurately, we lived in the midst of strip mines. I mean that quite literally. There was a coal tipple about a five-minute walk in one direction and sludge ponds and processing machinery as well as a cargo train loading area about a ten-minute walk in the other direction. Enormous coal trucks rumbled up and down the dirt road next to our house all day, nearly every single day.

This situation kicked up loads of dust. My sister had asthma and my mother was constantly calling the people in charge and yelling at them to oil or water the road to keep the dust down. Our house, when the windows were open, was always instantly covered in dust from the kick-up. Eventually, the roads were paved, which brought on a whole other problem in winter when they became icy and slick and our cars couldn't get out of the driveway without sliding down the steep hill that our house was situated on.

In Tokyo, it wasn't quite as bad as it was at my home, but I recall more than one day in which I dusted and could run my finger through a fresh layer of dust by the end of the day. Part of this was the pollution in the air, but another part of it was the construction of the apartment and living on the first floor. The entire place was made with materials that seemed to be deteriorating at a rapid pace, and the not infrequent earthquakes were just making it worse.

Where I'm living now, it actually takes days for dust to appear. It's the first time in my life that I've lived in a place in which I'm not having to wipe down surfaces on a daily basis or risk a thick blanket of dust forming in a short time. I still don't miss the "instant dust" that I experienced while living in Tokyo.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Will Miss #47 - tiny watermelons (reflection)

I've had mixed experiences with fruit in general since coming to America. I've found that the prices, in general, are similar to those in America, but you get a lot more for your money here. If you have a family or are a big fruit eater, this is a good thing. If you're the only person who eats a particular fruit, such as, watermelon in my case, then paying $5 for a big one means that you're either throwing away some of it or force-feeding it to yourself for an extremely long time.

The truth is that the sizes of food in Japan tended to suit me better. I guess that, if I didn't mind wasting food or cramming enormous melons into my refrigerator, I'd be happier with the size of fruit in the U.S. As it is, managing the (usually) mammoth melons is annoying enough that I rarely buy them at all. I miss those compact little melons.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Random Memories #64 - things I wish I'd kept pt. 3 - Tokyo Pop (pt. 2)

This is a continuation of a post I started last Wednesday about the movie "Tokyo Pop". Part 1 is here.

Before I get to my continuation of my memories as sparked by watching this movie, there's something I'd like to say about the screen capture from the movie at the top of this post. Recently, I saw Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" because I wanted to assess Cate Blanchett's Oscar-nominated performance. Both my husband and I thought the movie was pretty good, but my sister-in-law, who has lived in the Bay Area of California for her entire life, said that she felt it was horrible because the New York stereotypes that Allen had transplanted into San Francisco kept jarring her out of the story.

While I didn't have that experience with the movie, I empathized with where she was coming from. When I see scenes from Japan or that feature Japanese people that don't fit with my perception of the culture, I get annoyed and am taken out of the story. The picture above shows Carrie Hamilton's "Wendy" character with a transvestite (who I believe is British club singer, Marilyn, who was popular at that time). When I saw this, the first thing I thought was, "That giant crab is in Osaka and Wendy is supposed to be in Tokyo." It's things like things which you see and others who haven't lived in your skin don't see which changes your perceptions of the world around you. I identify with life in Japan (though not with being Japanese) much as my sister in law identifies with life in the Bay Area.

Getting back to the movie though...

Wendy's conversations with businessmen in rudimentary English in which they get excited about their exchange is pretty common. The foreigners in such situations generally have to show more enthusiasm for the situation than Wendy shows though. Anyone who was as lackluster as her would not last long or would at least get an enormous lecture until she changed. Also, note that her pay was docked for being a few minutes late and that the manager of the club she works in complains about how she is paid so much more than the Japanese girls. On both sides, this is common.

