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Monday, August 31, 2009

Andrew’s Restaurant

I probably have it buried in a box somewhere, but after recently moving in 2009, it’s going to take a Herculean effort to shift enough crap out of the way to even begin looking for it!
Noren. I mentioned it in a previous blog—Freeze Frame—look to the left of Matthew in his photo to see my o-zumo (sumo wrestling) noren that I hung in my hallway. I had thought that a noren was purposely hung low within a doorway to ensure people ducked their head when entering to ensure a bow was made (failure to bow would get one a face full of fabric)—but that was a load of hooey.
Apparently the positioning of a noren at the entrance to a restaurant has a much more practical use.
So… what is a noren? Click HERE for a visual sample.
A noren is a split curtain hung in front of a shop at the doorway, and nowadays is more often seen fronting restaurants. It was used to keep out the sun and dust, but with the advent of better doors and windows, it is now either used as a decoration, or for advertising purposes.
Stores often have its name written upon it, and often serves as the shop's signage, in lieu of a large graphic billboard or light box seen more commonly in other countries. A Canadian version for a now-closed iconic record store utilizing a lightbox (the sign is a Toronto landmark) is presented HERE for your amusement.
Japanese noren—I’m assuming other Asian countries also have a version of them—are now also used as decorations in homes. I didn’t know that when I dared to place it in my apartment—I thought I might be over-stepping the cultural grounds of taste—and while I wouldn’t have cared too much about what people thought of my Canadian embassy, it’s nice to know now that I didn’t cause an international incident. At least with my noren.
My particular noren has an image of a sumo wrestler, of which quite a bit more will be written about in another blog soon. Thanks to Matthew, I actually have some neat sumo souvenirs! Click on THIS word to see what my noren looks like.
The noren’s sumo image is taken from an ukiyo-e (Japanese wood block print – I have about 10+ of these made in the 1850s), and is of a Yokozuna-class sumo wrestler entering the ring. Thank you Matthew and Takako Hall for your help with identifying that much, at least.
Anyhow, all of this baloney about noren has made me hungry. I guess it’s curtains for the diet I was going to start earlier today.

Somewhere going through boxes,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is a parody of the Arlo Guthrie tune Alice's Restaurant.

What I Say

Hai. How y’all doing?
I learned that phrase from my southern belle girlfriend, Ashley. Actually, I learned it from Ellie Mae Clampett, but regardless, I think it amuses us both when I talk like she does. Probably. What, me worry?
(I’ve been here in Ohtawara for about three weeks now and still haven’t done what I wanted to do in the opening line of my very first blog. But rest assured that it happens, and that it was very enjoyable for us. ‘Nuff said).
Almost everyone who has had a chance to visit Japan, has probably been stymied by the dreaded language barrier. Most of the many little problems I have faced in Japan have occurred because I can’t, like, dig the lingo.
In order to make myself be understood—I don’t appear to be trying very hard to learn the language—I tend to speak in broken English.
How stupid is it that I come here to teach English, but because of my own inadequacies, I am unable to do so properly because I talk in incomplete sentences to make myself understood.
It’s reached the point where I now talk to other foreigners using broken English: “Hello. Let’s go restaurant.”
I know it drives everyone crazy, but in my defense, I know what I’m doing and I enjoy ticking people off. It also gives me an excuse not to study Japanese.
Another problem I have encountered is with my telephone. Every night since I arrived in Ohtawara, a Japanese woman calls me and says “Good morning” to me. That’s nice, right? Unfortunately, that’s all she knows how to say in English. Heck, she doesn’t even call me in the mornings. Sometimes, just for laughs, she puts her daughters/girlfriends on to say hello.
Since they only speak Japanese, I am completely at my wits end. I don’t wish to be impolite, but these agonizing “conversations” go on for about 10 minutes, until they pass out from my scintillating conversation.
In order to be amusing, I screwed up. I purchased a small Japanese/English phrase book, of which I would slowly ready a few colloquial lines to my new friend. Even with my horrible enunciation, my attempts at speaking Japanese garnered extensive retorts, so much so that I now made each call last about 30 minutes, now.
Two of the phrases I’ve repeated include: “Boy, am I absolutely knackered” (I guess the book was written by a Brit!), and “Are you single? I am”. Needless to say, after I say these things in Japanese, I get a long, drawn out response, during which all I can do is sit with my phone in my hand, nod my head and say “hai” (yes) a lot.
For the purposes of this blog, it’s a good thing I have always considered myself to be a “weirdness-magnet”. People like to talk to me, for some reason. Here in Japan, it seems more pronounced. If I’m by myself or with a gaggle of other foreigners (I think the correct term is a JET of AETS), I’m the only one who gets spoken to.
It’s great when it’s beautiful Japanese women (though that hasn’t happened yet), but usually it’s just locals who are curious about the stranger within their midst. A short history note will follow in the next blog, okay? It will help explain a bit about why foreigners are actually refereed to as gaijin, a term that actually means “outsider”
Anyhow, after being talked to, because I don’t understand anything yet, I just nod my head and say hai a lot it appears that they may have asked me a question. That’s when I tilt my head to the side and repeat the last word they said as if I am confused. Which I am.
It doesn’t matter that the last word in every Japanese question is the word “ka”, which is used to designate that the sentence is now a question.
I smile hopelessly and say one of three words/phrases I have learned to say: wakirimasen (which means, “I don’t know”). The question-maker person always smile at his own stupidity for believing he was talking to someone smart and says “okay” in English. Smiles, says Hello and walks off. Ahhh, isn’t cultural exchange wonderful?
By the way, the other two phrases I have learned are: “Ohio” (‘morning!’, which I learned from WKRP In Cincinnati); and “Tasukete kudasai. Michi ni mayotte shimaimashita.” (Help. I am lost.)

