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Friday, July 31, 2009

Twist And Shout

Welcome to Day 4 in Ohtawara (one weak in Japan. Yes, the spelling is intentional).
It’s early in August 1990 for those of you ensuring my continuity remains intact.

Like August in Toronto, August in Ohtawara is hot and humid. It was about 34C not including the humidity, and considering my part of the world was considered sub-tropical, I was moist. My apartment lacked air-conditioning, but at least when I opened up the windows and doors I was able to let even more hot, wet air in.
Still, because of the newness of the situation: new country, new friends, my first ever apartment, I wasn’t going to complain. Everything was beautiful.
Heck, even though my 24-inch television only got 12 channels (that’s all there were – remember, this is pretty much before satellite TV and before Bob Dole invented the Internet!), three of the stations played American shows every once in a while: like the aforementioned Incredible Hulk, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dynasty. What was particularly cool was that these stations broadcast their signals with a bilingual feed/cut, meaning if you had a bilingual television, you could hit a button and either watch it in English, Japanese or a mish-mash of both.
I had a bilingual television. I also had a built-in VTR (video tape recorder that we used to call a video cassette recorder). I didn’t have anything to watch, however.
Aside from Holmes, I pretty much watched Japanese television – especially the cartoons. I figured if a young Japanese child can understand it, I might be able to. I also like cartoons.
As for food – ah, what’s a guy to do? Because this was my first time away from home – ever – I really had no clue how to cook. Or even how to shop for food. Add to that the fact that I didn’t really know where to shop and I had problem.
Luckily my fridge was pre-filled with foods my Japanese bosses thought the average Canadian might like: daikon radishes, Japanese pears, pineapple, artichoke (it might’ve choked Artie, but it ain’t gonna choke Andrew, and some canned beverages called Pocari Sweat, and Calpis. What the heck is that? For the uninitiated, I personally have kept six Coca-Cola bottling plants in operation thanks to my consumption and subsequent elevated blood-sugar levels (Coke Zero for me, now).
I swear, these guys must be watching me - like I’m part of some television show – but the doorbell rang. There was Hanazaki-san offering to take me out to the local grocery/department store.
He drove me out to a place called Iseya (e-say-ya), about two minutes from my place – it was large and was set up the way most Walmart’s are nowadays… a full grocery store combined with a department store – including a kiosk where I could get film developed (anyone else remember film for camera’s? It’s why I have to scan my thousands of photos first before putting them online!)
Iseya had all of the food types I needed. Bread, luncheon meats, mayo, hamburger, veggies, cup of soups, fruits, milk, juice and gawd-help me, Coke. All of which I bought and paid for myself with the remnants of money I brought with me from Toronto. Despite having been set up with a bank account, I don’t think I was paid yet for only four days of being in Ohtawara – or maybe I was? No one told me.
I tried to take food items that required very little cooking skill, as I had never actually cooked anything before and had little desire to know how quick the fire department could respond.
Satisfied with my purchase, and making Hanazaki-san proud of my purchase of the daikon radish and the Japanese pears, he dropped me off home convinced I might actually survive my time here.
I bought the Calpis, but not the Pocari Sweat, as that was still in my fridge daring me to crack it open. I’m not sure I want to drink sweat – who’s sweat was it? Besides, the humidity was providing me with enough sweat of my own, thank-you.
Realizing that I came to Japan to try new things – and not because I was trying (still) to get laid – I tried the Calpis. Cow-piss is more like it. Ugh. It’s a milky-watery beverage that tastes like bad yogurt, and is full of lactose – or so I learned much to my lactose-intolerant regret.
Twenty minutes later, I was in my library/washroom with my intestinal tract twisting and screaming.
I feared my insides were ripping apart, as the pain was so intense that it felt like the walls to my bathroom were shaking. While my stomach suddenly stopped spasm-ing, I noticed that the walls continued to shake.
I could hear things falling from their perch in my kitchen and living room. I could hear the pipes groaning.
It was an earthquake! My first ever!
And here I was, in the bathroom. It’s strange the thoughts that enter one’s head when you think you are going to die, but I immediately thought about how embarrassed my folks would be when they heard of this indignity.
He died with his pants down around his ankles – but at least he didn’t soil himself.
It was over in about 30 seconds. I sat there for another minute afraid to move.
When I finally did move, I opened up the bathroom door and peeked out. It looked the same. I got up went to the living room and picked up the few items that had fallen during the quake and walked outside onto my balcony to see if my neighbourhood was okay.
People were out of their homes and were laughing and slapping each other on the back and having a smoke. No one showed any sign of panic.
Why were they so calm? Does this happen often? Mom? Dad? Get me the hell out of here!

Somewhere squeezing the Charmin,
Andrew Sensurround Joseph
Musical title by The Isley Brothers (not The Beatles, who also did a fantastic version of the Isley's Bros. hit).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Wander-err

(Blog Note: Remember people, click onto the coloured word for added bonuses!)

After that second day in Ohtawara – being driven around to Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School) and having to kill a spider that was thwarting my so-called love-life by perching near my telephone – I was finally able to call Ashley and make arrangements to ride over to her place in Nishinasuno the next afternoon. I had no clue how to get there, but I figured someone at the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education) would be able to direct me.
I was expected to go into work the next day – but only until noon. Apparently they had a surprise for me.
Kanemaru-san came and picked me up at 7:50 and we headed for the office for 8AM. There was no surprise waiting for me there, so I quite naturally thought I had made a mistake – a language-related one. I sat at my desk and practiced my new Japanese lessons – simple conversational Japanese.
At 11AM, Kanemaru-san woke me up and led me to his car. We drove back to Zuiko Haitsu (the name of my apartment complex which I later learned was well-known in the city for its towering eight-stories and opulence – well, it was tallest building in the city, and was quite nice; but opulent?) – but before I could say sayanora (goodbye), he followed me up and into the place and grabbed the Ohtawara map I had over my phone.
He looked at me and said: “You go A-sha-re’s?”
Is my phone being tapped? How does everyone know what I’m doing or whom I’m trying to do? Still, I realized the man was offering to drive me there so that I could make my own map with notes. This guy was fast becoming my best friend.
We set off. But here’s the kicker. Ohtawara, like many rural Japanese cities, towns or villages does not have signs designating street names. None. Sure there are stop signs, bus signs and speed limit signs (conveniently painted onto the road – another blog) but no street signs.
How did people know where they were going? Was this some innate ability the Nihonjin (Japanese person) were born with?
Traveling and I go together about as well as Alien versus Predator – amusing but a bloody mess. You’ve already read how I managed to get so lost in Tokyo that there wasn’t any neon light near me – but riding in the left-side of Kanemaru’s kuruma (car) while looking for non-existent landmarks and jotting them down on the 1m x 1m (3’x3’) map hand-drawn by my predecessor, Cheryl ,was difficult. Let’s see… that was straight past the rice field. There’s a house with a yellow American-style roof! Turn left at the fork in the road past the rice paddy. Turn right at the 3rd intersection where there’s a rice paddy… well, you get the idea.
The roadway we drove through was nicely paved for the most part (no complaints here). It was exactly two cars wide in many places, but usually only just one and a half car’s wide, so passing an oncoming vehicle was an adventure in itself. The roadway was surrounded on each side by thick, wet fields of rice paddies. Ohtawara – Big-Rice Field-Field – did you think I was kidding?
Ten minutes later, we arrived at Ashley’s building. Before I could open up the door and visit, Kanemaru-san laughed and said “Zuiko Haitsu” and off we went through the streets and rice fields with no name to arrive back at my place.
Instead of his usual parking job of straddling three spots (not an easy thing to do), he managed to park up on the steps by the apartment’s main entrance.
Getting out, he led me over to the covered bike rack and pointed proudly to a rebuilt bicycle. That was my surprise!
Built for a giant (me), it was obviously cobbled together from a few other bikes, but it was an 18-speed! Awesome! Back home, an 18-speed was usually only seen in mountain bikes and even then, those were not often seen on the streets. The seat was a large padded one – better even than my sofa. The frame was a men’s frame (with a bar to crush your gonads) and was freshly painted a lovely metallic navy blue.
There was a basket, bell and light on it - and before you laugh at the basket-thing, I found it quite useful (just not in this blog). The light, too. But not the bell.
It was now about noon. I went upstairs and called Ashley and told her I was leaving and with a good tailwind behind my new bike that I should be back at her place within 20 minutes. She laughed at my syntax, because she knew she had heard me at her place 10 minutes earlier.
What’s Ashley like? She was 5’-3” and 21 going on 22. A Sagittarius to my Scorpio (I was 25 going on 26). Her brown hair, lips, nose and face, squinty brown eyes all remind me of her. Except she doesn’t. There. If you can figure that out, you’re smarter than I thought. Ashley was very sweet and was quite intelligent, though it beats me why she wanted to hang out with an idiot like me.
I got on my bike and began sweating immediately, as Japan must be the most humid place on Earth.
Since most of my blogs have a music-related headline (this headline is related to the old Dion & The Belmonts tune. Wander, of course, is an anagram for Andrew, of course so is raw end), let’s do something musical: Let’s sing to the opening theme from Gilligan’s Island:
Now, just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale.
A tale of a fateful trip.
That started from this rice paddy, aboard this mighty bike.
The rider was a mostly fearless man, the directions were incomplete.
He set forth on the wrong side of the road for a three-hour tour.
A three-hour tour.
The weather started getting hotter – the rider he was lost.
If not for the courage of the Ohtawara police (and a stranger in a van who dropped me off there), he still would be lost.
He still would be lost.