When I wanted a raise at my former company, the president used the fact that the Japanese office ladies were paid a lot less than me as an excuse. I was supposed to feel fortunate that I was paid less than office ladies rather than annoyed that I was paid less than my male coworker who was doing the same job as me. Though I was never late to my work, my husband was chastised during his first job in Japan for being one or two minutes late a few times when no students were scheduled in the first hour. To the Japanese staff, not being early, even when he had no appointments, was akin to being late. Back in those days, when he was still fighting back against the cultural norms, he used to come in early, but refuse to punch his time card until the clock registered one minute past the starting time as a way of tweaking them for what he viewed as extreme pettiness.

Turning back to the movie, note how Hiro is yelling in English and acting strange toward Wendy ("singing" the famous Jimi Hendrix solo) while apologizing and semi-bowing to the Japanese around him as he runs through Harajuku and chases Wndy down. If you paid close attention at the beginning of the movie when a young girl is performing for the same audience as Hiro's band, she speaks very politely and demurely to the man who is in charge (and who we can't see), then acts very crazy while she performs. The "weird Japan" stuff you tend to see on line is related to this sort of thing. To foreigners, the Japanese are very different than they are to each other. That crazed behavior is often confined to very specific settings and audiences, but it is focused upon in a manner which makes this atypical behavior seem typical.

When Wendy is with Hiro in the night club with the transvestite performer, she is waiting for the bathroom and says, "how you doin'?" to another foreigner who ignores her. Yeah, that happens, too. There's that weird territorial thing that you sometimes hear about.

You'll also note that Hiro meets Wendy in front of the statue of Hachiko before taking her to a shrine ("some place Japanese"). We're then treated to a little montage of them doing a bunch of supposedly "Japanese" things. When Hiro says, "this is the first time" for him to go to the area with all of the red gates, that also rings true. Many of my students, when I told them I'd gone to a particular area or done a very "Japanese" thing, they'd say they had never done that as it was something of low interest to them. I'm not sure, but the scene with the gates may also be one of those shots taken outside of Tokyo (possibly Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto). Of course, if that is so, it is perfectly reasonable to assume Hiro took Wendy outside of Tokyo at this point in the movie.

When Hiro talks about being a rock and roll singer, the pronunciation of "Frank Sinatra" ("Sinotora"), the weird mixing of genres (Hendrix and Sinatra), and bowing while on the phone are also a part of the Japan experience. The way in which foreign folks have a strong sense of how Western pop culture fits into discrete eras is not present in Japan. The Japanese have that sense about their own pop culture, but ours is a jumble to them and that results in the confounding crazy quilt that I often experienced, including seeing Betty Boop and Felix the Cat all over the place in the 80's and early 90's.

Wendy and Hiro discuss his audition with a music promoter (called "Doda" here, a likely reference to "Udo Artists" - a large promoter in Japan, but I cannot be sure as it's not an area I'm very familiar with), he tells her that she can't understand Japan. While Wendy talks to other bands about trying to join them, they regard her as an alien in some cases and only want her as an accessory in others. They want to use her as a novelty. This is often the role of the single gaijin.

When Wendy finally lands a gig and plays with the band in a live house to a dead audience, she sings a punk version of "Home on the Range." This is the same song that she sings at karaoke. I don't know if this is still true, but back in those days, Japanese people often sang the same English song over and over again in karaoke because it was what they felt comfortable with. In 1990, the song everyone knew and sang was "YMCA" by the Village People. They delighted in doing the gestures that the original band performed to spell out the letters while they sang the song.

The dead audience, incidentally, is probably also accurate because live houses are often attended by the band's friends. When a band sucks, as the punk band Wendy performs with does, the audience members are probably there out of obligation. The live house system generally works by making the band responsible for ticket sales. They make a profit only if they sell enough tickets and have to pay the house if they don't sell enough in most cases.

After joining Hiro's band, Wendy waltzes into Dota's office and he accepts her tape. I'm not sure that this would work, but it does reflect the idea that foreigners get further than Japanese people when it comes to advancing certain agendas. Part of it is that they are willing to simply gaijin smash their way through rather than follow Japanese protocols. While I don't think one could do that at a major music promoter's office, there is a lot foreign folks can get away with while thumbing their noses at protocols that Japanese people can't (or wouldn't even try).

