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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

Every once in awhile, I learn something new about myself. On Saturday, October 20, 1990, I was up at 8AM to go on a trek with Ashley and some other AETs (Assistant English Teachers) from around Tochigi-ken to climb Mt. Nasu.
Ashley has spent the night, and is all packed and ready for the mountain. We make some sandwiches, I grab a shirt, sweater, jeans, runners, gloves and my wind-breaker jacket—that’s it. Ashley decides to wear three or four layers of clothing and takes a towel. I don’t know why, the onsen (Japanese spa at the hotel we’ll be staying at on Mt. Nasu) will provide one.
We bicycle over to Nishinasuno station—which is a 10 minute ride from Ashley’s place, but a 30-minute ride from mine, so in hindsight, I have to give her props.  We take a local train up a stop to Kurosio eki (station) arriving at 11:45AM and along with the other AETs, we leave there at Noon. At 1PM at Mt. Nasu, we take a ropeway partially up before disembarking for a climb. Not sure why, but my right leg hurts—probably residual from the bicycle accidents—this is 1990, I’m not out of shape yet.
Half-way up chatting with my girl-crush Gasoline (Catherine Komlodi), I discover that the onsen doesn’t provide towels. Figures. The weather is cool but comfortable, with hardly any trace of a wind. The leaves along the trail are just beginning to turn red, orange and yellow—it looks beautiful. I wish I had my camera, but perhaps I can convince Ashley to make copies of the shots she’s taking (I did).
After a couple of hours, we arrive at the top of Mt. Nasu. Check out the photo above. It’s freezing cold with a wind wafting down at us at about a 1000-miles-per-hour. My legs (yes, both of them, as apparently I’m not in as good shape as I thought I was) hurt like heck. While we stop for a photo break, I wander off by myself to sit on a rock and glare out at the valley below. Around me, steam vents from the mountain at various spots---yes, Mt. Nasu is an active volcano. There’s a slight smell of sulphur in the air, but the terrific winds push it away quickly.
So. This is nature. Wow. I almost feel like I’m a part of it... but only for a few seconds as the voices of the other AETs slowly drown out that feeling of oneness. It was a good feeling. A sense of majesty and power. Top of the world, ma!
We all then hike down the other side of the mountain. The grade is somewhat flatter—like the Canadian woods. Or so I assume, if I had ever actually been in the woods back home. There are scores of birch and maple.
One of the folks traveling traveling alongside me is one Douglas Izzaks. He’s 4-years-old, and is the son of Marina, who has joined her husband and Robert the AET here in Japan. Very cool people, and I envy their happy little family.
Click HERE for pix of the climb.
We arrive at the onsen at around 5PM—18 of us will squeeze onto a room containing 12 tatami (grass mats), that are about 3-feet wide and 6-feet long. I already have a bad feeling about this.
We grab dinner – it sucks. The women finish up first and head over to the onsen. Us five guys—Peter, Robert, Gavin, Tim Mould and myself) sit around and suck on our beers.  Notice there’s no Matthew. I did. Best friend I have in Japan, and he couldn’t make the trip up a mountain that was essentially in our backyard. Probably out chasing women. In hindsight (again), it obviously worked out well for Matthew. After an hour, the guys head over to the onsen. Since I had to go to the washroom, I get ditched.
After the pee that wouldn’t end, I struggle through my shyness and bad Japanese to ask where the spa is. No one knows. Stumbling about for 15 minutes, and ready to go and find the bar, I accidentally stumble across it. Just the guys are there. No women. Great. Five naked gaijin in a hot water mini pool. After a half hour, two of the women bravely join us (Mary Ann Hironaka and Mary Mueller). It’s dark, and my night blindness renders the good stuff invisible. They leave after a couple of minutes and come back with six more female AETs. Hey! I’ve heard of this type of party. Unfortunately, it doesn’t become one. Gasoline is there, too. Damn! This! Night! Blindness! So is Ashley – and we all have a good time.
Let me just say that if you have never seen five naked guys in a hot tub doing synchronized swimming, you ain’t never been around me.
After two-and-a-half hours, the onsen turns the lights out on us in an attempt to stop our drunken revelry and various renditions of Christmas carols. After that length of time in the water, even my wrinkles were wrinkled.
We crawl back to our rooms – I’m last because I have to towel off with a shirt. Looking around for a space, I discover a solitary piece of tatami that is 5-feet long by 14-inches wide. I measured it.
Anyhow, I quickly fall asleep, and get hit in the ribs by Mary for snoring. I’d kill her if I could move my legs. In all, I get hit about 21 times. After that initial hit, I don’t fall asleep. I keep telling them I’m awake. I’m not snoring. I can hear Tim and Peter snoring, but no one is hitting them in their still tender from a pair of bicycle accident ribs.
At 5:30AM, Tim and I have a whisper argument about how neither of could sleep thanks to the his/mine snoring. That’s when we hear it. The gentle roar of a buzzsaw at a lumber mill. It’s Susan St. Cyr whom I then dubbed Susan St. Snore.
Of course, despite Tim (and Ashley) believing me, Mary doesn’t. I’m wide awake but very tired. Anyhow, here’s what I have learned about sleeping around a lot of people. I do snore. Like a jet plane with asthma. In later years, I developed horrible, horrible sleep apnea that made me stop breathing every 44 seconds before I’d breath/snore and catch my breath. I spent eight years only getting about 64% oxygen to my brain when I slept ensuring I was killing brain cells. This blog is a direct result of that.