Somewhere still too lazy to learn Japanese,
Andrew Joseph
Title is by Ray Charles.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

You Light Up My Rife: Obon III

Okay, it’s August 15, and the third day of Obon, the Festival of the Dead. Because I’m still hung-over from actually being there 19 years ago, I’m going to keep this blog entry brief—for me.
I’m still unsure how I got there, but it was 24 hours after Hanazaki-san’s Ghostbuster episode, and 48 hours after I helped make a sake seller rich.
I may traveled with Kanemaru-san that evening—I don’t know—but when I awoke from haze, I found myself beside the Ohtawara River (it may have been a reflection).
I want you all to know that after stumbling across this river that wove through the downtown area of Ohtawara a scant two weeks after arriving in town, I never noticed it again.
But that evening, I saw hundreds of paper lanterns—each holding a lit candle—float down the river. Floating paper lanterns are called toro nagashi.
The utilization of lanterns are an important part of Obon, as one of the functions is to place one at the entrance of a home to guide the spirits of ancestors there (remember, in the Japanese version of Hell, the dead are blind, and the flame’s heat helps act as an attractor. This may be the origin of the phrase ‘keeping the home fires burning’, which coincidentally or not, is called mukaebi.
As for the floating lantern, it is a way to send the spirits off—back to Hell, as it were. Personally, I don’t buy that, as the spirits aren’t actually sent away until the 16th. It’s my guess/belief that the living utilize the lanterns to offer a remembrance prayer for the dearly departed in anticipation of their return trip the next day.
All I can tell you is that it was a beautiful sight and if I was anything but an idiot, I’d have photos to share with you. To be honest, I wasn’t that good at night photography even with a flash.
After viewing this beautiful ceremony, I stumbled around the nearby park, and watched some Japanese folk dancing (bon odori) that is quite similar to Morris dancing (click on the word). Essentially, the dancers wear a light summer kimono (yukata) and dance in a circle with taiko drums helping to keep the beat.
Being a semi-legend after only two weeks in the town, I was of course instantly recognized and forced to join in the dancing. I’ll spare you the gory details, but there is a reason disco is dead. I watched the other dancers and tried to mimic the simple dance steps, but like a Hawaiian dance, while the feet shuffle, the hands tell a story.
I failed miserably at dancing, but wonder of wonders, no one cared and everyone seemed to accept me as part of their extended family simply because I was there.
I have many memories of Japan: most of them good, some sad, and a few are in a drunken haze. And, there are still others like this one which still give me a warm feeling all over when I recall it.
Having been a nerd all my life, never quite fitting in anywhere, and not being very happy, it was illuminating to travel halfway around the world to discover the kindness of strangers here in Ohtawara. They made me feel… happy.
Somewhere on Clouds 1 through 9,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Back to the comedy in the next installment. I guess all of this death stuff has made me a tad melodramatic.
PPS: Title sung by Debbie Boone.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Break On Through: Obon II