Hiro's rigidity about how things are done is true to form. Things are done a certain way and that is the end of the argument. There is little room for flexibility or creativity. Ultimately, it's the equivalent of a "monkey moment" (unplanned in this case) that opens the door for the band, but many foreigners work this angle to find success in Japan. It's easy to be a big fish in a small pond when you are the equivalent of Blinky, the three-eyed mutant fish on the Simpsons. That is what Wendy is to the Japanese.

When Hiro talks to his grandfather, as they are fishing at the river, he asks if his grandfather ever told his grandmother that he loved her. He said that he did not. They didn't talk about such things. The only strange thing about that scene is that Hiro asks the question at all. Most Japanese people don't think about saying, "I love you." Many of my students said the same thing as Hiro's grandfather. Their love was understood and they did not express it because it would be embarrassing.

Hiro struggles to say  "I love you" to Wendy, but she easily says it back. I was never in a relationship with a Japanese person, but this rings true based one what students told me. I think a Japanese person who was in love with a foreigner would be far more likely to openly say such things because such a person would be fundamentally different than the average Japanese person. Also, they may feel it was expected, and Japanese people tend to be good at getting themselves to do what is "expected."

Wendy meets up at a reggae bar with some foreigners. She's famous all over Japan and the man from Los Angeles has never heard of her. She also talks about how she doesn't know any of the music that is currently popular back home. A sleaze-bag, Minoru, tries to convince her to model and tells her that she can't sing forever and that she can model for awhile. He's spot-on about the short-lived nature of most foreigners when it comes to fame. They're fads. Japanese bands and singers can last, but foreigners are for novelty. Hiro's band confirms this when he argues with them about whether just any foreigner will do or if it's important that it be Wendy. The band is probably right. Foreigners are interchangeable objects.

In the scene that follows, Wendy sits on the steps of a shrine while a priest performs a ritual on a car. This illustrates something which happens a lot in Japan. There's this odd mix of the very old with the new. It's incongruence is something foreigners often marvel at, but it's a pretty mundane occurrence in Japan and makes perfect sense to them. The montage that follows has Wendy realizing how hollow her fame is. She has a conversation with Hiro which pretty much sums up how foreigners are regarded superficially.

In the end, Hiro performs one of his own songs in Japanese with bits of interspersed English. I can't tell you how many times we'd be walking around a store and a song would play that was exactly like this. In his song, the words are romantic and make sense. Usually, the words are silly and just tossed in for effect. They may be translations of the Japanese, but they're tossed in there mainly for color, not for meaning.

The only part of the movie which didn't resonate with me was Hiro's family, particularly his mother. I never lived with a Japanese family, but I did live next to one and the mother was in no way as self-involved as Hiro's mother. I still have a hard time believing a Japanese woman would serve her family KFC, put make-up on at the table while the family eats, and prioritize going to an aerobics class. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, it just didn't feel "right" to me based on the women I knew. The absent father, however, very much sounded correct. At that time, it was common for men to spend very little time at home, especially on weekdays.

You can see how this movie resonates with me. The people who wrote it really knew and understood what it is like to be a foreigner in Tokyo, especially a fair-haired female (which is what I am). It does show a great deal of what is true about life in Japan, though it is rather dated in terms of the look and feel of the movie.

It's a small movie and I don't even know if it is a "good" movie. I can only say that there are a lot of truths about life in Japan for foreigners as well as Japanese in it and that's why it'll be something I'll never forget. If you're thinking of living in Japan, watching it and really attending to some of the experiences and feelings that are there is a good way to prepare yourself for life in Japan after the honeymoon is over.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Won't Miss #535 - "home party"

This isn't a festivel. It's an "outside party".

