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Saturday, July 31, 2010


Like the title says, this is about the Japanese mob - the Yakuza. And what were the odds I'd actually find a rock and roll title to match it? Fifty/fifty actually... you find it or you don't. 

First, some history on the Yakuza. I'm going to direct you HERE for more information - it keeps my writing chore reasonably short - which is good as I sometimes don't know when to stop writing.

The origin of the name yakuza is obscure somewhere between fact and myth, but there is popular theory floating about that says the word originates with the lowest hand in a Japanese card game called hanafuda, withe said hand consisting of: 8 (ya - an old way of saying the number 8 - a more modern way is hachi), 9 (ku) 3 (za - also an old form, with the more modern term for 3 being san). Calling themselves after the worthless hand, the yakuza are also known as the hachi-kyu-san (893's) in Japan.
If you are in Japan and you want to perhaps stay away from the Yakuza, don't worry. Unlike the movies, samurai, ninja, geisha, yakuza and radiation-spewing monsters are not very common, if at all. Having said that, members of the Yakuza usually have tattoos - the higher the rank, the more ink you have. Tattooed gang members are smart. Their tattoos extend up and down the arm, but nowhere past a shirt cuff or the neck of a dress shirt. The same for legs, stopping at the pants cuff - just in case they are wearing sandals/geita and have to remove them. The point being regular joes like you and me will probably never see the tattoos of a Yakuza. So, what other features distinguish them from society? Check out the photo above... that's Hanazki-san on the left of me in the centre and Ohtawara Junior High School Principal Mimori having a laugh, with me showing off a "missing digit", as in Yakuza tradition it is well known for members who have failed to have half a finger cut off as a form of apology or penance. This is known as yubitsume. The offender slices off a knuckle from the pinky for each offense. This missing digit, like the amazing tattooing effectively removes the member from typical Japanese society.
And, although I am unsure if it's the same way today, but for sure back in the early 1990s, Yakuza members had perms. It makes sense. Everyone in Japan has straight black hair. If you see someone with a perm - Yakuza. Stay away or come and show respect.

One day in October of 1990, at the 4C (4 Carat) fancy bar five minutes from my apartment in Ohtawara, I walked up to the second-floor establishment by my lonesome, and said hello to Mark Donovan, the eye-candy New Zealand bartender hired by the owner to attract women to the place - and thus men.
Ordering a rum & coke, I sat at the bar. The entire place might have held no more than a maximum of 14 people at full capacity, as it was probably no more than 20' x 20' in size plus a bar and a bathroom - very cosy, very dim-lit, and very chic. Beats me why I was there, but Matthew found the place and on most weekends it became a place for us gaijin (foreigners) to have a drink without being gawked at.
There was a commotion behind me, as I felt the very air being sucked from the room as all but three Nihonjin (Japanese) had sucked massive quantities of air through their teeth in shock. There, about to take a seat at the newly vacated table and stools stood three Japanese men in their 50s - two wearing three-piece suits and one wearing a yukata - a light male kimono - see Hans and Franz aka Matthew and myself in the photo beside this for an example of the lovely robes.
I looked back at Mark, but he already had a bottle of whiskey in his hands with three glasses of ice and was walking beside me - he whispered, "Yakuza."
That was all I needed to hear and decided not to turn around and stare at them, but instead took a nice long gulp of my drink.
That's when I heard a growl: "An-do-ryu-sense dozo!" (Andrew teacher, please!)
I turned around quite quickly and saw who I correctly guessed to be the Yakuza boss of Ohtawara beckoning to me thusly: with his right arm raised in the air to his shoulder, palm down, he moved his fingers back and forth.You know how we beckon someone with our palms up and fingers moving towards us? Well, in Japan and China (and perhaps in other Asian countries too), they do the opposite with the hand - palm down. Got it?
I stood up and moved near him bowed and said "Konichiwa" (Hello) and bowed deeply enough to see that the floor was very clean.
The yukata clad man grunted (in approval, I hoped) and said in English: "Du-rinku"  - which obviosly meant "Drink".
Mark was back in a second with a glass and ice placing it quickly in front of the men before scurrying back behind the bar to watch what the heck was going on - and perhaps to duck under the bar should things go wrong.
The boss poured me a tall glass of whiskey and said "Dozo!" (Please!") The man's voice was gravely - and I mean really gravely - like he had just gargled with blocks of granite. I picked up my glass, moved it towards him and his compadres and said "Kanpai" (cheers). The boss clinked my glass with his, and his two "aides" did the same. I took a comfortable sip, swallowed it and said "smoothhhhhhh" as I exhaled a warm breath. That was my first ever taste of whiskey and I knew I never wanted to drink it again - but of course I had to finish my drink.
The boss began talking to me in Japanese for about a minute - in slow, carefully chosen words, and then asked a question. And then awaited my response.
I had absolutely no idea what he had said - not a single word of it. Still waiting for me to say something, I stood there for five seconds, shrugged my shoulders and said : "Iie?" (No?).
The boss stared at me for a second, scowled and then burst out laughing, slapping me on the back with what I hoped was just his palm and not a hand holding an ice pick. Still laughing, he howled: "Odokemono!" (Joker!), slapped me on the back again and said "Bai-bai" (bye-bye), dismissing me from his presence.
As I sat back at the bar, I downed the rest of the whiskey. Mark didn't say a word to me, but got me another rum and Coke.
While I pondered what the heck had just gone on, one of the three-piece suit men moved beside me and began talking in English English, that is to say he had a British accent - don't ask me to tell you which type of British accent, just know that it sure weren't no Canadian or American English accent, old chap.
Putting a meaty arm around my shoulder, I glanced at his hand and saw a flash of colour peeking out from under his long-sleeved shirt cuff.
"Do you know what he asked you?," asked Ni-ban (number two) - that's what I'm calling him.
"As you know, you teach his son English at Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School)..."
(Oh yeah... the only kid in my seven schools with a red dye-coloured perm! - I guess the teachers are too afraid to tell him that his hair colour is not acceptable.)
"... he asked you if you think his son's English language skills are very good. You said 'No'. You are lucky your reputation as a joker proceeds you. His son speaks very highly of you to him. Ganbatte (Good luck)."
With that he removed his arm, and moved back to the table. I turned to look at the three of them, but they were already walking out the door and heading down the stairs.
How about that? Even the mob knows I'm a joker. Apparently I'm also a lucky idiot, but let's just keep that between ourselves.
Over the next three years I only saw my new friend one other time - he smiled and bowed deeply to me much to the chagrin of Hanazaki-san and Kanemaru-san who fortunately had enough sense to bow so long that I actually pulled them upright as my friend had gone past us several minutes previous.

Somewhere counting fingers and my lucky stars,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is respectfully played by the ska band Pilfers - RESPECT.
PS - I 've owed Matthew a better photo in this blog - so here you go! Handsome buggers... I'm still wearing that Seiko watch!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Hash Pipe

So... what do you think of when you when you think about Japan? Rice? Lots of countries have rice. Geisha? Not as common in Japan as you might think - at least not by 1990. I never saw a real geisha until almost a year later! Kimonos? Sure, I suppose, but it was worn for special events only. Mount Fuji? Honestly, I never saw it in three years there thanks to conveniently placed weather patterns (rain, snow, fog, cloud). I'm still not convinced it actually exists.

What do you like sumo? O-sumo (add the word "o" to make a Japanese subject more honourific) wrestling to me, epitomizes Japanese culture. It's male dominated, to be sure, but watching a bunch of fat guys in diapers go through a five minute salt-throwing ceremony before exploding into a three-second battle - now that's Japan.
I never got to see an official tournament in person, though my buddy Matthew was lucky enough to take in one day of the 15-day tournaments in Tokyo. Matthew was nice enough to present me with a lot of omiyage (souvenir presents) that I treasure. 
One such sumo souvenir is the photo above depicting the wrestling program for the Autumn 1993 sumo Basho (tournament). 
Your eyes don't deceive you - despite being immensely difficult to read because I can't read Japanese, it's also has notoriously small lettering - especially as you drift down the sheet. 
At the top it lists the top division of sumo wrestlers, then the next division, the third and finally the fourth division with sumo wrestling names written out in the size of a grain of rice. See? Totally Japanese.