(He’s ba-ack! Here in 2009, the family has moved out of our house into my dad’s empty home. Empty in the sense that no one has lived there since we moved out two years ago after our house fire. The Chicago comic con was fun and Steve Guzelis and I got a chance to see Tom Wachowski: friend, artist and a main cog of Strange Fun Comics who was hospitalized. When we saw him two weeks ago, he was alert, talkative and witty. Unfortunately he passed away a week later from pancreatic and diabetes-related illness. He was 42 and leaves a nine-year-old son behind. This episode is dedicated to Tom).

Back to 1990: I think I like sake (Japanese rice wine, and is pronounced sah-kay). Let’s just say that as far as liquids go, it’s my new best friend (except for Coke, of course). After quickly getting drunk and being too stupid to know I was drunk, I have a vague recollection of moving. Moving… must be some sort of kismet thing 19 years from now.
When next I opened my eyes, I was home and fully-dressed lying on my bed. The doorbell rang.
Slowly but surely, I got to the door, opened it and removed the finger of Hanazaki-san from the doorbell. Not a real hangover but an incredible simulation.
He asked if I was ready to go. I glanced at my watch (incidentally, as I write this blog 19 years later, I’m wearing the same watch. My own time machine), it was August 14, and the sun was starting to get low in the sky.
Not wanting to sound ignorant because I had no idea of what he meant, I tried to tell him that I wasn’t ready yet and needed a few moments to get re-dressed. Instead, I think I said: “Nrrrrrrr”, which roughly translates into: “I slept for 20 hours?”.
I was wearing clean everything and was out the door in one Canadian minute, or 20 minutes Japanese time. Remember, time is only relative to the observer,
Now, the following is, I swear, 100 per cent true.
Apparently I was invited by Hanazaki-san to have dinner with his family, but because I wasn’t hip to the intricacies of Obon, I had no idea that the family dinner entailed multiple, multiple generations of Hanazaki’s.
Sitting down cross-legged on some pillows on a tatami (grass) mat, Hanazaki-san’s wife started bringing out the food and drinks. There were six place settings at the table but only four of us sitting at the table. The missus began piling food (no idea what it was, but it was tasty!) onto the two empty settings to her left before passing it to myself, her husband and 20-something son.
She then lifted up a large carafe of warm sake and began pouring some into Hanazaki-san’s glass, then mine, her son’s and then her own. She then poured sake into glasses for the two empty place settings.
Then it got odd.
Mrs. Hanazaki then turned to the empty space top her right and began clapping her hands and chanting “Iki. Iki. Iki” (ic-key.ic-key.ic-key), which roughly translates into “go-go-go.”
Five seconds later, she began applauding and saying what I assume was the Japanese equivalent of “yay!” It sounded like “Yay!”.
Now maybe it was because I was watching her intently or maybe it was the new sake melding with yesterday’s sake, but when I glanced back at the glasses in front of the empty place settings, they were empty. I suppose her son could have drunk them, but I didn’t see it.
Mrs. Hanazaki filled up everyone’s glasses again—including Casper and Spooky—and began her drinking chant and clapping again.
I sucked my drink back like it was water… because I must have been dehydrated from last night’s festivities… but mostly because I was a tad weirded out by what I had just seen.
On the ride home—driven by the missus who, aside from myself was the only one not drunk—Hanazaki-san explained what Obon was about. Now I understood. The two empty plates were for the family ancestors.
Despite the bizarreness of the evening, I am humbled that I was invited to partake in the family dinner with the entire Hanazaki family. And I do mean entire family.
So far, this is two nights in a row with real food. Mooching meals… this could be a way I survive this place, for goodness sake. You can read that last word any way you wish.