Alright, Keats it ain’t. But you get the point.
After the police called my supervisor(s) and both Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san arrived, we all had a good sweaty laugh. We waited for that guy from the OBOE whose name I can’t remember to arrive with his van before heading back to the apartment.
Nearly 4PM, I entered my sanctuary, closed the door and called Ashley. She was asleep in dread anticipation of my non-arrival, but woke up enough to laugh at my incompetence.
After hanging up, I had a quick shower and then flipped on the TV to watch The Incredible Hulk in Japanese.
The doorbell rang at 4:20PM. It was Ashley.

Somewhere lost on a bicycle built for two Nihonjin,
Andrew “smooth sailing” Joseph
PS: Image above found at


Photo Gallery #1

Here's the link to my Japanese photo gallery. Click.
I'll upload more photos from time to time - though having just sold our house, time will be scarce.
Oh, and re: the dark lake photo... I actually darkened it on purpose. But to please Matthew, I'll do a re-post of the original shot later.
So... In the group photo... do you know what's more sad than my 80's hair? I still have the sweater.

Somewhere feeding a moth,
Andrew Joseph
Title by Ringo (Richard Starkey) Starr

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Spider, Man!

It was a dark and stormy night.
A door slammed.
A gaijin (foreigner) screamed.
A spider appeared on his wall.
It was huge. Its body was 2.5cm (1-inche) long with an even greater leg span with black and yellow striping on its legs. It even looked like a tough spider – of its eight glowing red eyes, three were covered with patches.
I sat on my green couch with a spring poking me in the rear and eyed the spider gloomily.
I wanted to call Ashley, but thought better of it. It perched easily on the wall to my left near my telephone and stared at me with its remaining eyes sizing me up. It probably figured I was extremely tall for a Nihonjin (Japanese person) and that I was a wimp. It probably figured correctly.
I was scared spitless – not that I would have hawked a goober at it.
I wondered which of us would make the first move. Since spiders are known for their patience – and I was getting that creepy tingling feeling up and down my back that makes it seem that something is crawling on you – I decided to go for it.
Frightened like a cat, the hairs on the back of my head and the front of my back all stood up – but despite the feline look, I still had the coordination of a klutz.
Reaching for a copy of the Daily Yomiuri (an English-language daily newspaper) on my table in front of me, I felt something grab the back of my pants trying to stop me. Nearly peeing myself in fear, I thought the spider might have brought friends.
Pulling myself free just a tad too hard, I slipped and slammed my head on my kotatasu (heater/coffee table). Turns out that grabbing I felt was just that spring poking through the sofa and snagging me.
Even though I was now dazed, I was also confused as to why the spider had not attacked me then. What was it planning? When was it planning to do it? Like Indiana Jones hates snakes, India Joseph hates spiders.
I quickly rolled up the newspaper and lunged at my foe delivering it a mighty TH-WACK!!
I think I heard peals of laughter as it crawled a meter higher up the wall.
Now the blasted thing was high enough to avoid a second blow from me unless I stood on a chair. Stupid me. Hindsight is wonderful, but only if one lives long enough to realize it. I should have figured out that the chair is where it wanted me.
Reeling from a newfound headache and possible voices in my head, I went to the dining room and dragged a chair towards the spider.
As I moved closer, it began to pull itself up onto the ceiling. Ommigawd! Was it trying to take out the lights? It moved nearly directly overhead. I shuddered involuntarily.
Since the newspaper didn’t deliver the expected obituary, I dug out one of my dress shoes and smote it a mighty blow before grinding the heel onto him for a few seconds.
When I removed the show to see what I had wrought – it jumped at me!!! Oh the horror… the horror…
I evaded its furry touch by screaming like a little girl (my apologies to any little girls out there) and deftly falling off the chair.
I then reached for a handy construction boot (I really must be tidier) and crunched the devil repeatedly. Then I dragged him around my apartment for awhile.
It was over. All was quiet except for the screaming in my head.
I had won, but at what cost? My apartment was now covered in spider guts and my boot painted scarlet.
Then I heard it. A gentle rapping. Something tapping at my balcony door. Probably just the wind blowing my laundry line, only this and nothing more.
Or might it have been another spider seeking revenge? Next time I’m going to be better prepared. Go ahead… make me spray.
I suppose you are all thinking I over-reacted to the spider. Really? This is what it looked like: Ugh.
There are literally hundreds of these on my north balcony that come out as the sun goes down.
I can’t go out there because they suddenly start riding down their thread to try and land on me and crawl over my hair – and I hate having my hair messed up.
I found out that the Japanese actually like spiders. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to find out why.