And, if you look close at the photo to the side, I have actually placed a grain of cooked white rice on the sheet at  the bottom so you can see how insanely small the writing is on the sumo sheet.  
Perhaps because I was a foreigner in a foreign land, I instantly gravitated towards cheering for the foreign sumo wrestlers who were in the upper echelon of the sumo ranks. Guys like the famous Konishiki, whom I had heard of back in Toronto. He is a Hawaiian (of Japanese-Samoan descent) and was known as being the heaviest sumo wrestler ever peaking at a whopping 287 kilograms (630 lbs). You can read about him here - BIGU.
He reached the level of Ozeki, the second highest rank of sumo wrestler and was the first foreigner to run his own sumo stable - yes, they call a sumo training school a stable (in Japanese it's called a heya). 
Akebono, another Hawaiian, was the tallest modern-day sumo wrestler at 2.03 meters (6'-8") and weighed in at 225 kilograms (500 lbs). In January of 1993, he became the first ever foreign-born wrestler to reach sumo's highest rank -Yokozuna. You can read more about the big guy TALL .
And, my personal favourite, Musashimaru, who looked to me the best square shape a sumo should have. He is a Samoan, and was the second foreign-born wrestler to achieve the rank of Yokozuna. The first time I saw him in the high classes of sumo, I thought to myself, this guy is going to become a Yokozuna, and he did on May 1999 - unfortunately, I never got to see him do that. My main man stood 1.92 meters (6'-3.5") tall and was 235 kilograms (520 lbs). More information about him is SQUARE .
When I first started watching sumo, the best and most popular wrestler was the Japanese Yokozuna Chiyonofuji, who won 31 tournament championships until retiring in 1991. The ceremonial cutting of his top-knot (chonmage - see HAIR ) did not leave a dry eye in the house. More on Chiyonofuji can be found CRY .

For your viewing pleasure click on OHTAWARA for a peek at Musashimaru and his heya visiting Ohtawara in 1993 for a promotional event. These are some pix I took that day - having discovered the event by accident while riding around town lost. At  the event, Japanese wrestling great Antonio Inoki is also present - he was the "other" type of wrestler and was once the WWF (now WWE) heavyweight wrestling champ - you can read about him here PIN .  

What is sumo? It's a wrestling event done within a clay circle whereby the goal is to knock your opponent out of the circle or cause him to touch any part of his body (excluding the soles of his feet) to the ground.
The sport is centuries old, and still utilizes a salt purification ceremony whereby each wrestler tosses salt up into the air - it's from the days when sumo was used in the Shinto religion. A lot of the ceremony is also to show your opponent that you are not armed with a weapon (and is done via leg lifts and palm-up movements.   
To create the amazing sumo wrestling girth, these guys do the opposite of what you and I might do to lose weight (I'm not that successful at it, mind you). 
They skip breakfast and eat copious quantities later in the day, and when they aren't training, they rest a lot. They eat before going to bed. Their singular meal of choice is called chanko, which is pretty much a stew made from every type of meat and vegetable and noodle you can get your hands on. Everyday, several times a day. They also also guzzle beer. Liters of it everyday. I'm guessing it wasn't a light beer.
As for exercising, I asked Musashimaru at the Ohtawara event about one of his least favourite training techniques. He told he it was one that made the hand hard for slapping purposes. Now before you think that that's kind of a sissy way of wrestling, let me tell you how they toughen up the hands.
For an hour or more at a time, they push the hands away from their body to slap a concrete post directly in front of them, one hand at a time. Whack. Whack. Whack. Sixty plus minutes at a time. Think calluses from the guitar are a pain? Try smacking a concrete pole everyday. Try it for a minute and see if you can do that. Go on. I'll wait.
As for slapping as a sumo technique... imagine you are standing six feet away from your opponent and you rush him hoping to get a good grip on his costume (called a mawashi - see HERE) to push him out of the ring... Now imagine that as you near him a hand built from smacking concrete comes up to slap you in the face. I've watched 300 lb men go down in a lump of quivery goo from the concussive force. 
I felt humbled that Musashimaru did not crush my hand into a pulpy mango when he shook my hand.
There are hundreds of books written on the subject of sumo (I have a couple), but let me just say this... should you ever go to Japan, be like Matthew and see a sumo wrestling event live in person. Now that would be - in 1960s vernacular, really heavy, man. 

Somewhere someone tossed salt in my eyes, 
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by Weezer whose video employed sumo wrestlers - SEE 
PS - Should you be so inclined, I have found a few sumo matches you can watch. Keep in mind most of these guys are in the 300 lb range and are around 6-feet tall. The grace and agility of these guys (though Konishiki did not possess any agility) is truly amazing. 
Check it OUT, and see HERE - which shows some of the pomp and ceremony, HERE is a good slap knockdown, and HERE is a good one that explains sumo
PPS - Sumo is currently a hot topic in the news in Japan not for its skill, but rather for more dubious reasons - the Japanese mob, aka the Yakuza. Read here NOW OR ELSE .
PPPS - Tomorrow, I'll tell you about my own meeting with the Yakuza who made me an offer I could not refuse.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Today is the 20th anniversary of me setting foot in Japan for the very first time. Yay for me.
Lucky you, I just discovered the notepad I used to document the first couple of weeks - okay, maybe that's just lucky for me. But since I have it, let me tell you more about that first day. It starts the day before.

At the Toronto airport, I was just about to pass through US Immigration and Customs when I suddenly realize I have left all of my Japanese money (Yen) back home. Luckily my dad is still around so we drive back to my home 15 minutes away for me to retrieve it. An omen of things to come? Perhaps - but at least I remembered early enough to go and get it - I still had three hours before the flight. My dad and I did the short good-bye. I hope it was for the best. It was for me at any rate.
I flew NW-283 to Detroit and apparently we landed so far from the terminal it took 20 minutes for us to hit our gate. That left myself and 100 other Torontonians going to Japan exactly 10 minutes to make our connection to Japan aboard the 747 NW-011. On that flight I sat next to a girl named Stephanie. After introductions we both mentioned that we had gone out with someone of the same name, and that it didn't work out very well (actually for me, it worked out well enough - she was the reason I applied for this JET (Japane Exchange & Teaching) Programme - so she changed seats opting to sit in the smoker's section. You can tell how long ago this story took place - smoking on the airplane? Anyhow, enough about that.

So... my first day in Tokyo. We arrive at Narita Airport at 4PM on Sunday. Deplaning, my first impression was quite literally: "Ommigawd it's friggin' hot!" Actually, it wasn't the heat, but the stupidity.
After a 10-minute wait at immigration I spend 20 minutes waiting for my luggage to appear at the carousel. I realized I would need two dollies to carry my baggage, but they were like gold at this airport. I managed to find another one and with the help of someone from CLAIR (Japan's Council of Local Authorities For International Relations) we found where I was supposed to go next and separated the baggage I would need for the next few days in Tokyo from the rest of the baggage that would be sent ahead to our host institution - in my case, Ohtawara.
It was pretty obvious to all, that I had the most luggage - and I was still sure I had forgotten something. I had three suitcases, two small hand-bags, one suit holder, and two cartons carrying my clarinet and a new set of Casio keyboards. I also had a couple of bottles of booze that I was going to give to my bosses in Ohtawara - it's something we were told we should do.
I grabbed a suitcase, suit-holder, a carry-on bag and my booze and began a 1-1/2 hour bus ride to the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo. Why so long? Narita airport is located in another province (Chiba-ken) - not in Tokyo.
The bus was neat, air-conditioned but had no toilet, and held 30 people - and there were maybe 15 or more of these buses there.

After catching a 30-minute snore, I notice that the roads of Tokyo look a lot like Toronto, as does the city itself - except that there are more billboards about and neon is everywhere. In fact, there are billboards everywhere, all over the skyscrappers - it looks a lot like that city in the movie Bladerunner.
There are also tonnes of Japanese cars - with 90% of them white... though I did see a Chevy Lumina!
Checking in at the hotel, the staff there are very polite, bowing and scrapping and saying "Welcome" in English. It was great.
I get to my room at 6:45PM and stay holed up there watching the English-language CNN (Operation Desert Storm was just starting to shock and awe the world) and then sleeping until 6AM the next morning.
My roomie was a fellow Torontonian named Tom Granger who would be living somewhere in a place called Akita-ken. While I sat in shock and awe at the war on television, Tom decided he wanted to see Tokyo and took off. If he came back, I didn't see him at 5:30AM when the alarm clock set by the room's previous inhabitants went off - in fact, I never saw him again.
If any of you know the whereabouts of Tom... ah, forget it.
So... that's my first day in Japan. I was too afraid to actually go out and see the place. Fortunately for me, I made up for that with a grand adventure and got to meet a couple of beautiful American  ladies - Kristine South, and Melissa Scott - to read about that adventure (and some of today's), Click LOST. Just so you know, I thought I had a shot at Melissa (whom I never saw again) and true to form didn't see Kristine until she saved my life when I attempted to cross the street and looked the wrong way. In Japan, they drive on the opposite side of the road from the U.S and Canada. Kristine certainly had my attention after that. Poor crippled Kristine with her broken foot (I think) and crutches.   

And that's the way it was, Sunday, July 29, 1990.