Somewhere old friends are not forgot,
Andrew Joseph
PS - Title is by The Doors.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Freeze Frame

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. From my favourite Shakespeare play, As You Like It, apparently that quote is more about me than my topic du jour.
Because it’s nice to see who someone (me) is talking about, I’ve included photos of Matthew and Ashley—Matthew has the perm.
The photos are both from around November of 1990 - notice that Matthew is wearing a Simpsons shirt... he was either ahead of the curve, or at least with the initial wave. He's in my apartment in the kitchen, with the bedroom behind him. Don't get any ideas, there. That sumo curtain blocks my hallway leading to my bathroom area and front door. Pretty much all restaurants utilize one of these curtains at the entranceway to their establishment. It's always low enough so that anyone entering has to duck their head--kind of in a mock bow. I'll look into the history of these things and get back to you.
Ashley's first floor place that was more typical of a Japanese apartment than my place--notice the tatami (grass) mats on the ground. Excluding her kitchen and bathroom, her other two rooms  had tatami flooring. The place was cold and cramped, and perhaps that was why she spent so much time at my place.
On the plus side, I learned to cook to feed both her and Matthew. Matthew brought beers, at least.
Kidding, they were good friends. One still is.
In real time, your humble idiot author is in the process of moving, and his super-wife has accidentally packed his Wonderful Rife notes in a box. Who knew that keeping a journal for three years 19 years ago would be useful today?

Somewhere developing,
Andrew Joseph
Today's Title is by The J. Geils Band, if my memory is told.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Boris The Spider

AKA: Rhyme Time I
Here's a poem I wrote with help from William Blake.

Bad Blake:
Spider, spider within my sight.
Crawling ‘round my room tonight.
How I wish that you would stay.
So I can get my shoe to slay.
Pounce! Bash! Beat! Splatter!
I know he’s dead, but it just doesn’t matter!
Splatter! Beat! Bash! Pounce!
It’s him I hate, but love to trounce!
Oh, but look! Be still my heart!
The walls are decorated with spider art.

There should never be this many spiders anywhere...
Somewhere painting my wallpaper,