Somewhere buying hair gel,
Jolly Jonah Joseph
This title is brought to you by The Ramones - TAKE A LOOK OVERHEAD.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Another Brick In The Wall

[Blog Note: When you see a coloured word in any of the entries, feel free to click on it. I have attached links to photos, videos and to sites that can provide more background information. As well, if you click on a photo, it will enlarge. And, if you glance at the bottom of any blog entry you'll see LABELS with a lot of words after it - clicking on one will call up all of the entries where that word is listed - for reference, of course. Okay. On with the show, this is it]:

The next few days were spent driving around the city to visit the seven Junior High Schools (Chu Gakko – chu meaning middle, gakko meaning school) I would be teaching at: Nozaki, Chikasono, Wakakusa, Ohtawara, Sakuyama (see photo), Kaneda Kita (Kaneda North) and Kaneda Minami (Kaneda South).
Anyhow, my first visit was to Ohtawra – the largest of the city junior high schools and the closest to my home – roughly 10 minutes away by bicycle.
I wondered why on Earth they were taking me to school in late July, but soon realized that the place was packed with teachers… and students.
Here’s the deal. In Japan, the school year begins in April and ends in March. Similar to a “March Break” in North America, there is a series of National holidays called Golden Week at the end of March thru beginning of April. There’s also a 5-week long Summer vacation in late July thru the end of August, along with a week off for an Autumn break and a two week break akin to our Christmas vacation called the Winter break.
So… what the heck were the students doing hanging around the school? Apparently they were there for club activities.
While students attend school Monday thru Saturday (Saturday is only a half-day), after school activities last between 4PM - 6PM. Okay, that’s kind of cool, but why were they at school during their summer vacation – and, more importantly, what the heck were the teachers doing here?
Back in North America, it truly is “no more teachers, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks”!
According to Garp, the students want to do their club activities, and their parents don’t want them hanging around the house unsupervised – juvenile delinquency, ne (eh). The teachers are there because the students are there, and look after the club activities pretty much between 8AM and 6PM.
Y’see in Japan, the teaching profession is, unlike its Western counterpart, a respected one. Should a student get in trouble after school for say shoplifting at the local department store, guess who gets called? That’s right – the teacher. Not the parents.
Teachers are not only responsible for the general education of the student, they are responsible for their upbringing.
More information: the junior school curriculum covers Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, music, fine arts, health, physical education and English. English is not learned until Grade 7 – and in many failed cases, not even then. Students are also exposed to industrial arts and homemaking – depending on the sex of the child.
So, what is a club activity? It could be kyudo (Japanese archery – nothing better than arming a teenager!); softball (for girls); baseball (boys); soccer; track & field; tennis (girls); kendo (Japanese fencing - again, nothing better than arming a teenager); swimming (if the school has a pool – only Sakuyama had one in my town); music, singing or judo. If there were any more, I never got invited to join them, and so I don’t know. Once you join, you are there until you graduate. I'm unsure if the pattern holds true through high school.
In Japan, no one fails a class. You join the school together and no matter how well or badly one does, you graduate together. Of course, there’s still the need to take a test to get into the proper high school. Depending on your test score, you might get into Ashley’s top-rated high schools, or perhaps one that caters to the technical studies – say electrical or auto mechanics. Then there’s farming followed by barber school. Of course, this does NOT mean that all barbers or farmers are stupid. For some it’s a family business choice, and for others it just might mean they aren’t good at taking tests. Heck, with my short-term memory problems (ie, inability to remember names), I’d be sweeping up after the barbers. More on the pressures of junior high school testing – and Juku (private extracurricular study schools) later.
Anyhow, students of 30-35 kids are part of a homeroom class, and wear badges denoting their school and homeroom – that way the police know which teacher to call!
So, between judo tosses and kendo blows I met the English teachers at each of my schools. While all were pleasant people, with a few exceptions their English-speaking skills were not the best. Grammatically they were technically sound, and knew more than I did – as evidenced by this blog. Heck, I never claimed to be an English teacher.
Japan may have realized the spoken language problem which is why in 1987 it began inviting native English speakers to serve as assistants to the Japanese teachers of English.
That first year saw a total of 848 AETs assistant English teachers). I joined up in 1990 when there was about 1,500 of us. By 2002 it peaked to 6,273 AETs. At least it shows that they are serious… and that I didn’t wreck the program. Budget cuts and the hiring of teachers privately through low-paying agencies has cut into the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme.
I was paid ¥3.6-million (yen) a year. Holy crap! I was a multi-millionaire once! How did I blow it? Essentially it was about Cdn $36,000. Not bad for a punk out of school and at the onset of a recession. That was another reason my father told me: "Get thee to a nipponery" – to badly paraphrase Shakespeare.
So… would you like to know what Japanese teachers make? One man – Mr. Inoue - a teacher at Ohtawara Chu Gakko had been teaching for 20 years and was making the equivalent of Cdn $30,000 - which he considered very respectable.
Twenty years experience? Responsible for 30+ kids at school, club activities and after school discipline? How is that fair? Apparently in Japan, the teachers are expected to eat the respect that they earn. It’s really quite fulfilling. $30,000 – that’s like school in summer. No class. Except that they have school in summer here. Now I’m confused. That was such a good joke. I stole it from Fat Albert.
I was embarrassed, but Mr. Inoue (Inoue-sensei) rationalized that they needed to pay us foreigners a lot to get us to come. Sure, but what makes the Japanese teachers stay? Mr. Inoue thought about that for a moment, scratched his head, took a drag of his cigarette and muttered in pretty good English, "I have no bloody idea."
Having seeded doubt, my job was complete for the day.
Although I was told by individuals at JET to never share my rate of pay with the Japanese (they recognized a blabbermouth when they heard one, I suppose), I only remembered it 19 years later. And it's too late. I already wrote it down five paragraphs ago.
Sorry for the lack of knee-slapping buffoonery, but education is why I was in Japan, and it’s also why I’m writing the blog – for you and for me.