Somewhere older,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title, YYZ is by Toronto's own Rush. In the song, the power trio actually play out the Morse code of Y-Y-Z. My friend from Illinois, Steve Guzelis told me that one. Damn Americans knowing more about Canadian rockers. What is this world coming to? Listen to them here: GEDDYNEILALEX
PS - Want to know what YYZ means? YYZ is the three-letter designation for the officially named Toronto Lester B. Pearson International Airport (named after former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson who brought about Universal Health Care, Student Loans, the Canada Pension Plan and the current Canadian Flag - if you want to know more, click HERE - he's a pretty interesting fellow).
PPS - Because you need to know, NRT is the three-letter designation that is globally known for the Narita airport.
PPPS - that image at the top - that's what I wrote in my notepad that first night in Japan... wasn't even sure of the date at first.
PPPPS - With the celebrations over, next is a story of salt, slapping and men in diapers.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Leader Of The Pack

So... today, July 28 marks the 20th anniversary of me leaving Toronto for Japan. Wow... what a long strange trip its been. I flew on NorthWestern flight 293 at 11:10AM from Toronto, stopping off in Detroit to pick up a few more passengers before heading off to Tokyo. It was a long and boring flight, but thankfully aside from voluntarily switching seats so a couple of women could gab, I watched all of the in-flight movies, ate all of the in-flight food, used the washrooms only once just before landing in Japan and stayed awake the entire time - I think it was 17 hours. As such, we did not land in Japan until the 29th of July. So that's when the fun really begins. Let's continue on with the blog I started yesterday which describes a typical day for me in those early years. yesterday was all about school/work and today's is all about the personal life. I hope you find it amusing.

After a day 'team-teaching' at Kaneda Kita Chu Gakko (Kaneda North Junior High School), I'm back at my apartment at 5:15PM. Last night, Ashley and I had a disagreement and were currently on the outs. Not wanting to let the first woman I'd ever slept with get away with or without a fight, I wanted to resolve the situation by calling her to apologize - even though I wasn't at fault. I had learned that even if it wasn't my fault, an apology would get me sex sooner than if I let it fester without apologizing.
Apparently after this initial apology, I would forget that bit of self-deluding advice.
So... while I wait a goodly enough time for Ashley to arrive back home from work, I ponder my navel. At 5:20PM, the doorbell rings - it's Ashley. Smiling.
Smiling? Never trust a smiling cat. I'm confused.
She hands me a large bouquet of flowers saying it's for me. Nice - I suppose. No one ever gave me flowers before... uh, except for the Japanese (now three or four times this past month). I'm a guy. What do I want with the flowers? Now maybe a beer? That would be guy stuff.
Anyhow, the flowers I received earlier that day from Kaneda Kita, well, I tell Ashley they are for her (there's no 'Welcome Andrew-sensei' card on there is there??!!). Hmmm, 20 years later it dawns on me that perhaps this similar sized bouquet of flowers she has given me may have been a present from her school. Hey! Waitaminute!  It's the thought that counts right? Right? That's what I thought.
We talk for a bit and iron out our difference (which I did not write down in my diary - probably because I had no idea what the heck caused the argument).
We're supposed to go out for an AET group function this evening in Yaita-machi town, maybe ten kilometers south of Ohtawara-shi (Ohtawara city). We ride from my house to her place in Nishinasuno-machi (machi means town) to meet fellow canuck Jeanne Mance Blanc - another junior high school AET (Assistant English Teacher) who lives in Ashley's building. The three of us ride over to Nishinasuno-eki (eki means station)... we meet Matthew there, and an American guy working at Union Carbide on a work exchange.
We're going to Yaita (a really small podunk of a place) to celebrate the 34th birthday of Marshall... a senior high school teacher (like Ashley) in Yaita, who also has a crush on her (she's 21). Add in that he's taller, blonder, tanner, and more self-confident than me (I know, that sounds impossible, but in 1990 it's true - it's why I never asked Kristine South if I could visit her - not guts, no glory)... anyhow, I was not happy to be going on this trip, but Ashley wanted to go - and it was a way to see the other AETs to find out how they were doing after a month plus here in Japan.
Usha  (a Canadian girl of Indian descent - the dot not the feather, and who is a junior high teacher  in Yaita), meets us at the station and directs us to a nearby tempura restaurant (deep-fried, lightly breaded veggies and meat products - yum).
Before she leaves to go and pick-up Marshall from his apartment, Usha asks if I could make a witty speech to Marshall (because you're so funny, Andrew). Because of Usha's height (or lack there of), I'm sure she does not see my eyes roll back into my head, as the thought of having to do anything for Marshall makes me want to puke.
Timothy Mould is there. He missed the first month of the JET Programme experience because of mono or something like that. He's okay, I guess. A little dull, but okay. He seems a-way too straight and conservative. Ashley of course, makes a bee-line toward the guy to chat.
So I'm jealous. I'm always jealous. I lack self-confidence. (I know, I know - but it's true - even today in 2010).
Marshall arrives. surprise. whoopee. Maybe it's because everyone here is a nerd, but no one seems to know what to do at this party (Okay, Matthew and Brian have a handle on the drinking), so I start to lead them ... let's sing happy birthday, make him make a wish (did he look at Ashley when he did that?), and then cut the cake. Before we dole out the joke presents we all bought him, I give my speech. Not knowing what to do until I do it, I put the fun back in funeral:
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to pay our respects to Marshall. He WASSsss (heavy emphasis here) a young man..."
Everyone sucks in air at my audacity, but then they begin laughing.
I then change the speech to make it charming and witty - it's the old guy's birthday, after all.
Still, the speech kills - perhaps because we've already started drinking before eating.
Dinner was okay. I have maybe half a beer and then a lot of coke. I pretend my back is hurting to try and garner some sympathy from Ashley. Hey, I said I was jealous - not a moron. It works.
At 9PM, I can tell Ashley wants to leave because she is tired of Marshall's attempts at flirting... but Tim wants to talk with her now. Am I being paranoid?
Marshall keeps insulting me with semi-witty banner. Dude, you don't want to start with me... when it comes to witty retorts, for me it would be like battling an unarmed opponent.
I want to say something or drive my fist into his throat, but I can't do that on his birthday, so instead I swallow my pride and have another coke.
As we are leaving, the shop owner stops ME and asks if I will have a sake (rice wine) shot with him (I think he saw how much money I put in to the party kitty to pay the bill). Despite my mood, I'm here to internationalize the Japanese - and like it or not, booze is conversation lubrication. We have a couple of shots (this stuff goes down like water) - he slaps me on the back and asks me to come again. Now, perhaps my memory of this is skewed, but I think I was the only one to do shots with him.
At 9:40 we finally leave the establishment and catch the train back north (two stops). Matthew is tanked, but he, Ashley, Jeanne, Brian, Timothy (who live two stops north of Nishinasuno in Kuroiso-shi) and myself ride the JR train. It's always on time - what is a JR train? It's similar to an Amtrack or Via train traveling between towns and cities.
I sit on the right side of Ashley, Tim on her left. Bugger. Is he boring or annoying? (Tim did become a friend - and did have a decent sense of humour... and I guess I didn't take into account that as a newcomer in Japan he was lonely and wanted to talk with a fellow high school AET - Ashley).
Departing at Nishinasuno-eki to leave Tim to travel the last two stops by himself, we head for our bikes... Brian lives on the other side of the station and walks home. Jeanne decides to take us on a scenic route back to her and Ashley's place. Say bye (no kiss - because there are witnesses - or because she is plotting to sleep with Tim and Marshall??!! - okay, even though I'm jealous, I know it's because of the witness thing).
I ride back with Matthew - over to his place to make sure he gets home okay - I don't need the big guy to careen drunkenly into a rice field and drown when a farmer urinates on him. I bike home... it's 10:30PM and there is no one - I mean, no one - on the streets.
It's an interesting feeling to be prowling the streets of Ohtawara on my bicycle... I feel kind of like a ghost as I flit by the homes being careful not to ride my bike into an open sewer.
And that was my day, September 11, 1990. How was your day?

Somewhere going vroom-vroom,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title was originally sung by The Shangri-Las - a quartet who usually appeared as a trio when on tour - see the video here - DOWN-DOWN
And, for your entertainment pleasure, here's a Twisted Sister version, GET THE PICTURE?.
For your edification, in the photo above at Marshall's birthday party - can you believe I actually brought a camera, too??!! are (back row from left): Matthew, Brian, Ashley, Tim; (front row from left): Jeanne,  Myself (Andrew), Marshall and Usha. The photo was taken by my fellow sake shot putter and restaurant owner.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Teacher, Teacher

Let me tell you about what a day is like for me in the first couple of months in Japan.
I'm going to break it down into two parts - today's episode is about school; and tomorrow's is about personal life.