Andrew- back in a week - Joseph
Today's title is by The Who

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Have A Drink On Me: Obon I

It beats me how I can take one of the most solemn traditions in Japanese culture and turn it into a farce, but bear with me. I think I did it.
O-bon or Bon (the Japanese add an “o” to many words to make them more honorific) is a festival celebrated by Japanese Buddhists. Called the Feast of The Lanterns, Hanazaki-san simply explained it as the Festival of the Dead. Which one do you prefer? Me, too.
In Tochigi-ken, O-bon is celebrated by Buddhists (about 99% of the population) between August 13 – 16, with the 15th being the important date.
Here’s what occurs:
On the 13th, people clean their houses and visit the shrine (cemetery) where their family monument resides (Upon death, Japanese Buddhists are cremated and the ashes are spread on the family shrine). Families spend a few hours tidying up the shrine and then place food and drink offerings upon it.
Perhaps I am over-simplifying things, but this is how it was explained to me. The food and drink offerings are for the dead. Actually, it is meant to entice the souls of the dearly departed up into the land of the living. For three days every year, the gates to Hell—where the Japanese Buddhists believe the dead reside (probably not as humid as Ohtawara, though)—are opened so that they may visit the living.
Apparently the dead are blind, and the scent from the food and drink will lead them to the proper family shrine. From there, they follow the family home, where more partying ensues. I’m not sure if the spirits need to wear seat belts.
I swear the following incident is 100 per cent true.
On August 14, around 8PM, Hanzaki-san came calling with Kanemaru-san. It was another hot, sticky humid night, but the three of us walked a short distance from my apartment to a festival. While it was only a five minute walk, I really have no idea where it was actually held.
The festival was like an old-fashioned carnival with people selling all kinds of freshly made foods and drinks—all locally supplied. I had some blue cotton candy, a lot of yaki-tori (skewered, grilled chicken and something deep-fried—it was sortta rubbery, but it was still really tasty. Kanemaru-san brought out his dictionary and told me it was ika or squid. Pretty good actually considering the suckers were still attached and trying to grab my uvula on the way down. I had another.
We watched singers and folk dancers, jugglers and pukers… I did say there were drinks, right?
While Hanazaki-san went to clean up the mess someone left on his shoes, Kanemaru-san dragged me over to a tented kiosk that sold sake (Japanese rice wine and is pronounced sah-kay). He talked to the vendor – I heard the word gaijin uttered by the vendor and Kanemaru-san correcting him by stating my name. I didn't take offence, and seconds later the vendor turned and handed me a very large paper cup of clear liquid.
Kanemaru-san smiled at me and said: “You to-rye Japan-ezu sake?” Hai! (yes!) I answered.
I sniffed it—citrous-like. Putting the cup to my lips, I momentarily savoured the cool sweetness of the drink on my tongue before I looked at Kanemaru-san and drained that sucker in one large gulp.
Oohs and Ahhs lit up from all around me as apparently all eyes at the Festival were on the gaijin. Beats me why. It not only looked like water, but on such a humid night, it tasted enough like water to truly hit the spot.
The vendor knowing an opportunity when he saw one, raised his eyebrow (it was a unibrow) at Kanemaru-san who merely nodded back. He poured another glass, held it out to me and said dozo (please).
What the heck. It’s just tasty rice water. I sucked it back in seconds.
Shouts of hora! (look!) and “hebby du-rinkah” (heavy drinker - yes, it seems to be an English phrase they are familiar with) littered the air as the kiosk area began to get crowded. Other Japanese began to order sake, too.
The vendor’s eyes lit up with little yen signs as he quickly poured me another large drink.
Let me tell ya… this sake stuff is pretty weak. Glorified water, is what it is. It sure was getting warmer, though. Probably just all of the people pressing up against me trying to shake my hand. That's why my hand is shaking.
I downed the drink in one gulp. Either the cup was getting smaller or my throat was getting wider, but the sake was going down easier.
The crowd began to applaud.
Perhaps fearing for my life—the crowd of on-lookers was huge now—Kanemaru-san tried to drag me away. But before he could, the vendor plunked another drink down. And one for Kanemaru-san.
Clinking our glasses together and with the other 300 people around me, the crowd began to chant “iki-ik-iki” (go-go-go) (You'll notice the spelling is quite close to squid - ika. You don't want to get the two Japanese words mixed up or it could be quite non-sensical).
I love a good chant. What the Hell, eh? Since the gates are open and it's Obon and when in Japan, do what the Romans do, or something like that… I sucked down my second glass… or whatever number it was.
The vendor set’em up again and we all downed them again. And again. And again.
Looking expectantly at the vendor for more of his fine flavoured water, he looked at me with sad eyes and said “end-o”. I don’t know what that means, but man there was no more sake forthcoming. That sucks, I only had two drinks… Man was this place freakin’ hot and also the … … what was I saying? Oh yeah! This sake-stuff is like having sex in a canoe—it's fornicating close to water… what? And another thing… I’m hungry.
Man, I’m tired … I’ll have to finish this Oblong blog, I mean… Obon blog later… when it cools down or something or another. Man! When did it get so… uh, hazy?

Somewhere … uh… what was I saying?
Hebby Du-rinkah
Title by AC/DC

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Don't Pay The Ferryman: A Map

I should have done this at the very first, but here's a map showing where the heck Tochigi-ken is in relation to the rest of Japan. CLICK.
If you look at the "A", it designates the province's capital city of Utsunomiya (oot-sue-no-me-ya. Move an inch upward, and you'll see Ohtawara written out in English and in Kanji (Chinese-style alphabet).
With this map you can zoom in and out to get a better perspective of my locale.

Somewhere wishing I had Google Maps when I lived in Japan,
Andrew Joseph
Title by Chris de Burgh.