Sometimes, you are irked by something not because there is any reason to be so, but just because you have some idiosyncratic and utterly illogical response. The use of the words "home party" to describe what is essentially a common get-together with friends at ones home in America used to really annoy me. I knew that this was a Japanese-English invention meant to explain something that was not common in their culture, but it always made me think that the Japanese believed Americans were having a grand old bash on a regular basis with their friends. The more annoying things was that I could not break students of the habit of using "home party" and replace it with the more appropriate "get together".

I don't miss students telling me that Americans have "home parties" all of the time.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Will Miss #534 - not having to run the cold water

There are habits that you get into for a good portion of your life that you can forget that you ever had if you've been away from them long enough. I'm not talking about unforgettable things like smoking or compulsively turning around three times and whistling "Dixie" before you turn the door knob for fear that the boogie man will be on the other side if you don't. Not that I've ever done that...

I'm talking about things like growing up in the Northeast and having to run your defrosters on your car such that doing so is second nature or remembering to take an umbrella in Tokyo because it's the rainy season. One habit which I had completely forgotten about which was a regular part of life in the U.S. was the way in which you've got to run the tap on the cold water for awhile every time you need water for drinking. This is necessary because you have to flush the pipes in case lead has accumulated. It's not only annoying, but wasteful, and where I'm living at present is in an extended drought so it feels especially so.

The reason that you don't have to run the water in Japan is that they don't use copper or lead in their pipes. They use stainless steel. When I lived there, I didn't have to stand around running the water before I could drink it and I miss that. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Random Memories #64 - things I wish I'd kept pt. 3 - Tokyo Pop (pt. 1)

Image pilfered from Wikipedia's page for the movie.

The first time I grew up, I grew up in America. The second time, I grew up in Japan. Perhaps I should explain what that means.

When we think of "growing up", we tend to think of moving through childhood to adulthood. The idea seems to be that, when we reach our full height and the age of adulthood, the "growing" part is finished. I have learned that that is not so. One might think of what I'm speaking of as "maturity", but that is too limiting a phrase for what I mean. I mean that I grew as a human being in immeasurable ways even after reaching my adult height and was legally responsible for my actions in the eyes of society.

The Japan I grew up in was the one that existed from 1988 onward. It is not the Japan that people experience today. In many ways, I feel that my adult "formative years" occurred from 1988 to around 2000. Those were the years of what I consider my relative isolation from my own culture and from Americans. They were before high speed internet began to create consistent access to my friends and American culture. Prior to that, we were exchanging videos by seamail and writing letters. The videos came sometimes a year behind the times, and contained little content relatively speaking. The letters I wrote to people were almost universally unanswered so communication tended to be a one-way street in which I wasn't getting any traffic coming my way.

The world I lived in in Japan is one that I have often tried to make understood via my memories and thoughts in this blog. To some extent, some of which you can "see" it here, but you can "see" and feel it more clearly, at least visually and aurally, via a movie made at that time. That movie, "Tokyo Pop", resonated strongly with both my husband and me when we first saw it. It remains a time capsule of Japan during a certain era and the weeds borne of the seeds of what is shown there still have roots in the culture, even if they have been pruned back so they're less visible.

When I speak of the "roots" and "weeds" here, I speak of the obvious objectification that occurs in the movie. Things are different now, but people still stare. They still value you for your hair, eye, and skin color. They still treat you like a pampered puppy and still forgive you when you pee on the carpet because you're just so precious and dumb. They still help you get by in a world they are certain you can't understand, and they're often right that you don't "get it" when it comes to what it really means to "be Japanese".

At any rate, I have thought about "Tokyo Pop" on and off for several years. I used to have a video copy of it in Japan and lost it or threw it out when the technology became outdated. I wished for several years that I had hung onto it long enough to digitize it, and I looked for a DVD copy on line on several occasions.