It's Tuesday, September 11, 1990, and it's the first day of class at Kaneda Kita Chu Gakko (Kaneda North Junior High School).
I'm up at 6:30AM, do a load of laundry and hang it outside on my northern balcony while awaiting Gunji-san, the school nurse, who arrives at 8AM. (Check out the scan here at the top telling me about my transportation details).
She's nice and has a radar detector for some reason in her too small white car. She's always smiling and speaks little English - but that's okay, because I want her to concentrate and continue hunching over the steering wheel as she navigates the 1-1/2 lane paths through rice field after rice field on the way to school. We do chat, and I think I know what she means maybe 65-70% of the time... I pretty much understand one word and hope like heck that that is the subject.
We arrive at school at 8:15AM - a 15 minute car ride that would have taken me 45 minutes to ride, if my boss Hanazaki-san had not intervened and told them they need to provide me with a car ride... besides, I don't think I ever would have found the place (my atrocious lack of direction may also have had something to do with Hanazaki-san's decision).  
I warn the teachers that I might be upset because of I had a fight with my girlfriend last night (again). I even tell them who it is (fellow AET Ashley), because I'm looking for compassion.
As a nice welcome to Kaneda Kita - surprise - I'm asked to give a short speech to the teachers and then one to the school. Aaarrrggh! Good thing I kept the one I prepared for last week's visit to Ohtawara Junior High School.
When I'm done, they present me with flowers - an outstanding display that I will attempt to re-gift to Ashley. I'm cheap, not stupid.
Check out the scan at the side here, showing my school schedule - pretty busy, eh? Apparently I don't go to the schools  on Monday - I spend it at the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education) - funny, in 2010, I thought it was Fridays I spent there. Good thing I wrote stuff down.

Each class is a solid 50-minutes long. There are three classes of first-years (Grade 7); four second-years (Grade 8); and three third-years (Grade 9). Despite the newness of it all, I find the classes boring as both Yashiro Keiichiro-sensei and Sagawa Ise-sensei (sensei means teacher) translate everything I say into Japanese.
This shows how naive I was, as I expected the kids to understand what I was saying. Nope. Even dumbed down a bit, I was speaking several levels ahead of where these kids were, and I was too stupid to know it yet - what with this being my second week of actual team-teaching. If you scroll down to the bottom, you can see a page of a first-year English book the kids use. Why would I think they would understand everything I tell them in a self-introduction? Even I don't understand half the things I say or write.
Between classes, some of the students come and chat with me in broken English and broken Japanese, and I appreciate the effort, because at least it shows that some of them like me.
After arm wrestling a really strong boy or three (read about it HERE), I meet a really grubby kid - Wakanabe Hakashi-kun (kun implies "boy"/chan is used for girls - and like in all Asian countries, the surname is placed ahead of the given name... he's Wakanabe-san or Hakashi-kun). This boy hates to study (so his teachers tell me), but he's a nice kid even though he likes to pull on my substantial arm hair.
Lunch (in class 1-1) is a rather filling combination of milk, rice, fish (salmon), salad, chicken and (back at the teacher's office) several cups of o-cha (green tea - of which I would have anywhere between five to seven cups of a day at work - not by choice, mind you, but because it is offered up by the female staff, and I didn't want to insult anyone by saying 'no thanks').
While in the office after lunch, a man walks into the place (he's not a teacher), sees me and walks over and asks if he can see my hands (in English he said: Han-do, pu-reez). Shocked that I understood him, I complied. Now with Keiichiro-sensei (he prefers I call him Yashiro - in a cool sign of friendship) translating, this guy wants to read my life lines on my palm. It's free, so what the heck?
He says I'm going to live a long and happy life with a good strong wife and kid--just one (so far, by 2010, he's right). He says I will work on my own and that I am very lucky, with luck dominating my being. I will also be rich.
(In 2010, I work as a writer - pretty much on my own, and have always considered myself lucky because my life is actually pretty good - although I am not rich - well, only in the things that count, and I'm pretty p-o'd about it. C'mon retirement fund lottery!
For some reason I think the rest of the afternoon classes are boring - more translation and less real interaction, I suppose. Is it going to be like this for my entire time here?
When 5PM comes, Gunji-san drives me home - and lo and behold I'm at my apartment in 15 minutes - with my flowers.

Somewhere reading between the lines,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by .38 Special and can be heard HERE.
The scan beside this shows as page from a 1st -year English textbook. 
Oh... and if you wish, here are a few photos of Kaneda Kita Chu Gakko - SCHOOL DAZE.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Forever Young

Thank goodness for my girlfriend Ashley.
Maybe it's because her father once traveled to Japan, but she had an adventurous spirit and wanted to travel to Nikko.
It's August 25, 1990. I have no idea where Nikko is or what is there, but if it meant spending more time with Ashley, I would go to Hell and back - which if you've been keeping up with my frenetic pace, you'll know we once visited Beppu - home to the 7 Hells. GO TO HERE

Me being lovestruck allowed me the luxury of traveling in Japan without having to get lost - unless she told me to do so... but you don't want to here about all of those times.
I've prepared for you a few photos of my first visit to Nikko... you'll notice that Ashley is in a lot of them... looking at them again 20 years later, well, she was skinnier than I remember - I'm not trying to be mean here - but I understand the initial attraction now. It wasn't just convenience.  
I eventually figured out that Nikko is a 40-minute train ride west of Ohtawara - as the crow flies. As we are not crows, we took the JR (Japan Rail) train from Nishinasuno-eki (station) and traveled 40 minutes south to Utsonomiya-shi (city) the capital of Tochigi-ken (Province of Tochigi). From there, we changed trains and traveled an additional 40 minutes northwest.
Stepping out of the train station, I am not impressed by the town of Nikko. It's the boonies (do-inakka). The houses all look run-down, the town is small - but because I'm with Ashley, I let her lead the way past the town, finally arriving at our true destination - Nikko's temples and shrines.
Nikko translates to "sunlight" - and when you step into the temple area (to the west of the town) it is blindingly beautiful.
The area houses the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, a very famous shogun (warrior emperor of Japan) who unified Japan in the early 1600s.
Beginning in 1603 until 1868 Japan had an isolationist policy - no foreigners/gaijin. This was something Ieyasu dreamed up to protect Japan from Christianity and other many things.
Also enshrined here is his grandson Iemitsu, also a famous shogun and the Futurasan shinto shrine which was built in 767 AD. No, I did not leave a number out - its over 1,300 years old..
What is shinto? It's a religion that Buddhist Japan also practices, worshiping gods that live in nature - trees, grass, water, etc. In fact, most Japanese houses have a shinto shrine each family member prays to in the morning and the evening - I believe the correct way to bow twice, clap twice while praying/wishing, and then bow once. It's a 10-second thing, if that.
Anyhow... that's enough history/information for you. To see photos of the trip, BOW & CLAP

Somewhere wondering what the big deal is over those stoopid monkeys,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Today's title is by Alphaville, and can be heard HERE.
Picture up above is of the famous Three Wise Monkeys: Hear No Evil; Speak No Evil; and See No Evil.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hotel California

Part 4 of the August 28 road trip.