Somewhere, school’s out for summer – but not here,
Alice Joseph
Today's title is by Pink Floyd.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ohtawara – Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Ohtawara is one of twelve cities in Tochigi-ken. It is not a city like Tokyo, New York, London or Toronto; rather it possesses a small-town feeling of rural life. Thank goodness.
It is the smallest city in the Prefecture with a population of about 50,000 – although the populace is spread out quite a bit as the area is long from north to south.
For reference, although I had a really large apartment and lived in the centre of the city, I was still only a three-minute walk from the nearest rice field or 7-11. But more on food and convenience later.
Day Two in Ohtawara: Kanemaru-san came by to pick me up at 7:30AM that morning. I’d been up at the crack of dawn – 4:30AM – as I didn’t have drapes in my bedroom.
After the cursory bowing, and describing my drapes of wrath dilemma, we went downstairs – we took the elevator! – and walked out the main entrance towards a sheltered bike rack. Pointing to a small red bicycle that obviously belonged to a much shorter and female individual (Cheryl), Kanemaru said: “An-do-ryu sensei” (Andrew teacher’s).
He looked at the bicycle – a classic 1-speed with a light and basket on the front – while I grimaced. He shook his head and had a smoke and marched me into his waiting white car.
In the two-minute drive to the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE), Kanemaru-san was able to finish half a deck of smokes. An impressive sight.
I won’t bore you too much here, suffice it to say that when I entered the front door of the building everyone was waiting for me. There was a Canadian flag on a wall beside a Japanese one, flowers everywhere and well-dressed men and women lining the hallway bowing at me.
I didn’t know what to do, so I bowed deeply and said: dozo yoroshiku onegai shi masu (please take care of me). They all bowed some more and said something that sounded similar to my phrase.
Satisfied that I had not upset the balance of nature, Kanemaru-san put his hand on my shoulder and nudged me forward to an elevator. It was an Otis!
Getting off at the top floor (there were three floors), Hanazaki-san was waiting for me by the elevator. I bowed deeply. He bowed. We bowed together repeatedly for a few seconds.
There’s actually a trick to bowing. You place your hands straight to your sides and bend forward at the waist. You do not make eye contact with the other, but – and here’s the trick - look at the other person’s shoes. If their shoes are better than yours, they must be more important than you so hold the bow longer and deeper.
I was led to an office down the hall – by the way, although every office contained a door, not one was closed – and was introduced to the Superintendent of the OBOE. Not a tall man – maybe 5’-3” and shrinking, he was dressed in a tailor-made suit and had shoes that looked very expensive. I bowed, said my piece and noticed he kind of just nodded his head at me. That’s okay. I know my place. I’m the lowly gaijin (foreigner).
Nope. He came around his desk, smiled widely, and grabbed my hand and pumped it in an enthusiastic handshake and said the only English word I ever heard him utter in three years. “Welcome.”
Ushered into a larger bullpen, I was introduced to the other nine people in the office. I had a nice corner desk and roller chair and had a beautiful Fuji computer perched on it with the all-important large, floppy diskette drive. The characters on the screen were in orange. The keyboard was pre-set for English characters, but I was shown how to switch to the Japanese alphabet – all three of them. I’ll describe the alphabets in greater detail later – suffice to say that Kanji consists of 1,942 Chinese letters, while Hiragana and Katakana each have 71 symbols, and none of them look like English.
While Japan may indeed be a technological leader in electronics and computers, there was no trickle down to the average Joe Suzuki. My old Atari 400 computer from 1979/80 was better than this one made 10 years later – and mine could do colour.
Not that it mattered… like most people, I use the computer as a glorified typewriter.
The three women who were part of the team brought us all a cup of o-cha (green tea). My first of 1,000s. That day. Sometimes it seems like that statement is correct.
Sitting around for two minutes, Hanazaki-san, Kanemaru-san and the guy who first drove me to Ohtawara bade me go with them. I’m thinking the guy whose name I never learned was the guy who had the van that would fit all of us.
I was first taken to a small shop down a tiny residential street that had a metal sheet over what I assumed was the garage. There were also about 100 bicycles strewn around the place.
Hanazaki-san knocked on the metal sheet, which was quickly lifted up from inside. Because one should never judge a book by its cover, I was not surprised to find a beautifully furnished tatami mat-laden living room – with a powerful-looking motorcycle in it.
A woman quickly brought out green tea while her husband prostrated himself on the mat in the most incredible bow I’ve ever seen that didn’t involve a god.
We all drank our tea in relative silence until Hanazaki-san said, “Ah so ka.” (a slangy version of “well…”).
The man in whose living room shop we sat cross-legged, yelled something at his wife who hurriedly ran deeper into the house and came back with a box, bowed low and held it out to me like it was the gift of manna.
I opened it up and stared at what looked like a caramel coloured make-up powder case for a woman. Within, I saw a field of red and something that looked like a plastic lipstick holder. I picked it up and noticed that on the underside it had some Japanese writing on it.
Hanazaki-san plucked it from my hands, thumped it into the field of red and then pressed the lipstick holder onto the back of his hand where it left an image.
“Your name,” he said. “Your hanko (a stamped seal that is used in lieu of signatures).” (see photo above)
After some more tea, we left and made our way to a main street where the Ohtawara branch of the Ashikaga Bank was/is.
We marched directly up to the front window past the line of people where I swear I heard them whisper my name. The bank had about 25 people working in it – including five bank tellers, all of whom were identically-dressed and coiffed beautiful women!
And they all had a lilting, soft singsong voice. I later discovered that all women in the service industry when talking to a customer put on this subservient voice.
This doe-eyed beauty helping us said, “An-do-ryu sensei, ne” (Andrew teacher, eh?). “Hai-iiii” (yesssss? - proounced "hi"), I said and saddled up closer to the teller’s window.
Sensing that they were about to lose us, Hanazaki-san interrupted and got to the heart of the matter - and had her set me up with a bank account and ATM card.
After more green tea and with the paperwork done and hanko-ed by my self, the bank teller (I think it was the same one) read aloud my complete home address and winked at me.
This place is awesome!
Kanemaru-san, perhaps detecting a disturbance in the Force started talking quickly to the teller. Two words I was able to pick out were “ga-ru-fu-ren-do” and “Ash-er-re”. That was Katakana-talk for “girlfriend” and “Ashley”.
A chorus of Ie (“No”, pronounced e-ya)’s lit up the bank as I was quickly ushered out of the place.
Squeezing my enlarged ego into the van - something called a Cherry Vanette – Kanemaru-san and Hanazaki-san mentioned how nice it was that I already had a girlfriend here. How the heck did they know that? I hadn’t seen or talked with her since the bus ride to Utsonomiya yesterday.
The rest of the day was spent driving me around to the local sights of interest – like the grocery store, liquor store and drapery store – everyone smiled, bowed and said “Hello An-do-ryu-sensei” and asked questions of me through Hanazaki-san (apparently he has better shoes than Kanemaru-san.
Later, we parked at my building and made a quick one-minute walk over to the Ohtawara entertainment district via a complex series of narrow alleyways. Although quiet now, I was told the place hums to life when the sun goes down. The alleyways were filled with a plethora of bars, restaurants and something called the London Club, which I was told, was for sukebe’s (sue-ke-bee aka perverts or dirty old men). I made mental notes of its location – but truth be told, since I was here in Japan as part of an international exchange, I was not going to do anything overt to jeopardize mine and Canada’s reputation.
I was always too afraid to go into the London Club in case someone saw me go in there and told my bosses. Who needs that kind of trouble?
Anyhow, I bought some drapes – or rather Hanazaki-san bought me some drapes and came back to my house and made a call. Ten minutes later, the building superintendent came up and said “Hello, An-do-ryu sensei” and installed the drapes for me.
After everyone left, I called Ashley and Kristine and told them about my day – but not about the bank.
I’m sure everyone in Ohtawara now knew about Ashley, and were probably just discovering my infatuation with Kristine. Sukebe.

Somewhere secretly glad I had banking options,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is a parody of the television show CHEERS theme song - NORM

With A Little Help From My Friends

Hi everyone.
Matthew Hall is offering a link to some photos he recently took while in Japan. The lucky bugger travels out there every once in awhile!
There are some nice shots of Matthew, Mt. Nasu - part of the background in my lone shot in the blog: Stranger In A Strange Land, and I believe some gateways from a temple in Ohtawara, amongst others.
Click here for the photos.
Because I am in the process of selling my house and moving, my 1000s of photos of Japan are not only in disarray, but are hiding in a box somewhere. I'll probably end up using the same site as Matthew to post photos, and will keep you all informed when it's up and running.
More Blog later tonight.

Somewhere envious but grateful to Matthew,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is sun g by Ringo Starr but played and written by The Beatles. 