Somewhere, 20 years later, I learned that Mary was right.
Andrew Zzzzz Joseph
Today's title was first sung by  Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell - and you can listen to it HERE.PS: Susan will remain Susan St. Snore, however.

PPS: Sleep apnea can kill you. If you snore, stop breathing or are always tired - even after just waking up, or wake up choking in the night, you may have sleep apnea. Get checked out at a sleep clinic. Get a C-PAP machine and get back to living a 'normal' life. Don't be like me and wuss out for 8 years before getting the machine! I finally relented and life is so much easier to live now.   

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Talk Dirty To Me

Despite the title, this blog was originally entitled ‘Bad English – Not a Musical Tribute’ back when I first wrote it in 1990. I just wanted to keep the rock and roll song for a title thing going
'I Feel Coke’ (back in Blog #2, I said I’d get back to this) and ‘Speak Lark’ are (as of 1990) two of Japan’s largest and most successful faux pas’ in the nations’ advertising world in both television and magazine. The first is a work of art by Japan’s Coca-Cola company (Click HERE for examples, and the second is for a popular brand of cigarettes that is hawked by many different hunky English-speaking male actors—like Timothy Dalton (Click HERE) of James Bond fame. The name’s Lark. Speak Lark. What the heck does it mean? As for ‘I Feel Coke’, sometimes I feel coke when I get a cramp from drinking my daily two litres of the stuff, but is that what they mean? I love Coke, though I’ve since been forced to switch to a sugarless version (Coke Zero), and have since cut back to one litre a day—still, it’s a crying shame that that particular slogan is allowed to fester like my impending stomach ulcer and diabetes.
Despite the nonsensical English used in these two slogans, it doesn’t seem to have affected product sales. In fact, judging it by its longevity (twenty – plus years and counting), I’d bet sales are (cough-cough-hack) excellent. I suspect it might be due to the fact that the average Japanese person doesn’t realize that the English phrases used are gibberish. That in itself isn’t terrible—I’m sure there are plenty of examples in American advertising, too—heck, just the name of Tim Hortons coffee shop makes me cringe... it was the brainchild of one Tim Horton (singular) a fantastic defensemen with the Leafs and Sabres of the National Hockey League, but the lack of an apostrophe for the possessive... aaarrgghh. Unless it’s okay, and then I’ll stand corrected.
Anyhow, what irks me are the many bizarre number of incoherent interpretations of the English vernacular that appear on the clothing or belongings of the Nihonjin (Japanese). Clothing is perhaps one of the greatest expressions of a person’s character. While it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, most people do develop an initial feeling about others based solely on appearance. It’s why it irks me that the Japanese, in their lust to be more American, will purchase any item that contains what they perceive to be American-English on it.
By the way, I have nothing against America, I would just rather have my Japanese still maintain a bit of Japanese in them.
While aboard a train heading Buddha only knows, I saw a cool-looking guy with really long hair that partially obscured some writing on the back of his leather jacket. He was kind of a tough-looking guy, and I wondered if perhaps he belonged to a local motorcycle gang. After he flicked his pony-tail out of the way,  I began to read the back of coat: “We are good potato kids who like to play fun and games.”
Oh my! It’s one of the terrible Vichyssoise biker members who I think are affiliated with the Paris-based French Fries Motorcycle Club! The friend he was talking to had an embroidered long-stemmed black rose with large thorns on the back of his jacket. It read: “I am pretty flower.” I suppose that’s when they both turned around to stare at me, as I was laughing so hard I peed my pants.
Another evening, I had a very sexy Japanese girl over to my apartment for some of my famous chilli con carne (Hey, I had a fight with my girlfriend again, and it was over... again). While we snuggled under my kotatsu (the heater made out of a table that kept you warm when you sat under it), she asked me if I could tell her what the English words on her shirt meant. I stared long and hard, and then I looked at the words. I read them out loud to her. I tried to explain (gently) that the words on her shirt were not English, but Italian. She was mortified. I spent the rest of the evening consoling her. Twice.
Other instances I’ve observed have people wearing elaborate messages of goodwill that end up short of its intended mark because of faulty spelling or grammar:  “...and only in the rear shall the meek inherit the Earth.” Rear? The END maybe. Then again, maybe it’s correct afterall.
The most disgustingly annoying example of bad English occurs when the shirt makers attempt to incorporate what can only be automatic writing. This happens when the author writes everything that he/she happens to think of (much like myself, but with even less regard for sense).
An example of the automatic writing complete with CAPS and strangely placed sentence structure: “Pit Stop Crew; Since 1878; Campbell soup kid; Champion 1912-1914; We like good food and drink; Happy peace; gun shop is best; Think Pink.” This was all written on one jacket! You can’t make up stuff like this! Well, I probably could – but in this case, I didn’t have too. Perhaps the strangest part of this particular jacket is that there wasn’t any pink on it.
The worst example of poor taste I saw was a particular bomber jacket. This one looked just like what the U.S. pilots used to wear back in WWII. On the front, on the top left corner was the name of the airplane the bomber jacket purported to belong to: the Enola Gay. Not sure what that one is? Click HERE for some history. Think Hiroshima. All I can think is that some idiot clothes designer thought that would be a good joke to play on the Japanese.
So, what’s worse? Is it the clothing manufacturer’s disregard for proper English and good taste, or the consumer for not knowing English or their history?
Maybe what Japan needs is someone who can speak and write English well, as well as someone who cared, to proofread all of the copy transferred onto clothing for sale in the country.
I suppose if I bought a dictionary, I could do that job.
For some examples of what I'm writing about, check out this site HERE or simply google "Japlish".
Somewhere dry cleaning my pants,
Andrew Joseph