Remember how I ate some pumpkin-flavoured ice cream and didn't know I was lactose intolerant? As we drove to our next destination, I realized something was percolating in my gut.
Twenty bumpy minutes later with me trying not to fart we arrive at Handa Primary School (featuring grades 1-6).
When they jump out of the car, I hang back a moment and wait until they are far away and clear my throat loudly while farting into the car. 
Iso-san suddenly goes back to the opens the door, sticks his head, pulls it out and looks at me. He walks sort of close to me and asks "Daijobu?" (You okay?) and then : "Bikurishta" (Ommigawd!) before coughing loudly.
Anyhow, farting aside, there are 116 students and nine teachers meaning about 13 students per teacher. The school is 105 years which makes it older than that house we just finished visiting - I knew it wasn't that old!
The principal (Kocho sensei) Fukasawa speaks English very well and makes me promise to come back and teach him English and he will teach me Japanese. maybe we can do that every Friday morning - I'll have to see. (Nope - never happened).
We go to the gym where the entire school is sitting apparently awaiting my arrival. It's so quiet you could hear a bowling pin drop until they see me and it instantly becomes deathly silent.
I'm in do inaka (the boonies/sticks), and I may indeed be the first gaijin/foreigner they have ever sen outside of the television or movies.
Six pretty grade 6 students (girls) come up with a large bouquet of flowers and bow and stick out their hand for a handshake. So I do.
Ommigawd! This set's off a frenzy in the gym as the kids go nuts - jumping up and racing over to me to be the next to shake the hand of an honest to gosh gaijin. Five minutes later with every little bugger satisfied, it's time for me to go. You should have heard the disappointment. Instead of "Awwwwwww" I heard "eyyyyyyyyyyyyy". Everyone - and I mean everyone waved goodbye - which I returned in kind. One girl - maybe 11 years-old - ran up and flipped me the peace sign, which I stupidly responded in kind. The whole school rushed me like a prison break and flipped me the peace sign. Except one kid who just flipped me off. Not sure if I should laugh, I winked at him and he came over and gave me a big hug. Just as the student body prepared for another push forward to follow his lead, Fukasawa-sensei yelled out - "Dame dai yo!" (Loosely translated to: No way, Jose!) as the little buggers stopped dead in their tracks.
Hanazaki-san tells me I will visit the Ohtawara primary schools again in March. Cool!
By the time we get back to the OBOE, it's time for me to leave on time - while the OBOE workers have to stick around and wait for the Superintendent to leave first - and hope he isn't asleep in his office.
On the way home I purchase a kettle for Ashley, go home wait for her to arrive, head out to AiAi Town (a department store) for her to buy a rain coat (what for? it's beautiful in the country!). I purchase more spaghetti supplies and we then head back to my place to cook and eat.
Matthew's timing is better this evening as he calls after we finish up in the bedroom - and it's only 9AM, but that also means it's time for me to ride Ashley back to her place in Nishinasuno-machi (town of Nishinasuno).
As I'm killing bugs in her place, the old guy Marshall (he's 34 and from California) calls Ashley to ask if she's going to some beach party in Saitama-ken (Saitama Province). He says she can spend the night at his place in Yaita-machi so they can get an early start to the party. He then asks how her weekend was.
Ashley rolls her eyes at me - she knows I can hear everything he's saying on the phone - and tells him that she went to Nikko with Andrew. "Who?" he asks.
Bastich. I may have to have a chat with this guy.
She tells him she's not going to the party, but that Andrew is and suggests that maybe he could spend the night in Yaita. Ha! Good girl! he says something about having to go and hangs up.
I have to go too, but not before Ashley shows me a music box her old boyfriend Eric in the U.S gave her - I pull a Marshall and ask "Who?" She hits me, kisses me and tries to push me out the door.
Why the heck did she show me that music box? Did she see the one I had bought for her? I hadn't given her the music box because it was supposed to be a one-month anniversary surprise (August 30, 1990).
On the way out she asks me how much I spent on that music box - so she did see it! I tell her it only cost 3100 yen ($25 Cdn). She smiles, kisses me again and closes the door.

Somewhere and somewhen I had a pretty darn good day,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is, of course, by The Eagles: COLITAS
PS - In the photo above, I'm signing autographs at the primary school. I have a 6-inch Ultraman (a Japanese show I used to watch when I was a kid) doll (given to me by a student!) stuffed in my shirt, and I looked burnt out - which you can really tell I am in the photo below this:

PPS: Why this song/title? - The school is a lovely place/Ashley has a lovely face - but like the Hotel, danger lurks, and while you can check out any time you like, you can never leave. Even 20 years later, I can still feel their sticky hands all over me! Or is it my own son?
PPPS - I keep mentioning Nikko, so let's take a look next time.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Part three of August 28, 1990.

Hanazaki-san (and Iso-san our driver from the OBOE) and I leave the outdoor fishy restaurant to visit an old house. I'm told it's 100 years old - which sounds quite old, but in retrospect, here in Japan (my previous house in Canada was 114 when I moved) it's not. What it is, however, is a fine example of a death trap.
It's made completely of wood, has dried grass tatami mat flooring (which I have in my bedroom in my Ohtawara apartment) and it all looks like it would go up in a second should anyone drop a live ash on it - a distinct possibility in this country.
In the kitchen--a dirt floor--there is a section for farm implements: grinding machines to separate rice and wheat properly (seed from husk). There's also a grass coat which I was told was a rain coat - it looked pretty itchy.
There was also a three-foot long stick with five two-inch branches on the end that looked like my drawing below.
Apparently it's a washing machine attachment - sort of. It's used to turn the clothes when immersed in the nearby Nake Gawa (Naka River).
Beside the house is a souvenir shop and restaurant. While Hanazaki-san orders us some soba (cold noodles made from buckwheat and wheat flour that the eater dips in a cold broth), I check out the antique utensils. It reminds me that I need to buy Ashley a kettle so that she wouldn't need to use a big pot to heat up a cup of tea and her entire apartment... it's something that sucks during the 30C +  summers, but how cold does it get here in Ohtawara in the winter? I guess I'll find out, because I didn't bring any sweaters.
Although I just ate five ayu (Japanese sweetfish), I eat all of my soba - and don't find it filling. We eat a bowl of ice cream each - vanilla for Iso-san, O-cha (green tea) for Hanazaki-san, and pumpkin (??!!) for me. Apparently I didn't learn this for years, but pumpkin implies "squash" not the big orange Halloween decoration. Squash ice cream? It was tasty, believe it or not.
I had no idea at the time, but I was lactose intolerant and had some nice cramps for the next few hours (or it was that time of the month for me?).
Next we visited the Kurobane prison. There are two buildings side by side - one is three stories, the other four. The entire building is maybe 15-feet deep and 300-feet long. Plus there's a gun tower! My view of this prison is NOT what it looks like in 2010, as it is now a lot bigger with a capacity for about 1700 prisoners.

Here's my drawing of the 1990 version:
Unfortunately, we don't go inside for a better look, but we do visit the gift shop where all of the things inside are built by the prisoners: bureaus, tables, chairs, etc. I buy Ashley a music box in the shape of a heart that plays that Cat's theme - Memories. It's cheap and small - probably wouldn't hold much, and now 20 years later I wonder if that is an allegory.
A prison worker (not prisoner) tells me I have purchased a very beautiful piece of work - and I have to agree.
We don't enter the prison because there is a prison festival going on. I'd love to see what sort of festival one could have for the prisoners, but it's a safety thing for me I'm told.
The gift shop folks are joking with me that I must have a girlfriend - Hanazaki-san asks if it's for Ashley. I can't lie to him, so I tell him yes.
This goes smack in the face of what Ashley is trying to prevent. Apparently she is afraid of being labeled a 'slut' because she has a boyfriend, while for me as a guy, it's a badge of honour.
We pile back into Iso-san's white van and drive off. I notice that he never seems to need to look at a map - he just knows the area. Through Hanazaki-san he explains that he has lived here all his life (50 years) and he knows it like the back of his hand. I ask Hanazaki-san how well does a person know the back of his own hand. He laughs, translates it to Japanese - we all laugh and find our way to the next destination. Along the way, Iso-san has Hanazaki-san translate for him: "I have three freckles, 23 hairs on my left hand, and 12 freckles and 36 hairs on my right."
I laugh, but Iso-san in a serious face says: "Honto (really)".
Holy crapola. He does know the back of his hand!
"Jodan! (joke!)" screams Iso-san.
I tell ya - between Matthew's crazy supervisor Mr. Suzuki and the cards at my OBOE, we should forever bury the stupid stereotype of the Japanese not having a sense of humour. Not as good as mine, but what are you going to do?

Somewhere wondering if the prisoners get balloons at the festival,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Today's title is by AC/DC. GET OUT FOR FREE.
PPS: Tomorrow is the last installment of this busy little day - I visit a primary school and become even more famous.
PPPS: Look at that - I guy gets laid and now he thinks he's funnier than a country.
PPPPS: I know this episode isn't funny - but I figured we could sacrifice it for some knowledge. You learned that the Japanese are just like us when it comes to a sense of humour; prisons have festivals; they have strange flavours of ice cream - vanilla??!!; everyone knows I have a girlfriend; women are sluts for having boyfriends and men are studs for having girlfriends (yes, plural!); Japanese prisons are pretty darn narrow; and I have no idea what the weather is like in this country - it's hot, right?
PPPPPS: Photo at the top is the Bridge Over The River Kwai (built by POW's - Prisoners of War), as I don't have any pics of this trip (which is why you see my crappy drawings). The bridge is in Thailand - NOT Japan.  

Thursday, July 15, 2010

John The Fisherman

Continuing from where we left off yesterday (it's August 28, 1990 and I'm on a surprise road trip courtesy of my boss at the Ohtawara Board of Education), Hanazaki-san and I are touring the Basho-no Sato Museum in Kurobane Village (now a part of Ohtawara-shi as of 2005).