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stranger In A Strange Land

Despite the title, let me start by saying that Japan isn’t strange. It’s just strange to me.
After Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san left me alone, I walked over to the telephone and called home – giving them the spiel you have read in the past blog entries.
I then called Ashley – not in yet.
Hanging up, I opened up all of the doors and windows and strolled out onto my north balcony. As a stranger in a strange land with none of my family or long-time friends here, the newness of it all began to excite me. And then the doorbell rang.
Just to be safe, I glanced through the eyehole and saw the fisheyed visage of Kanemaru-san trying to peer in at me.
“Ah so desu,” he said. “Do-nu-stahs, pulizu.” (Uh, downstairs, please… but then you probably figured that out, too.)
Kanemaru-san, Hanazaki-san and the other guy (man, I really am going to have to start paying more attention) walked me down the stairs to a restaurant located on the main floor of the apartment complex. I am unsure of its name (really, really gotta start paying attention) – it might have been the Happy Sumo.
As we walked through the entranceway – the entrance had a thick cloth fabric hanging down over the doorway that we had to part and duck our heads to enter – everyone inside yelled at us: “Irasshaimase" meaning ‘please come in’ or ‘welcome’. Immediately we were led to a table by a plump, smiling, elderly woman who said something about “gaijin” (outsider/foreigner) to Hanazaki-san. He shook his head no, and we were taken to our table.
The word gaijin is one all foreigners/visitors learn very quickly. While not meant as an insult, it does show the need of the Japanese to separate themselves from others. Wherever you are located, gentle reader, can you imagine talking to a friend and seeing someone different from you and then pointing and talking out loud about the foreigner/outsider. “Hey, Jimmy! Is that a foreigner?” That’s kind of what most visitors to Japan go through on a daily basis.
My experience wasn’t bad, however. More often than not, I was called gaijin-san. They called me Mr. Foreigner. Now that’s respect.
The very low table sat on a tatami (grass) mat and had pillows strewn upon the floor for us to sit. First, however, we had to remove our shoes.
For Kanemaru-san and myself, going shoeless was the biggest mistake that restaurant ever made. If you will recall, I had been sitting in a bus and van and sweating for hours.
I sat cross-legged on the cushions and was handed a menu that contained pictures of the food (most restaurants here tend to offer a menu like that – very helpful).
Asked if I wanted beer or sake, I recalled my father’s warning and chose a beer. Stick with what you know, I always say. The irony of it all hit me 19 years later.
From out of the blue, a voice spoke out: “Hey, Andrew, you gaijin! How are you?”
I turned around and looked into the grinning visage of Matthew Hall – who in the decades I have known him has never lost that smile. The giant redhead (6’-4”, 180-lbs) Howdy-Doody/Richie Cunningham look-a-like (Oh! He’s gonna kill me for that one!) smiled and said he also lived here in Ohtawara but that he would teach junior high in all of the small hamlets outside of Ohtawara. Cool. An English-speaking friend and neighbour.
At least I was now able to figure out that the restaurant lady was asking if we wanted to sit with the other gaijin party.
And because you are interested, Ashley was to teach mainly at the Ohtawara Boy’s High School with occasional visits to the Girl’s High School. She lived in Nishinasuno a small town immediately to the north and west of Ohtawara. Cool. An English-speaking girlfriend.
After a lot of drinking and some eating, my supervisors bade me goodnight with the promise that they would be by at 7:30AM to take me to the office.
I walked into my apartment, closed the door and took the whiz to end all whizzes. Finally! No, I didn’t wear the bathroom slippers.
So there I was. Alone in my quiet, clean apartment standing with my eyes wide open in twinkling awe.
Now, if I could only figure out how to cook, clean, do laundry, iron, shop for food, teach English and speak the language, this culture shock might be easy to handle. Either that, or it’s my one-way ticket to a sanitarium.

Somewhere trying on a white suit with the arms tied around the back,
Today's title is by Iron Maiden.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Magic Carpet Ride