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?

Lying snug as a bug in my futon at the late hour of 8AM on a Sunday morning, I was sleeping. Not tossing and turning or that half-sleeping/half wake slumber, but rather that type of rest that brings about wall-shaking snoring. There I was... dreaming the about the good life with me being interrogated by the bikini-clad members of Charlie’s Angels (pre-movie, but if I had known about that cast...), when all of a sudden it began:

Ohayo gozaimasu! Sumimasen! Suzuki desu! Gomen’nasai!” (Good morning! Excuse Me! I’m Suzuki! Sorry!) Followed by: “Ohayo gozaimasu! Sumimasen! Kawaguchi desu! Gomen’nasai!” (Good morning! Excuse Me! I’m Kawaguchi! Sorry!), and then “Ohayo gozaimasu! Sumimasen! Kurita desu! Gomen’nasai!” (Good morning! Excuse Me! I’m Kurita! Sorry!). Yes, the Japanese election process had begun.

Locally, there seemed to be about 20 candidates - all of whom would drive through the tiny streets of Ohtawara in their white cars. The cars had mounted to the roof what appeared to be a jet-engine casing that was utilized to house a mega-loudspeakers that was able to generate more noise than any WHO concert.

Beginning in October, about a month before the actual erection (well, that’s how the Japanese pronounce it in English!), these would-be politicians annoyed the heck out of the entire populace of the city all day long from 8 in the morning until 8 at night. The ploy must work... it’s all everyone talks about (translated from the Japanese): “Man, did you hear those honourable idiots when they drove by work today? Bad enough they have to apologize for disturbing me and then continue to do so, but then they have to play that crappy boring enka music (old-style Japanese folk music that all foreigners would associate to be typical Japanese music)!”

Every once in awhile, the candidates stop their car, get out and give a speech to the shop owners trapped in their stores. Cars drive by and beep their horn in support of the candidates moving their vehicle out of the way.

Later in the campaign, candidates begin giving speeches from their moving cars. What is the purpose of this? (Maybe so no one can get off a clear shot?) The vehicles always move out of earshot before half of the message is delivered! And, to make matters even more confusing, there’s a continual over-lapping of speeches by the other candidates making it even more difficult to discern what they stand for – though it’s pretty evident that it’s not noise pollution controls. Vote for the quietest candidate!!

Another political tactic involves local party members running as independent candidates. Apparently there is a preconception that the national parties convey an image of deceit and corruption to the general public (hey, I was told this by quite a few people). So, to avoid this, a switch is made. Of course, after the vote, they quickly change back to their original party. By doing this, he/she avoids the lying and cheating frequently involved in big-time politics.

Finally, Erection Day arrives. But when? No one seemed to know the exact date! Sometime in November seemed to be the most frequently-given answer. Since the general populace has no idea when to vote (or why) – who wins? Obviously the guy or gal who has the largest family to help do all the political flag-waving and ballot-box stuffing. Another mitigating factor would be the person with the easiest name to write - as it was for myself when I was encouraged to vote.