Looking at some armour, the samurai wore a metal face shield that had a permanent scowl on it complete with long grey whiskers added for ferocity. True or not, I was told that because so few Japanese could grow a decent beard (that doesn't seem right), the facial hair was added to make it seem like the wearer was a wild man. On the samurai helmets is a gold inlay - and it looks beautiful.
There are also arm and ankle protectors that appears to have bamboo on the outside with a metal mesh underneath. Hanazaki-san tells me the whole get-up could weigh between 30-40 kilograms. Man, no wonder the face masks had a scowl.
We examine some maps and scrolls showing how to travel from Kanemaru House (MY Kanemaru-san's family comes from a famous line of samurai!) here on the property down south to Edo (the old name for Tokyo). One map unfolded is about 30-feet long and when folded four inches thick.
We walk over to a meeting area where the samurai would eat, drink green tea (o-cha) and relax in front of a fireplace of sorts. I drew this (in 1990) to show you what it looks like (It says  'sand embers for fire' and 'table':
We then walked to an expansive garden with Hanazaki-san telling me I should build one like this in Toronto - I wish. We exit through a big red gate (after a total of 40 minutes).
Driving down the road towards a bridge over the Nake Gawa (Nake - pronounced nah-kay - River), Iso-san of the OBOE, who has actually been our chauffeur (but deigned not to accompany us in the museum), asks me in decent English (he must have been studying while I was touring!) if I have ever seen yana.
 I say 'no' because I have no idea what yana is - so we drive into a valley to see some up close. At first I think he means bamboo (take - pronounced tah-kay)... but then I realize he means a traditional Japanese fishing trap made from 8-metre-long bamboo poles - because that's what Hanazaki-san explains to me.
Anyhow, out in the river sits a yana fish trap. It's about 75-feet long made of bamboo that is tied together like a raft. One end of it is immersed into the fast flowing river. Water can and does flow through the cracks in the tied together yana, but they want that. With one end submerged, the other end is raised maybe six feet out of the water.
This is another drawing I made that day - obviously I'm not an artist, but hopefully you get the idea (from left it says: water/log/yana/bridge to edge):
Okay... if my drawing was not good enough, go here, but COME BACK.
The fish are forced onto the bamboo by the river, but with the water falling through the cracks, the fish are left ripe for the plucking.
The types of fish caught here are: Ayu (Japanese sweetfish) that have the same silvery sheen as a mackerel but are only five to six inches long; carp (koi) 12 to 18 inches long; and eel (unagi) in the nine to 10-inch range.
I walk along a flimsy wooden bridge to the yana - holding onto a rope on the side, I make my way down. I nearly wipe out in to the river six or seven times because I'm wearing dress shoes, but I make it down to pick up a flopping ayu. The water is suzushi (cool), but not samui (cold), and I don't mind getting a little wet.
As we leave the river, we walk to a restaurant 100 metres away where they cook ayu. They take them still alive and kicking from a bucket and dump them into a large square pan where they flip around some more. Three men each take six-inch long skewers and impale the fish through the gills and then through the body twice, sort of scrunching it up a little. Thank goodness the fish finally dies (I hope).
One of the men (Vlad the Impaler) tells me in perfect English (what the heck??!!) that the ayu have a very short life span of one year, with its name translating into the aforementioned sweetfish. I have four or five - it's extremely tasty and salty - and this is coming from a guy who doesn't care for fish all the much.
I'm not sure how much money these guys could possibly make in a day, but because they were able to practice their English with An-do-ryu sensei (he knew who I was??!!), there was no charge.
As I left, he yelled out to me: "Please enjoy your stay in our country!"
Anyhow... that's all for now... we'll continue with our trip through the outskirts of Ohtawara tomorrow.

Somewhere enjoying my stay, but wishing I had an ayu on a stick right now,
Andrew Joseph
PS - Today's title was caught by Primus... weird but their Sailing on the Seas of Cheese album is one of my all-time favourites! Have a listen to the title song - HERE.
PPS - crappy drawings aside, at the top is a photo of some bamboo growing near an Ohtawara playground situated (without fences) beside a graveyard.

PPPS - John is my first name.
PPPPS - Okay - Here's a photo I took of a yana on the Nake Gawa:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


You may have noticed specifically in the past two blogs that I have made a few innocuous comments regarding women and their place in Japan - like the chick car comment or the men not knowing how to cook thing. It's not MY opinion... it's the way things are in Japan. Very chauvinistic. And while I do indeed play along at first so the men know I'm one of them, eventually I'm so well liked and respected in country that when I begin attempting to correct such piggish behaviour I actually get a few men to listen. 'Nuff said.

So... it's Tuesday, August 28th, 1990. I have yet to begin teaching and spend my weekdays at the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education) offices writing letters and studying Japanese - alphabets and conversation. I suck at both, but I'm going to give it a shot.
At 9:30AM, Hanazaki-san says to me: "C'mon Andrew. Let's go to Samurai World." What? Ah, a joke. Samurai World is his pet name for a museum.
I'm not sure why but we stop off first at the International Centre near the bicycle shop and bicycle path. Then we go to see Hashimoto-san - the owner of Hashimoto Tile Co. and the Tochigi Marble Co. His wife runs the International Centre.
At the Tile Co. we sit and look at a marble tray and ashtray and at a Chinese painting created out of marble bathroom tile. It's about six feet wide and three feet high and it looks like it weighs a ton... but it is mesmerizing.
Next we drive over to a tiny polize station (about the size of a TARDIS - exterior, of course) - it's about 50 feet to the left of the Yoichi Nasu statue (Yoichi Nasu is THE hero of Ohtawara who favoured kyudo (archery), which is why it was important for me to learn kyudo - I knew I'd never learn enough Japanese language, but I figured I should learn as much of the history and culture as possible) which is three minutes south west from my apartment. In the Tardis, I mean police station I give the lone officer there my name, address, country born ni , Toronto address and telephone number in Ohtawara and am told that should I ever find myself in trouble to make my way here.
From here we travel one street further west to the Tochigi Board of Education (Ohtawara Branch) where Jeanne Mance Blanc from Sherbrooke, Quebec works. She is an AET on the JET Programme too, and while she lives in an apartment above Ashley, we haven't spoken too much to each other. Still, I give her a big wink and am introduced to her office. While Hanazaki-san picks up the OBOE mail, Jeanne says she'll talk to me later. She was correct. It was later (much) and I do believe we did talk. We never talk. But that's okay. I'm too immature for her, I'm sure.
We then travel to Samurai World - aka Basho-no Sato Museum. I thought it was close by to Ohtawara - well, it IS in Ohtawara but it's not in the city.  I think. Just so you get an idea of how spread out Ohtawara is, we drove for 30 minutes along windy (not wind-dee, but whine-dee) roads up hills and down valleys and tree-lined roads the size of a bike path. Crossing a bridge and turning right we head up a steep hill  where the trees are all spruce and pine.
Okay, we're actually in Kurubane Village (which joined Ohtawara City on October 1, 2005). Under the bridge we passed is the Nake Gawa (Nake River), where I spy the bamboo method for catching AYU (Japanese sweetfish) by fishermen using 6-foot long poles. I'm told the bamboo is called yana.
As we walk up a small incline (40 metres) from where we parked, I see a tour bus parked on the right and the bus driver on the left three feet from the road. It's 11AM and broad daylight and he has his left hand on his hip and his right hand holding himself while he takes a leak. No shame.
Yes, I'm being judgmental - but remember - this is still my first month here. I will learn to urinate in public.
This whole area is a compound where samurai warriors ate, slept, practiced and gardened. I'm guessing because there are no samurai anymore. As we enter the facility, I get a booklet in English describing the museum. Apparently its a place to honour the great Japanese poet Basho who traveled all over Japan writing haiku (a three-lined poem where the first and third line have a total of five syllables and the second line has seven - it's economy at its best).
I like haiku and became quite proficient at it. I'm not saying they're great - just that I was proficient. I did write one a few years later that helped me get a Japanese girlfriend - but you're gonna have to wait before I reveal all of that. I'll include THAT poem later, as I'm actually quite proud of it.  
Here's a couple of examples of haiku (and titles) that I wrote when I got home from today's trip:

"wooden stick flashes
replaced by enduring pain
kendo can be fun"

Meji jidai
"Government watching
Ronin wander alleyways
Edo age over"

The Single Guy
"The green milk from hell
Looks lumpy and cancerous
but it tastes just fine"

Trying To Drink Alone
"Smoke blows in my face
Whiskey Sour ice cubes swirl
They practice English"

"Fire engines roar
Bowels begin to constrict
Wasabi is hot"

I'll continue with more of this day's adventure next time.