On the third day of our (dis)orientation in Tokyo and after lunch, all the AETs (Assistant English Teachers) met again in the hotel’s meeting room before separating us by prefecture (province) for bus or plane rides to our specific destinations.
While I didn’t get to say goodbye to Kristine South who was off to live in Shiga-ken about five hours away by Shinkansen (bullet train), rest assured that she’ll be back in this BLOG.
We waited outside for the bus to take us to our prefecture – but the heat! We were all dressed to the nines in anticipation of meeting our bosses – I was wearing a then-fashionable double-breasted suit and tie – and began sweating as soon as stepped from the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel. In fact, I don’t think I was dry for my entire stay in Japan.
Ashley chatted beside me on the nondescript 1-1/2 hour ride north to Tochigi-ken’s capital city of Utsonomiya. After meeting the Prefecture's education big wigs, they called our names out one by one, and were quickly introduced to the people who would essentially be responsible for our welfare over the next year, or should we/they wish us to stay longer, a second and third year.
During our initiation back in Toronto, we had been told that the Japanese could be a tad xenophobic. So, it was with even greater fear and trepidation as a visible minority involved in the JET Programme that I stood up and walked to the front when my name was called. Let me get one thing straight with you all… I don’t see myself as a minority. I see myself as Andrew.
Mr. Hiroshi Hanazaki and Mr. Masahiro Kanemaru were my supervisors. Both of the men were about as old as I am now at the time of this Blog – 44, and seemed like very mature people.
After we all bowed to each other, I repeated a phrase I was told to say: dozo yoroshiku onegai shi masu (please take care of me). More bowing occurred as I said it. It was kind of cool.
Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san (the Japanese call each other by their surname, adding the word san after it, denoting Mr/Mrs/Ms) were office workers at the Ohtawara Kyoiku Iinkai (Ohtawara Board of Education) – a place that I was told I would spend each Friday. It was expected that I would teach the workers there English. Monday through Thursday I would be an assistant English teacher at one of seven junior high schools in Ohtawara City, visiting one school per week.
While the students also went to school a half day on Saturday, I was not expected to teach, as they realized that the non-Japanese were lazy buggers and needed two days off per week. It’s difficult to argue with logic.
In the hour-long drive up north from Utsonomiya to Ohtawara, my two supervisors - though not the driver - began to chat with me. Hanazaki-san spoke pretty decent English and immediately cracked me up with a dirty joke.
Kanemaru-san chained smoked and was quiet. Too quiet, it seemed, as he looked severe and often glared at me. It figured to be a long year if this guy was going to be my boss.
But then, it all turned on a ten-yen coin. Kanemaru-san pulled out a Japanese-English dictionary and sidled close to me and between puffs of his cigarette began to speak looked-up-English-word by looked-up-English-word. Five painful minutes later, it was over and Kanemaru-san had told his first ever joke in English.
Because of me.
How can you not like a guy who tries to do something like that? It beats me how they knew that I liked a good joke – or a bad joke even. Sure the jokes lost a little bit in the translation, but I sure as heck appreciated the effort.
Most of the trip was a complete blur. I occasionally glanced out the window to peer at the tiny white cars speeding by us on the Tohoku Expressway. Mile after mile (kilometre after kilometre) we passed rice field after rice field. I once again wondered what the hell I was doing here.
That feeling never did leave me throughout my wonderful stay in Japan. The blurriness, I mean. I think I needed new contact lenses.
After Kanemaru’s initial jodan (joke) that had me howling in pain thanks to his love of back-slapping, the man was a non-stop joke-machine. Maybe that’s why it was such a blur. He slapped me so hard my contacts fell out.
We finally pulled off the highway and drove by a score more rice fields and according to Hanazaki-san were approaching Ohtawara.
Oh-ta-wara (Big-rice field-field) City. The city so rural they had to call it a field twice.
Rather than bore you, click here to learn a bit more about Tochigi-ken, and click here to learn more about Ohtawara. Let me just say that when I was there in 1990 – 1993, the city barely had 50,000 people. There was no McDonald’s or KFC (back then, it was still called Kentucky Fried Chicken, ya youngins!), but there were plenty of bike shops, restaurants, something called a Mosburger and plenty of other surprises that I’ll reveal here.
“Zuiko Haitsu!” exclaimed Hanazaki-san like I knew what the heck he was talking about as the van pulled up to a parking lot in front of an apartment building. Apparently this fancy place had a name. Its nickname was Zuiko Mansion. Okaaaaay. This place had almost as many names as me.
Grabbing my seven (yes, seven) pieces of luggage – including an electric keyboard, a clarinet and at least one change of underwear (it cost my dad an extra $400 to get the stuff on the airline!), we decided not to take the elevator and dragged my stuff up the stairs to apartment 307 on the third floor of the eight-story white building.
Having never lived in anything higher than my parent’s basement in over a decade, the thin air took some getting used to.
The apartment jutted out as a wing meaning I had no neighbours beside me, just one above and one below.
Expecting to see hunchbacked mice in my new tiny apartment – according to those in the know (???), Japan is crowded and everyone has a tiny living space – I grabbed a breath while I could, as Hanazaki-san gave me a door key and bade me to open it.
Unlocking the door, they pushed me in. Taking a few steps forward, the three of them immediately began screaming at me – oh crap, I thought. They really do hate foreigners here – they’re going to kill me!
Slowly I turned and stared blankly at the ever-smiling face of Hanazaki-san, and the ever-smoking visage of Kanemaru-san, and the bespectacled face of the driver whose name I never managed to learn even though we “worked” together for three years. I know, I know. Pathetic.
Apparently upon entering any Japanese home, whether it’s guest or resident, one is expected to take off their dirty shoes and slip into something more uncomfortable – plastic slippers that are always neatly placed facing inwards to the home by the side of the door.
As you may or may not know, the Japanese as a whole are not described as being overly big people. Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san were both about 5’-8” (I think as tall as Gasoline!), while I was a towering 5’-11.25”). As a smaller race, they tend not to sell shoes in Japan larger than a men’s size 9 – or what they call a size 26cm. I’m a size 10-1/2 aka 30cm foot – which makes me sound a lot bigger elsewhere, if you know what I mean.
There were two sets of slippers laid out for me - one pair of baby blues and the other in cotton candy pink.
So there we were: two sets of slippers and two Japanese supervisors, a big-foot Canadian and a driver of indeterminate name and rank in the apartment.
Who would have to wear the pink slippers and who would dare go without? Believe it or not, I wore the blue slippers – jammed’em in tight - two of the Nihonjin (Japanese people) brought their own – pulled them out from the inside pocket of their jacket – while Kanemaru-san began taking off his socks after first slapping his forehead in disgust and swearing at what I assume was himself. He also lit up another cigarette – Golden Bat, I believe. At least it smelled like bat.
No one put on the pink ones. I like these guys already.
They all took turns showing me how to put on the tiny slippers – uh, there’s no real Japanese secret to that. I think that after my initial gaffe they thought I might be a tad slow. I skated (thereby affirming my tetched-in-the-head-ness) past the bathroom area immediately to my right and along a 4-metre hallway into an enormous living room/dining room/kitchen open concept area that was easily 10m deep by 5m wide.
At the end of it was a sliding door leading out to a full-sized balcony (facing north). Alongside the hallway on the left there was a 4m x 4m bedroom that had a small walk-in closet, a writing desk and chair and another balcony (facing west). A second bedroom beside it and accessed through the l/d/k was the designated bedroom, and a third larger 5m x 5m room that contained what can only be described as a turn-of-the-century German mahogany clothes drawer/liquor cabinet. At least that’s how I used it.
Even though I have no idea what a metre is, I’m pretty sure that this was a really big apartment. I wondered how the other AETs had fared?
All of the rooms were carpeted in a thin, ugly green ply, while each individual room had real doors on them save the middle room which was laid with tatami (grass floor mats) and had authentic Japanese sliding doors complete with a beautiful hand-painted landscape on it.
The kitchen area had a nice stove – but no oven, a fridge small enough to satisfy a Brit (1m high), a deep sink, lots of shelf space, and a convection oven with buttons to heat up one cup of sake (rice wine), two cups of sake, or god help us all, three cups of sake. There were also separate buttons for warming milk, and for cooking various weights of meat, including beef, veal, pork, chicken, and I kid you not, goat.
The dining room consisted of a four-seater pine table and chairs and a China hutch (actually a Japan hutch according to two-pack Kanemaru-san) that was filled with four sets of dishware and flatware, as well as various cups and mugs, spices and a tin of Twinings of London Earl Grey tea.
Hanazaki-san opened up some of the cabinets beside the fridge under the ample counter space and proudly showed me the cooking implements, including what Kanemaru-san’s dictionary said was a rice cooker – since we were men, none of us had actually ever cooked a meal, so the cookware was a bit of a mystery for us, although I was able to correctly point out a frying pan.
As an aside, Hanazaki-san promised to send an office girl or three around to show me how to use the cooking utensils. He did and they did the very next day, but he failed to send one who could speak English or one with a Japanese-English dictionary. I never did learn how to use a rice cooker. Nineteen years later, I still have no clue.
The living room contained a three-seat couch and an armchair that were both covered in a soft, luxurious but ugly, moss green fabric. Along with a 24-inch television on a small stand, a 2m-long marble-top table and a book case with a faded olive green dialer telephone, there was also something called a kotatsu (a 30-cm tall, wood table frame covered by a futon or heavy blanket, upon which a table top sits. As an added bonus, the table can be plugged in to act as a heater with the blanket capturing the heat).
The walls of the apartment were covered in white wallpaper with a light, light, light blue floral pattern that looked nice and not too feminine.
Each room had a 10-foot high ceiling - I hate the Metric system – and had more than its fair share of fluorescent lighting.
Drapes covered every floor-to-ceiling door/window in the place – except for the tatami/bedroom which had a pair of non-decorated Japanese sliding rice paper windows that covered up the 8’-wide x 1’-high window.
There. Hopefully you get a pretty good idea of how the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) set me up. The OBOE (I only JUST came up with that acronym) rented out the place from their own budget, and really wanted to impress on me on how much they wanted me to enjoy my stay in Japan. If I was to compare my situation with any other AET in Tochigi-ken or even Japan, I might actually have had the largest apartment with the most Western amenities.
Oh… and much to the chagrin of one Jeff Seaman, my bathroom came with a Western-style toilet.
I also had a washer/dryer machine – an important luxury in a country with 200% humidity – as well as a shower. There was also a small gas heater that I had to turn on if I wanted hot water.
The toilet room – a 1m x 1m cubicle – also came with its own set of slippers – dark green ones with little cartoony frogs sitting on lily pads. Apparently they are only supposed to be worn in the toilet room and woe to the person that doesn’t wear them.
No offense to Hanazaki-san or Kanemaru-san or to the people of Japan, I never wore any of the slippers ever again in my place. Worse yet, I encouraged others not to as well.
By the way, my hosts had hung a banner across the living room: Welcome to Japan Mr. Andrew Joseph.
They had spelled it right and got the order of my name correct, too. Something that doesn’t happen often enough back in Canada.
Hanazaki-san then pointed to a large black and white map hung on the wall above the telephone. Strangely enough, everything was in English, so even I might be able to understand it. Showing me a small photo in his wallet, Hanazaki told me that the map was drawn by my predecessor Cheryl Menezes, an English woman of Indian descent.
I didn’t think it odd for them to have chosen another person of colour to be an AET. I thought it was pretty cool, actually.
Just then, the telephone rang. Picking it up and saying 'Moshi Moshi' (hello – for use on the telephone only), Hanazaki-san handed the phone to me.
Monkey see, monkey do, I said Moshi just once; a fact that elicited laughter from everyone in my apartment including the person on the phone but me. Moshi means insect. So, if you say it twice, shouldn’t it mean insect-insect? Or is that exactly what it’s supposed to mean: "Sorry to bug you…"
On the other end of the phone, it was Cheryl wishing me good luck in my stay in Ohtawara. She told me to have fun, because that’s what it’s all about. Life, that is. That and the Hokey-Pokey.
After taking her phone number – she was back home in the UK – I slapped my two friends on the back and said domo arigato (thank you very much). In the process I dislodged Kanemaru-san’s cigarette onto the floor.
And that’s how I got a new blue carpet.