Unfortunately, you can only get a VHS copy and I don't want it badly enough to go find a used machine and capture it. Fortunately, there's YouTube, and at the time of this post, the entire movie is available there. My guess is that it will never see a DVD release because of the song rights and the expense of licensing songs like "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Do You Believe in Magic." These songs are new enough that they'd have to pay to use them and they really can't be cut from the movie as it focuses on people who are aspiring musicians.

I'd like to invite my readers to watch it "with me", or at least take note of a few things which are memory touchstones for me in that movie. If you attend carefully to the things that are going on, you'll see a lot of what I "grew up with" in Tokyo. I'd recommend you follow the link and watch the movie or at least watch along before reading this post. You don't have to, but it'll help this post make a bit more sense.

Some of the scenes have a very strong resonance for me. For example, the main character, Wendy, played by Carrie Hamilton, is walking along the street and passes a monk with a begging bowl. When I worked in Shinjuku, a man who dressed exactly like him used to stand out in front with his bowl. Occasionally, I'd put a 500-yen coin (about $5) into his bowl on my way to work. I did it to support what I felt was his choice of what was certainly a difficult and alternative lifestyle in the culture. Such a monk stopped standing there about a decade ago. I don't know if he got chased off or if it simply was no longer worthwhile to stand there mumbling prayers with a bowl in his hands.

Shortly after Carrie passes the monk, she goes to a bank of green pay phones to make a call. She doesn't know how to use the phones, but a Japanese man inserts his phone card into the machine for her (essentially paying for her call). I used to call my husband when he was at home (as a student and househusband) from that type of bank of phones when I was in my early days at my company and he used to call me from such phones when he was working and I was recovering from both gall bladder surgery and the emotional fall-out of my two hard years of working at Nova conversation school. 

The phones throughout the movie remind me so much of my early time in Japan. The pink ones that only take 10-yen coins, the green ones that only take cards, and the red ones which I can't remember much about. The fact that there were so many different phones and each took a different currency seemed strange to me at the time, but I realize now that it was likely a way of adding in new technology slowly as well as catering to the needs of people who didn't happen to have the right coins or cards. It was a form of accomodation for everyone in Japan, despite the loss of profit or the extra effort involved in maintaining older phones. Removing a bunch of 10-yen coins on a regular basis would be a real pain for workers, but those phones lingered for many years despite the extra effort involved.

There are also human ticker punchers shown in the stations (~10:30) in the movie. Their backs are shown, but the days when men stood or sat for hours on end doing nothing more than clipping and punching tickets as people got on the train or collecting stubs as they got off of them are long over. Seeing them in the movie creates a profound sense of nostalgia for me as does the byzantine packed station that Wendy gets lost in. The latter did not change, of course, but the former takes me back to days when you could wicket jump to avoid paying your full fare. 

I would also invite those who take the time to watch the movie to note the narrow spaces and clutter in the ryokan (Japanese inn) shown in the film. That is the truth of life in Japan for many people rather than the pristine open spaces that many foreigners imagine. I think Mickey house (the ryokan in the movie) used to be a real place (there's an ancient web site for what seems to be it, but it's hard to say if it was a ryokan or only a conversation lounge), but it is no longer in business if it ever was real.

When you look around inside Mickey House, note the claustrophobic corridors and the horrible kitchen. The water heater that you see above the sink crammed full of dishes is exactly the sort that I had in my apartment until the very end. In fact, it was replaced with a new one not too long before I left so the technology isn't being phased out. While it may be tempting to conclude that only an inn that caters to foreigners would see such chaos and clutter, I saw Japanese homes which had a similar atmosphere and were equally overloaded and disorganized.

While Hiro, the male lead character, is talking to Wendy, she says that she only knows two words in Japanese. One is "arigato" and the other is "benjo". When my husband and I were in Japan in our first year, he wanted to ask a station personnel member where the bathroom was and he used the word "benjo" and they laughed at him and made fun of his word choice. Though the Japanese are often kind and overly complimentary about ones limited Japanese, that is not always the case. The more common word is "toire", but that's not what our language books had told us and my husband was humiliated for his misinformation.