Somewhere time-tripping,

Andrew Joseph

Title sung by The Association - BEWARE, this song is addictive!
PS - The photo above shows a statue of Basho on horse with his poor retainer who had to walk. This photo was taken by myself six months later, as I did NOT have a camera with me today as it was all a surprise trip by Hanazaki-san. Great guy, but I wish I had my camera!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

School's Out

It's Wednesday, August 22, 1990. I wake up get dressed and leave a flower on the pillow for the still sleeping Ashley.
As I'm about to leave, the phone rings. It's the weird Japanese woman who keeps phoning me to say "Good morning." It wakes up Ashley, makes me late and ticks me off a bit.
I've left Ashley a new toothbrush and a towel and since she's awake to let herself out when she's ready. At the OBOE I try to call her at 11:30AM, but the phone's busy, so I guess she's calling someone - probably home. It's expensive to call the US and Canada - I never asked for any money, and never rec'd any... but I'd never begrudge anyone wanting to do so from my place. Girlfriend, right? Don't want to screw things up.
Hanazaki-san tells me we'll be visiting three schools today: Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School) is the closest maybe two kilometres to the west and the biggest in the city; Nozaki Chu Gakko, an old school that's out to the western edge of the city; and Wakakusa Chu Gakko, a new-looking school that is slightly south and east of my residence.
Mr. Mimori is the principal at Ohtawara (aka Dai Chu). He's a nice man, always smiling. He has a flat face, yellow teeth, gold rim glasses and slicked back hair streaked with grey. He's very short at 5'-3". Innoue-sensei, a 40-ish, well-dressed and very funny English teacher takes me out to the nearby soccer field in his wife's car - a Suzuki Alto. It's not white! Designed for the women of Japan, this tiny vehicle is only available in a host of pastel colours (this one is a RED), and while Innoue-sensei apologizes for us being in a "woman's car" (aka he meant it was a 'chick' car), I laugh to myself thinking that while the colour is fantastic, it is indeed embarrassingly small.
As we sit in the car watching the players, many of them turn around smile, wave and bow at us. Some even shout a "hello" to us. Awesome! According to Innoue-sensei, all of the fields used by the schools belong to the City, and each school is given permission to use it without any monies exchanging hands.
Hanzaki-san and I then travel to Nozaki (which for reasons to be explained much later) is one of my favourite schools). While there aren't a lot of students, they are super nice. Mr. Shibata - the father of the young, cool English teacher at Dai Chu - is the principal at this school. At No Chu (its nickname), we sit in Shibata's office and sip orange juice. I listen to Hanzaki and Shibata chat away in Japanese. While I am occasionally allowed in to answer a simple question or two, it's refreshing to not have to be the centre of attention.
We check out a kendo class (I'm assuming it's a gym class), and am invited to participate. Kendo is Japanese fencing - a way for the old samurai warrior class to keep in practice using a bamboo stick.
The students are smashing each other with the kendo stick - all over the head, the upper arms and body - it looks like fun, especially if you are into S & M.
I do try to whack the kendo sensei a few times (he's in full protective gear while I'm in a suit) and I can see the allure. I promise to check it out again when I visit the school for real in a few weeks.
We then drive to Wakakusa (Waka Chu). The principal, Mr. Usui was just on his way out, but drives back to chat with us. This is Tomura-sensei-'s school. He's the Christian fellow who acted as my translator a few days earlier. He shows me around - specifically they school's baseball team (boy's play baseball and girl's play softball) who just won the prefecture (provincial) pennant for the first time.
Oh crap - I might have to play baseball with these kids, but if do play with these awesome guys, despite being able to hit anything near the plate, I am going to be embarrassed.
Hanazaki-san tells me I will have to ride my bicycle to Dai Chu and Waka Chu, but Tomoura-sensei says no, he doesn't mind driving me. Have I mentioned before that Tomoura-sensei is heck of a nice guy?
We get back to the OBOE in time for lunch (which is when I called Ashley)... and after slowly getting the hang of using hashi (chopsticks) we head to an auditorium in our building to watch Dai Chu and Waka Chu put on a music and singing performance.
Let me tell ya - these kids all sang beautifully. The musicians? They would put many a Canadian high school to shame. The girls who played the piano - let's just say I feel embarrassed now to tell anyone I can play the piano - let alone teach it. Their skill pretty much killed in me the desire to ever want to call myself a piano player ever again.
At 5PM I head home - Ashley arrives at 5:15PM (so she did leave), and just as we're enjoying our hello, Kanemaru-san arrives to take the two of us to our kyudo lesson. Little did I know, but this was the first Wednesday for the next three years where I'd go for an archery lesson.
Takeo Sano, the teacher at the Ohtawara Kyudo School gives Ashley and myself a special glove to aid us in pulling the bowstring, while she also gets a chest protector, for obvious reasons.
I'm a quick learner with kyudo, as I'm able to slow my breathing down when I'm ready to release... they try to give me a bow with a lighter pull - but for some stupid reason (machismo), I decline.
After being dropped at my place, Ashley and I head to the PizzaPie near the Mosburger fastfood restaurant. We each order a pizza and Coke. I order the pepperoni and cheese, while she orders a shrimp pizza. She doesn't care for that, so she eats mine while I eat hers. The shrimp pizza is horrible--maybe it's because Ohtawara isn't near an ocean or a sea. Both pizzas came with what looked like half a can of corn dumped unceremoniously in the middle of the pie. Why corn? Who knows. It's a Japanese thing, I guess.
She spends the night again, and I'm wondering how this life can get any better.

Somewhere just realizing that Japan has school in August!
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by Alice Cooper - KACHINA (that's the name of his first snake).
PS - My friend Rob asked me recently if I ever had a good time with Ashley because every time I write about women I seem to be looking for a way out of our relationship. I do try and play things up a bit in this blog - so I figured let's set the record straight. I was indeed in love with Ashley - but she always seemed confused in our relationship, which led to arguments often, which had me all over the place in my moods. I was immature, and I suppose she was too - or maybe she wasn't and knew early on that our relationship was doomed and tried to soften the blow. Whatever the reason, you should know that at the beginning, our relationship was great. Twenty years later, I wish her nothing but the best and a big thank-you for helping alleviate my loneliness and/or homesickness.
See... told you I'd grown up. A bit. Now if I can just convince my wife of that.
PPS - The photo at the top is of a kendo mask left to air out on a tree stump. I suppose the entire blog is about masks and covering up one's weaknesses. I didn't mean to write it that way, but when I write things have a habit of finding a link all on its own.
PPPS - So... I did 128 blogs in a year's time. Just over one every three days. I need to learn how to write less more often, rather than more all the time.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Knocking At Your Back Door

So... welcome to the second year of me blogging. It has been that long.
And if you see below, I'm only three weeks into the adventure! Ha! Just kidding. I am backtracking!
happy Anniversary to us - thanks for reading along!

Okay, it's Tuesday, August 21, 1990... I'm at the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education )writing letters to people in the hope beyond hope that someone - anyone - will actually write back. despite being blessed with a good friend in Matthew Hall and a beautiful girlfriend in Ashley Benning - plus an awesome bunch of folks at my OBOE, I'm homesick.
I'm 25 - nearly 26 - and it's the first time in my life I've been away from my Mother, Father and brother Ben. "Oh boo-hoo. Grow up," I hear you cry. I have and I am... but it's always good to know that people aren't completely forgetting about you.
Anyhow, Iso-san (Mister Iso) comes over to tell me that Iso-san (Miss Iso) - uh, no relation, I think - will be showing me how to cook - in fact she would be coming to my apartment right after lunch. Great. I think.
This all goes back to the fact that I like to tell jokes to ease the awkwardness of social silence... I can't stand it when there's a lull in the conversation... which is why I'm always talking - especially if you aren't. Sortta a "Quit talking while I'm interrupting" kind of thing.
Yesterday I had told my office about my dramatic weight loss (6kg) since arriving, and then in a speech I may have mentioned that I have no idea how to cook (but didn't get the expected laugh). I also mentioned that I had no concept of how to do laundry... it all appears to have backfired on me - although, I have lost weight, have no idea how to cook or do laundry - I was just joking around, not whining about it. I figured I'd eventually learn how to do everything - even learn to speak the language. I'm only here for a year, right? How hard could it be?
At 11AM, we all head over to my apartment--apparently the Japanese to English dictionary used by Mr. Iso confused "before" lunch with "after." As well, 'Miss Iso' apparently means the whole office - all nine of them. I am so glad I had tidied up a bit before going to work by throwing away the condom wrappers and hanging up the wet quilt - don't ask.
Anyhow, they showed me how to cook lunch - which only took 1-1/2 hours. Not bad... but it's not like I'm ever going to spend 1-1/2 hours doing anything that doesn't involve a women.
All nine office members did come to my office - but only the three women were actually showing me how to cook... I asked Kanemaru-san about it, and he said he didn't know how to cook because he's a man - and he was so proud of me for not knowing how to cook. He also said he was embarrassed for me that they were trying to teach me how to cook. I told him not to worry - the only thing I've written down is this story.
He laughed and slapped me on the back. Friends for life.
After the lesson, (what about the laundry?!) we all head back to the office. Hanazaki-san tells me that tomorrow I will visit three schools. That's awesome. I've been in Japan for three weeks and I've yet to see what a Japanese school looks like.
In all honesty, since all I've done in my brief time in this country is get lost, I'm reluctant to strike out on my own too much. Despite the number of people I've been exposed to in Japan who seem to speak English, there are a lot more who don't... like everyone at the grocery store, the bank, the restaurants... what have I gotten myself into? I just need time, right? besides, both Matthew and Ashley appear to be handling things far better than I - at least as far as the language/communication thing goes. I really should have studied before arriving here - I'll start soon.
Anyway, I don;t really care too much about tomorrow - I only care about what's going on when I get home.
At 5:05PM I race home. It's probably incredibly bad form - but I'm a gaijin. Let me explain. In Japan, workers do not leave their workplace until the boss does - to do so is incredible shameful... I'm not sure what happens if you do, because aside from myself and other gaijin, I don't think any Japanese folk have ever tried to leave "on time".
I leave - forget about becoming Japanese - these people need to know how things work in Canada! Actually, Hanazaki-san said to go home because Ashley must be waiting for me. Okay - how the heck does he know that? I did pick up all of the condom wrappers didn't I? It's only been two nights since I... you know.
Anyhow... we cook our spaghetti dinner together... she puts on a tonne of garlic, I add the tonne of pepper (I had once heard that one of active ingredients in the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly is pepper - it's what I heard once)
... we add a chunk of butter and melt in some gouda and cheddar. We pig out and then get busy.
Of course, that phone keeps ringing off the hook. Heck, the doorbell even rings - persistently - and I know who it is before I open it. It's Matthew. No offense, but why DID I open the door?
Anyhow, after Matthew sees me peering through the chained front door sans shirt, he was nice enough and smart enough to realize something was up and left, asking me "why the heck did you answer the door?"
At around 1AM, we stop sleeping with each other to get some sleep. I am exhausted and really need to remember to bring my camera with me tomorrow.