Somewhere having to cut those slippers off my toe-jammed feet,
Today's title is by Steppenwolf.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Name Game

I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a chowderhead. I have lacked initiative, but have fortunately had it thrust upon me by my parents. To wit, they forced me into soccer and into music – and while I may not have appreciated what I had, I was able to teach piano and clarinet and play and also coach soccer.
Thank goodness they also forced me into fulfilling my obligation of going to Japan as part of the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme as an AET (Assistant English Teacher). If it were up to me, I’d be sitting in my parent’s basement watching re-runs of Star Trek while trying not to get the Playmate of the Month pregnant.
My third night in Tokyo was another foreign affair – this time organized by the Tochigi-ken (Tochigi province, where I surmised I might be living) AETs.
We were led to our first Japanese Japanese restaurant by the stunning Gasoline – an AET returning for her third and final year in Japan. Gasoline is a tall, beautiful blonde Canadian girl given that unfortunate nickname thanks to the inability of the Japanese to pronounce her real name of Catherine (Komlodi from Calgary, Alberta).
Matthew Hall of Binghamton, New York and Jeff Seaman from Yuba City, California sat around me as we all delicately tried to figure out which end of the chopsticks to use. After copious amounts of beer, Jeff broke first and had to use the washroom. Excusing himself, he plodded off in a general direction – seconds later we heard a splash and a scream. Not wanting to stop drinking, we ignored it and waited for Jeff to return.
Featuring the soaker to end all soakers, Jeff explained that he had stepped into the toilet. Wow. How drunk do you have to be to do that?
Apparently three beers are not enough as Jeff explained that the toilet in this place did not have a crapper like what we Westerners sit upon everyday. No… this was a two-foot long by eight-inch wide porcelain bowl embedded in the ground that one is supposed to squat over. We found out later that in order to use said toilet, you need to remove your pants and develop great leg muscles.
Jeff said that in his first attempt to find the washroom he accidentally stumbled into the kitchen and was chased out and into the bathroom – it had no door or lights. Fumbling for a light switch, Jeff Seaman performed a naval maneuver to live up to his surname.
None of us laughed at Jeff – we all knew that any one of us could be the next victim of cultural indifference. Still, it was funny enough to take notes.
We quickly became suitably inebriated – so much so that none of us three noticed that there was a young lady sitting opposite me who had been keeping up with us in the booze department. Wow. How drunk does a virgin have to be to not notice that?
Apparently seven beers plus will do it.
Next Gasoline showed us the sights and sounds of Roppongi – Tokyo’s dance club area.
In Toronto, our dance club zone consists of maybe 30+ places and is spread out over the downtown core. But here! Oh my! Roppongi is a clubber’s paradise with quite literally 100’s of bright neon lit clubs from which to choose from with heavy-bass sounds thumping out from each.
Gasoline took us to the Java-Jive where we were told that you could only enter the place as a couple. While I attempted to make my move up to enter with Gasoline, a hand grabbed mine and dragged me happily into the place. At this point in time I had no idea who this pretty brunette with the squinty eyes and a southern drawl to drool for was, but I did learn that she was from Augusta, Georgia.
Quickly going through the coupons for free alcohol that we were given, she earned my fealty by buying me a couple of drinks.
Finally able to peel our eyes from each other, we noticed that we were the only two foreigners left in the place and – after decoding the Japanese numbering system – that it was 2:30AM. Actually, their clocks look just like ours.
Since I still had that box of matches with me – road map, remember – we knew how to get back to our hotel. Flagging down a cab, I handed the driver my matches and fell back into my fugue state with my new girlfriend… what the hell was her name? Seriously, I had no clue. She knew mine and was using it in ever sentence she spoke.
In my pathetic defense, if y’all will recall, at the restaurant I was talking/drinking with Matthew and Jeff, and prior to entering the Java-Jive, I was going to make a failed play for Gasoline. My new companion had never actually introduced herself to me… and while I am sure I queried her at the club, Groove Is In The Heart drowned her response out – probably the only non-Caribbean song they played that night.
The taxi driver got us back to the hotel in 30 minutes. Glimpsing the meter, I tossed him five ¥10,000 (yen) bills and told him to keep the change. Both he and she nearly had heart attacks at my generosity, as ¥50,000 is about $630 Cdn or US$500. I had thought that the ¥10,000 bills were ¥1,000’s – okay, I really had no idea what the exchange rate was – damn that orientation package that I should have read.
Even if ole whatshername hadn’t been there to correct me, the taxi driver would have. Unlike anything else I had ever seen in my limited travels around the world, the people of Japan are excessively honest.
This man said, “No, no, no!” and handed back my money. He then began pointing at my pants and saying dozo (please). Several embarrassing moments later, I figured out that he wanted my wallet and handed it to him. He opened it up and took the appropriate amount out and gave me back some change. When I tried to tip him, he would have none of it, came around and opened up the back door of his car with his white-gloved hands and said “hello”.
I knew what he meant, though. Hello new life.
The next day, all of us AETs were forced to go to an orientation meeting. I looked about for that girl I was with the night previous – saving her a seat next to me – not that anyone else wanted to sit near a guy sweating profuse amounts of beer and rum & coke. Matthew and Jeff wisely sat upwind of me and handed me a list of AETs in our prefecture. I looked at the list for a name that sounded somewhat familiar and southern, but aside from Rhett and Scarlett, I had no idea what a southern name was.
All of us AETs were wearing stickers on our shirts with our name on it… it’s probably why I was able to figure out who was Jeff and who was Matthew that morning. My mystery girl finally popped by my side at the end of the orientation – of course she wasn’t wearing her name tag and I was quick to point that out to her.
She smiled and drawled, “At least ya'll know what it is – and that’s all that matters. And besides, (breath) for everyone else I just tell them to think of Gone With The Wind.”
Oh man. Now I can’t even ask her. It’s not Rhett, is it? That’s a boy’s name, I think. I’ve never seen the movie – but if I wanted this relationship to work out I was going to have to rent the movie as soon as I got a chance!
I walked with her around the hotel – little Miss Social Butterfly seemed to know everyone, and everyone seemed to know her. They seemed to know me too, because I was getting the cold shoulder of indifference. Or maybe it was paranoia.
You might think that I now knew here name, but unfortunately, all of the women were saying: “Hey, girlfriend!” Or the guys: “Darling! Make sure you call me.” I was too confused to be jealous.
Hungry for answers and for lunch, we went to the hotel restaurant. When my unknown companion excused herself to go to the washroom, she left her purse on the table beside me. I’ve never seen a woman do that before. Of course, with my limited dating experience, I hadn’t seen a woman do much of anything before.
Quick as a bunny, I grabbed her purse, opened it up and began looking for some ID. There it was – a driver’s license issued to Ashley Benning.
Weeks later, she told me that Jeff had told her my conundrum so she’d let me off the hook by purposely leaving her purse on the table.
Oh well. At least I didn’t have to watch Gone With The Wind.