The exchange in front of the ramen stand in which Hiro is clearly saying "sure" to everything Wendy is saying when he doesn't really understand is also one that had a lot of verisimilitude. Rather than embarrass you or themselves by admitting that they don't understand, Japanese people will often just keep nodding and saying, "yes", as if they agree and understand. One of the most common bits of advice that I used to give my students when they had communication with foreigners was to never pretend to understand or say "yes" when they weren't certain about what they agree to.

The big chef's head on top of the building that you see when Wendy and Hiro separate at the love hotel is along a major street in Kappabashi. The place is famous for plastic food, but it's really more of a restaurant supply area. These days, there is less in the way of food modeling and more in the way of stoves, chairs, and dishes. It's still a great area to investigate, but it tends to be an unexplored gem on the part of both domestic and international tourists. I told my students that I went there one weekend, and they were puzzled as to why I would bother. None of them had ever been there, and few seemed to even know it was the plastic food mecca of Tokyo.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Won't Miss #47 - air conditioners set for reptilian biology (reflection)

I knew when I returned to the U.S. that I would not be finding myself walking into markets and sweating. I also experienced more than one student who told me that they didn't like shopping in America because the shops were always "freezing". I dismissed this as the typical Japanese female sense that any temperature lower than 80 degrees F./27 degrees C. was downright Arctic. Well, I was wrong.

I was shocked when I returned and found that the markets here really are freezing a lot of the time. It was not like this when I lived here prior to my move to Japan. I'm not sure what is going on, but the rather grimmest of ironies is that the Asian markets including the Japanese ones that I frequent are the coldest markets of all. I cannot explain this turn of events, but I can say that my husband hates to be hot and often freezes me out in the summer with the air conditioning, but even he gets too cold in the frosty markets here. He actually had to step out of a Chinese market once due to the discomfort level.

So, while I hated the extremely hot spaces in Japan (and the setting of thermostats in summer to temperatures which were quite hot), I'm not sure that I'm experiencing any better here. If I had to choose between roasting or freezing (not a great choice), I guess I'd have to say it's still better to be too cold because you can wear a sweater, but I am thoroughly baffled by the extremes. I don't miss the hot shops in Japan, but I'm also not a fan of the frigid ones here either.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Will Miss #46 - hachiko (reflection)

It is only now that I realize that what I really miss is the common cultural touchstone aspect of this dog statue in Shibuya. It was such a rallying point and everyone who has spent even several months in Tokyo will know about it and recognize it when it is shown in movies or pictures. The fact that we all used it as a meeting point despite the enormous crowds of people who were doing the same was also a bit delicious. Since everyone tended to meet anyone who they were meeting in Shibuya there, it was that much harder to pick your friends out in the crowd. Well, it was unless you were a foreigner ("gaijin") meeting a similarly different-looking alien.

I miss the statue of Hachiko as much for the shared sense of it being the place to meet among those who were congregating in Shibuya as the story behind the faithful dog who waiting for his master who had passed away.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Random Memories #63 - things I wish I'd kept or photographed - pt 2

This is part of a sequence of posts that I'll be making from time to time about things that I wish I had kept or at least had taken a picture of. These are memory fragments rather than full-blown stories, but they are things that have stuck with me which I want to take note of before I forget them. Part 1 is here.

Most people who follow anything about Japan know about "Engrish". You know, those funky combinations of words and pseudo-words that you see on signs and, perhaps more famously, on T-shirts. Ah, the T-shirts. The 80's and 90's were the golden age of such things. For reasons I'll probably never understand, they got a lot less funny and a lot harder to find as the years went by. Perhaps there was one lone writer who made it his goal in life to concoct the most surreal, bizarre, and suggestive comments possible. Well, it could have been that or simply someone who random grabbed words and phrases in a freeform mix and match.