Somewhere voting early and often.
Andrew Joseph
PS: The photo near the top of this piece is of Yukitomo Kurita-san - Pops to Takako (nee Kurita) and Mathew Hall. Kurita-san was an Ohtawara City Councilman while I was there and was re-elected a few times.
PPS: the business cards here at the bottom are of the Shi-cho (Mayor) and Deputy Mayor. I used to have lunch with the Mayor once every two months.He was always amazed that I could use chopsticks.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Instant Car-ma

Ever since I wrote about the hazards of bicycle riding a few blogs ago, I've been inundated with requests (those darn voices in my head) to write about motor vehicles--to get the other side of my strange way of meeting Japanese people.

Although I don't have a car (like my friend Tim Mould--another AET; or even like how Matthew would eventually get the use of one), I have been a passenger in one several times here in Japan. That I have survived--including one semi-painful collision--to tell this tale, must make me some sort of expert on automobiles. Or so those voices keep telling me.

As previously mentioned,  Japanese roads suck. To compensate (or perhaps I'm using that word incorrectly), the average Japanese driver sucks, too. I'm not saying they are bad people, merely bad drivers.

While it appears as though the drivers here are very polite (and they are), their driving skills leave much to the imagination. One might think that the constant gridlock, or the fact that the only person who wears a seatbelt here is me (their choice, despite the law requiring seatbelts), might actually cause folks to slow down and drive safer - but no, that's not the case.

One of the teachers who drives me to Chikasono Junior High School--it's located deep within a swath of corn fields, and I have no idea where it is in relation to my downtown home--anyhow, he thinks he's the reincarnation of Mario Andretti, if Mario were actually dead, of course.

He drives a tiny white Toyota Corsa--I'm unsure if it actually made it to the U.S. or Canada--that has numerous added on dials and gadgets that are fitted into his crammed dashboard, making the car look like the cockpit for a modern fighter plane. He even has three dials placed on the front of his windsheild on the car hood--almost as if he has a nitrous oxide tank hidden somewhere.

So, I asked him... I asked him what some of the dials indicate. I kid you not - he said he didn't know, but it looks great, right. Because all of this happened before the entertaining Fast and Furious movies, including the Tokyo Drift, I had no idea that people enjoyed street racing over here.

This guy - who also happened to be the English teacher I worked with at Chikasono - he showed off some of his goatpath racing skills during our initial meeting. He changed lanes to lanes that did not exist. When we were in traffic in downtown Ohtawara, he used the zipper method.. no wait, the thread-the-needle method of blowing through a red light and squirting between oncoming cars. When in the country, I thought the one-lane roads with traffic coming towards us might make him slow down, but he merely swerved over onto a sidewalk to pass. I was impressed, there aren't that many sidewalks here in Japan.

It's my opinion that bad driving is a cultural thing. Wait, I have proof. (You'd better!) (Shut-up!) Voices... heh.
While sitting totally strapped into the passenger side of the front seat of a white car (like the UK, the driver sits on the right), I noticed that my driver (another guy) was bowing his head at everyone in the oncoming lane. When that head goes down, I'm pretty sure he can't see a darn thing in front of him. I guess that's why it was no big surprise to me when we rear-ended another vehicle. On the plus side, I got the day off work to take care of my headache.

In yet another car, heading over to Sakuyama Junior High Scool in the south end of Ohtawara--easily a 30-minute drive from my place--I had the school nurse, the non-English speaking Nurse Gunji, drive me. At a four-way stop intersection, I noticed another car perpendicular to us had arrived first. Gunji-san despite arriving second, quickly pulled out--but so, too did the other car. After both cars screeched to a stop (and you/we bump your/my/our head on the dashboard--despite the seatbelt, it's a tiny car, and I would have hit my head even if I had nodded it), Gunji-san rolls down her driver's side window and shouts in English the only words I was ever to hear her speak (probably for your/my/our benefit) (Shut-up!): "Ladies first!"

Oh my. She actually believed this to be a truth about driving. She seemed positively stunned when I had the local English teacher translate for me that the first car at a four-way intersection always has the right of way, unless their are pedestrians, in which case the pedestrians always trump the cars. (Or is it the car on the left has the right of way? They do drive on the other side of the road...?) (Quiet, you. This is my story!)

It makes me wonder what the Japanese need to get a driver's license. A blood test confirming their astrological sign and a course on table etiquette? And, yes... many Japanese do believe something about a person's blood type and astrology helping to define one's character.Pundits would have me believe that because I'm always harping on the Japanese way of life that I must B negative. I'm not, though. (I am.)

Somewhere, we have a headache.
Andrew Joseph