Somewhere where the surname is spoken first,
Joseph Andrew
The title for today's blog is by Shirley Ellis - BANANA SONG

Monday, July 13, 2009


So… it’s late July 1990… just in case you wanted a reference date.
Let’s just assume I left my house in Toronto, made it to the airport and got on the plane.
You could also assume that I became great friends with a lot of people on the plane thanks to my winning personality and incredible snoring ability, and that those plane folks became an important part of my life in Japan. You’d be wrong about that last sentence, however.
Several hours into the plane ride - in a 747 filled with Assistant English Teachers (AETs) from Ontario heading to Japan on a one-year contract to teach junior or senior high school English on the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Programme – I realized that in whatever town I was moving to, that I’d never see them again.
Besides, why on Earth would I want to hang out with English-speakers here in Japan? I wanted to become internationalized. That thought would come back to bite me on the bum many a time over the next three years.
Arriving at Narita Airport in the outskirts of Tokyo in Chiba-ken (ken is the Japanese word for province), the first thing that hit me was the heat. It was about 4PM and it was 34ยบ Celsius (93.2F). And here’s the weird thing – it was getting hotter as the day progressed.
Wanting to smell Japan, I inhaled. Forgetting that I was at an airport, all I smelled was jet fuel. Funny. It smells just like the Toronto airport.
All of us first-timers on the JET Programme were to spend the first three days in Japan at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo before traveling to our new homes – I believe it was a way of allowing us to get over our jet-lag (there’s a 15-hour+ time difference between Toronto and Tokyo) as well us allowing us all to get used to being in a foreign country. Apparently they thought that three days would be enough.
Let me just say this… that hotel was crawling with foreigners. Not Japanese people, but rather Americans, Canadians, English, Scots, Irish, Aussies and Kiwis – the fruit, bird and the people.
Exhausted and forced to share a room with a fellow Torontonian whose name I couldn’t remember after hearing it, I decided to sit in my room and watch Operation Desert Storm unfold. My nerdy roomy decided to see if he could find a nice Japanese girl to marry him for an hour or less – I hope he’s okay, as I never actually saw him again over my three-day stay at the hotel. Hmmm… I suppose I should have told someone.
After spending my first night in Japan watching CNN on television – quite the departure from how I would have spent an evening back in Toronto as I would never watch CNN - I spent the next day hovering around the hotel – not actually straying outside for fear of getting lost.
For those who don’t know me very well, I once got lost while portaging with a canoe on my head and wandered aimlessly about for five hours before finally lifting the craft up to actually look for a road sign. Turns out I was on a main highway I knew and therefore not actually lost.
I believe I slept through the next day, but I can’t be sure, as I was asleep.
On my second night at the hotel, I decided to venture down to the lobby to see if I could work up enough courage to walk a few feet outside the front door. As I walked through the lobby, a very pretty young lady stopped me and struck up a conversation.
Okay… what the hell is going on? This type of stuff NEVER happens in Toronto.
Dear Penthouse,
You won’t believe what happened to me while I was in Japan…
Kristine South, a Japanese-American from Washington DC, invited me to join her and some other people that she made friends with on her plane ride over (Hmmm, maybe I need to be friendlier) to go on a walk in the city. Horn dog that I was/am, I quickly got over my rational fear of getting lost and said yes.
Kristine had recently broken her right foot and was using crutches, but was more adept at hobbling than I was at walking.
Whether it was minutes later or hours, our group became awestruck by the flood of neon light and drunken Japanese businessmen in navy blue suits, a fact that contributed to us not actually knowing where we were walking/hobbling.
After yet another right turn, it became fairly evident that we were lost. How did we know? Simple. There was no more neon around us. Take it from me, folks – finding a part of Tokyo that is not lit up by neon signage is not an easy thing to accomplish.
Looking about for the mellow neon glow of the city, I thought I saw an English-language sign advertising something called a soapland across the street from us and decided to see if I could buy some scented soap. It turns out that a soapland is a massage parlor where the male customer is bathed during the activity – and no, I have never been in a soapland, but I do like scented soap.
I looked to the left and then to the right and seeing no cars, I stepped out into the street.
Why she did it, Kristine still doesn’t know, but noticing I was about to become a hood ornament for a white car, she pulled me back to reality.
Did you know that in Japan they drive on the opposite side of the road from us in North America? None of my pre-flight orientation mentioned that – or perhaps it did. I never actually read the orientation package. I think I still have it, though. I’ll look at it later.
Part of my soapland tunnel vision was also taken up by the very obvious okama (transvestite) standing in the doorway suggestively licking his/her lips and shaking his/her hips at my general direction. While not my cup of green tea, I wondered if the plethora of businessmen running in realized this soapland was a sausage factory. I didn't see anyone running out, though.
So… what is Tokyo like? It’s: noisy; constantly moving; neon bright; full of packed Japanese restaurants; hot and humid; got white cars and only white cars on the road, and; every street corner is crammed with vending machines that sell darn near everything a person could possibly ever want. Future BLOGs will examine most of these elements.
Hopelessly lost and hopelessly sweaty, Kristine and I – now the de facto leaders (IE the ones with the biggest mouth) – nominated one of our group to ask a person on the street if they knew where our hotel was.
A bigger problem arose as no one could remember on what line of this BLOG that I had actually mentioned the hotel’s name. Luckily I had a box of hotel matches with me, so it was easy for our erstwhile volunteer to point to the matchbox and shrug emphatically. Even if you don’t smoke, a box of matches is not only an excellent souvenir but can also be a road map to home sweet home.
Our first victim – a navy blue-suited Japanese businessman looked at the matchbox and said in perfect English: “I don’t speak Lark” and ran away from us into the soapland. Speak Lark? What the heck did that mean?
The next two men we asked also answered similarly in English and ran to enter the soapland. The fourth gent – although unable to speak English, bade us to follow him.
Forty-five minutes later we stood in front of our hotel. We thanked him profusely, he bowed, muttered something about a soapland and left.
No one knew what his name was. But, if the rest of Japan could match his sweaty kindness, my stay in Japan would be smooth one.

Somewhere wondering where I could buy lilac-scented soap,
Andrew Joseph
Today's cross-dressing title is by The Kinks - SOHO

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The House Of The Rising Son

I didn't want to go to Japan. To be perfectly frank, I was just trying to get laid.

I was 25-years-old and still living at home in Etobicoke in the west-end of Toronto. Considering my living arrangements - plus I was a nerd, ugly and my mother dressed me funny, I hadn't had much luck with the ladies. Ever.

I had finished a Political Science B.A. at York University and had decided to go to Humber College to get a real education in a two-year Journalism program. At Humber, I met and became enthralled with a young woman - and while she liked me and considered me a friend, I wasn't getting anything - except a very strong right forearm.

This woman confided to me that she was interested in going to Japan and teaching English via the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme - I'm unsure what the difference is between a programme and a program - plus she was going to apply for a summer internship position with the Toronto Star daily newspaper - one of the top North American newspapers.

Figuring it would be a blast (my opinion) if we were both able to get into the Star or go to Japan (and finally have sex with something other than a Playboy Playmate or Penthouse Pet), I applied to both program/mes.

Destined to be a virgin a while longer, I got into both programs and she got into neither. Figures.

The Star's summer internship program began in April - before I graduated - while the JET Programme would begin at the end of July.

Humber graciously passed me even though I wasn't around for the final month of school - even now I miss my daily broken English/Polish conversations with the Hot Dog lady in the cafeteria... so does my tape worm - but to go to Japan? As the months became weeks and became days I became convinced that I did not want to go to Japan. I was working for the best newspaper in Canada and if I left, that opportunity might never arise again.

In truth, I was just scared spitless.

At 11PM - a mere 12 hours before my flight left Toronto for Tokyo, I was trying to convince my father that I should stay.

Dear old dad with visions of being able to save hundreds of dollars a month in Kleenex purchases would have none of my cowardice - and told me to go, experience the culture and use it to further my life. Besides he had already rented out my room.

He also said to watch out for the rice wine aka sake... but that's another blog.

My apologies for not being very wacky in this first blog - but that's because we aren't in Japan yet. I can guarantee that once you arrive in the Land Of The Rising Sun with me that you'll bust a gut laughing and hopefully learn a thing or two.

Somewhere sharing a bed,
Andrew Joseph
Title is the awesome song by The Animals. I did change the spelling of the word "sun", however.
Listen - I'VE WON.