I asked students on occasion why so much weird English was emblazoned on shirts in Japan. They always told me the same thing. That was that the words did not matter. The look of the English letters was the thing. It's the same thing in Western countries in which weird Chinese character combinations are used on shirts and tattoos. Just as Asian folks who can read those character snicker at our obliviousness, we snickered at the funky English.

Since it became more difficult to find funny English shirts and the number of those shirts in general seemed to go down, I really regret that I didn't hang on to or take better care of some of the best ones. The slogans on them stick with my husband and I to this day. Two of our favorites were a shirt that said, "Slurp, is that your foot" and another which said a ton of text which I recall and finished with "beat his monkey ass 'til it ain't no fun." When my husband and I are joking around and I pretend to be annoyed with him, I still say, "I'm going to beat your monkey ass until it ain't no fun... and that's going to be a very long time."

The shirt pictured at the top of this post comes from a "found" video. I was shocked when I came back to the U.S. and raided my in-laws video archives and discovered that there was a video that included my husband and I in 1988 talking about our future and our life in Japan. He was wearing the "Venus Soap" shirt in that video so I was able to take a screen capture of it. In this video he said, "Venus Soap, it saves rubbing... but we don't use it because that's the funnest part." Now you can see why I married him. ;-)

The only other shirt that I have a record of was also from the video and this one was being modeled by my sister-in-law. This shirt was a gift to her for her birthday in 1987. My husband had sent it to her. This particular message seemed goofier at the time than it does after years of working in Japan and hearing again and again about how Japanese people envy Americans for their (supposedly) long vacations and short working days.

You can look at our shirts, but not our faces. Sorry! My shirt says "And the wrong one" and "Creeping Creeks". There's also an enormous paragraph of nonsense at the bottom which is lost in time now, but it mentioned the Turkey (the place, not the bird).

There was also a pink and grey shirt which I absolutely loved, both for its fit and its message, which said in block letters on four different lines: Radical To Save Laid Back Walking. I remember that shirt because we had two of them and both my husband I wore our respective shirts when we went to Tokyo Disneyland and portions of it are visible in photos from that day.

My husband also found a T-shirt for me which was not particularly funny, but suited my situation at that time. I worked for a now defunct social services agency called "Transitional Living". It was common for us to refer to it as "TL" or to write TL instead of saying the full name. Somehow, a Japanese T-shirt cropped up which said the words "TL Connection" on it. I have no idea what it meant to them, if it meant anything at all. It could be that such an abbreviation had some special meaning (as KY does now) which fell out of favor by the time we knew enough about Japanese culture to understand such things. The Wikipedia page on Japanese abbreviations does not include it, so it may have meant nothing at all, but it was a great gift for me at that time.

I really wish I'd saved these shirts, or even scraps of them to sew into the craziest of crazy quilts. Unfortunately, not one of them survived and only a handful survive in picture form. I'm sure there are many that are lost forever in the cobwebs of my mind and will never be retrieved. I think we took them for granted because we figured there'd always be more of these crazy things. There are still some out there, of course, but not nearly as many or as funky.

If any of my readers have a notion about why the number of these things has gone down and why the quantity and type of wording have changed, or if your experience is that they are still available in abundance, I'd like to hear your thoughts and experiences in comments. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Won't Miss #534 - melon-flavored stuff

Yes, even melon gum.

Recently, my husband and I visited a local confectionary (See's Candy) because he wanted to buy their strawberry truffles. I love strawberries, but I'm generally not a fan of anything that is not an actual live berry. In fact, I found the truffles pretty vile and he loved them.

For me, this is a common pattern. I love the fruit, but hate things flavored with it. The exceptions to this tend to be orange and cherry. Both work better in sweets for me than things like banana and strawberry. One of the things which I experienced in Japan, but is not common here is the bastardization of melon in this fashion. I like melon, but I hated the vile melon concoctions in Japan. From melon-flavored sodas to pastries with disgusting melong filling to melon ice cream, it all just tasted pretty awful to me. 

I won't miss the melon-flavored options that were so frequently available in Japan.