Somewhere leaving before the boss,

Andrew Joseph
Today's Title is by Deep Purple and means what ever you think it means, especially if one of those thoughts involves people knocking on your door. KNOCKING.
PS - The photo is a sculpture by Auguste Rodin entitled the Gates of Hell based on my favourite book/poem Inferno by Dante Alighieri. One of three casts made from the original, this one sits at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, Tokyo.Visit this Wikipedia site for MORE. Look at this - art history mixed in with my blog! And yes, I did choose to have someone in the photo - just to get the impression of size.
PPS - Ashley taught me how to use the washing machine.
PPPS - And no, I didn't mind people knocking on my door - it means people haven't forgotten about you here in Japan.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Gimme Some Lovin'

I have spent a lot of time talking about Japan, but very little about Ohtawara, which is fine, but Ohtawara is my home for the next little while, and I think it's only fair I show you around.
The following takes place on Monday, August 20, 1990. It's my third week in Japan.
The players for the next three years are Matthew Hall from New York, my girlfriend Ashley from Georgia, and Kanemaru-san, Hanazaki-san who work at the Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) and are my co-supervisors--it really means they are reasonsible for my well-being while I am working and living in Japan.
Today is my official welcome to Ohtawara party. Sitting in the office, at 1PM Hanazaki-san drives me to the local Ashikaga Ginkko (Bank of Ashikaga) where I get an ATM (automated teller machine) card and a quick lesson on how to with draw money. I take out 50,000 yen in five bills. Apparently that's $500. Yeesh. He drives me to my apartment at 1:30 to try out the new bicycle they have bought for me and just had delivered. It's a large blue 18-speed bicycle - much better than the tiny Zero-speed bike my predecessor, Cheryl, used last year.
I decide to ride out to Iseya and do some shopping. I purchase a cereal box that's a hologram--the entire box--and some much needed Coke. It costs the equivalent of $18 and will last me four days. Milk, cereal, and sundry items like eggs and beans that I know how to cook.
Oh yeah, before I left the office I mentioned to Hanazaki-san that I had lost some weight since arriving. I was 80-kilograms when I left Toronto on July 28, down to 78 kg on August 10 and again down to 74kg on August 17.  (176 lbs-171.6lbs-162.9lb2). While I think it's great, the OBOE are aghast.
After shopping and going home, I head back to the office. I walk through the front door and notice people are still trying to take up decorations for the party. I look away - and head up to the second floor via elevator of the three floor building. It was a week later that I discovered an outside spiral staircase that leads directly into MY office area.
At 5PM, I'm led to an OBOE meeting hall for the reception. I meet Tomura-sensei for the first time - he'll be my interpreter. His English skills are superb. I go over my speech with him to make sure there aren't any surprises.
At the reception on stage, I'm introduced, and here Tomura-sensei translated for me the words sportsman, musician, always smiling and making jokes. I almost blush.
Next Masayoshi Arai, the deputy mayor of Ohtawara makes a speech - apparently it's similar to the first as Tomura sensei translates into English: "It's the same as the first speech", I laugh, but I appreciate it.
Lastly, Izumi Fukasawa, the OBOE superintendent tells me how handsome and nice I am. I guess the bottle of booze (Canadian Club!) I brought from Toronto for him worked wonders.
I receive a large bouquet of flowers from the bespectacled 40-ish Mrs. Akutsu-san (always nice and smiling, too), and then it's time for me to give my speech.
I expected Tomoura-sensei to be standing next to me, but no, they moved him well off to the side so as to give me the entire stage. Unfortunately, he was so far away that he couldn't hear me well enough to translate as well as we'd practiced. It was already a speech Jimmy Stewart would have been proud off (see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington... really... go rent it or buy it), but it was made even longer by Tomura begging me to go slower or asking me to repeat things.
It's all cool. To me it's the perfect revenge for what they made us gaijin go through during our initiation at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo when we listened to a speech by Phil A. Buster (see the Jimmy Stewart movie).
Anyhow, I thought they'd laugh when I mentioned my dramatic weight loss since arriving here, but it didn't get the laughs I expected - maybe the joke was lost in translation or they though I was sick or something. I also joked about not knowing how to cook (that's why I was losing weight!) or how to do laundry. Again, no laugh. Tough crowd. But they said they liked that I was always making jokes!
When it was over, they made an opening toast, people kept topping off my beer every time I took a sip, so I have no idea how much alcohol I actually consumed. The guests whom I talk to, are all my English teachers, and they are all very, very nice. The only lady I'd consider exceptional was newly married, so I think I may have to stick with Ashley. Besides, she's gorgeous and things are going stupidly well.
The party that began at 5:30AM on the dot, ended two hours later at 7:30AM on the dot. It was mentioned in Toronto that the Japanese were  punctual, but this is ridiculous.
Because I had to talk to everyone (wanted to to talk to everyone), I didn't get to eat much, and my growling stomach tells Hanazaki-san as much. He quickly orders Mr. Iso and Akutsu-san to get me bento boxes of the banquet's leftovers to take home. Hanazaki-san he powered chugged several bottles of beer down (it's free, and I would do the same if I wasn't busy eating now).
Home stretch now.
I discover it's going to be impossible for me to carry all of the food and a few ginormous bottle of Kirin biru (Kirin beer), the huge flower bouquet while trying to ride a basketless bicycle in a three-piece suit in some humid 30C+ (40+ with the humidity and 50+ with the suit on).
Iso-san places my bike in his white car's trunk and drives me home, helps carry stuff up with me, comes in to place things in the kitchen, sucks a tonne of air between his teeth when he notices I didn't take my outdoor shoes off and replace them with the floppy indoor slippers, bows and leaves.
I call Ashely at 7:50PM, but she's not in, so I try Matthew and get some Japanese man twice. I eat a couple of tiny lobsters (crawfish) (ommigawd it's tasty) and try calling Ashley because I'm in love with the fact that I lost my virginity with her the night before.
We talk for three hours, hanging up at 11:30PM - I ask her to come by tomorrow for a spaghetti dinner.

Somewhere eating the first good meal I've had in a week - tiny lobsters!
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by the Spencer Davis Group (and so is tomorrow's) - SO GLAD WE MADE IT.
PS - I know I wrote about this day before in an early blog, but I was going on 20-year-old memory. This time, well, let's just say I found the 1990 National Geographic calendar with jotted daily notes plus the pages of fully-scripted diary entries of July 29 - October 18 that I thought was lost.
PPS - The next couple of month's diary entries have pretty detailed descriptions of life including my sexual exploits. Innuendo will have to suffice because I may be a jerk, but I ain't no pig. Anyhow, just trust me that you'll read about cooking, Ohtawara's schools and go on a drive with me all over this beautiful city of Ohtawara.
PPPS - I'm only going to do detailed entries like this one if I think you might use it to learn more about Japan. Hey, you learned about parties (enkai) that last to the wee hours of the evening; how one never knows how much one drinks; presents are an excellent form of bribery; white cars; the fact that pretty much everyone in the audience except the deputy mayor, my superintendent and the OBOE office (less Hanazaki-san) all understood my speech without translation because they are all superb English teachers! You also learned the importance of indoor footware; the timing of jokes; that I'm in love/lust with Ashley; and my office cared enough to have a bicycle shop cobble together parts to make an 18-speed built for a giant Nihonjin (Japanese person) or one normal-sized gaijin (moi). You also learned about the weather and punctuality.
Come back tomorrow for another installment, and don't be late.
PPPS - Photo is of the City of Ohtawara office.