Monthly Archives: December 2014

What Happens at the New Year’s Party Stays

Back when I worked in Nou-machi, because I worked for the Board of Education and at two different junior high schools, I got to forget the year three times.

I’ve mention before how Japanese parties tend to be formal and timed to the minute. They also tend to be rather boring. However, this time of year, even though clocks are still involved, the parties get a little crazier.

One of my favorite names for a party is Bonenkai. In Japanese, the literal reading of the letters is “Forget Year Party” and that pretty much describes what happens.

Instead of the usual two hours, the Forget Year Party stretches to three. There’s more food and more drink and lots of silly, drunken games. I’ve played drunken Twister; drunken rock-paper-scissors; and guess which poor sap got the big chunk of wasabi in his sushi. (This game involves lying and pretending and guessing who’s not really lying. Long story.) I’ve also heard stories of a naked principal climbing a beam and pretending to be a cicada. (I’m never invited to those kinds of parties, though, so I’ve never actually seen anything like that.) I have, however, seen men dance around while dressed as ballerinas. (I used to have a hat that proved it. Now I think I might have imagined the hat. Long story.)

The other thing that happens at the Forget Year Party is that once people start roaming around and talking in pairs, all their complaints come out. I remember one of my English teachers berating the principal about life in general and all the extra BS the teachers were expected to do that had nothing to do with teaching. The principal just took the berating and nodded in agreement.

At another Forget Year Party I was seated next to Ms. Yamazaki (not her real name) who taught home economics or something like that and who was mostly famous for her skill at dismissing the male teachers’ interest in her. (Let’s just say she had tremendous “tracts of land”.) She also had a dismissive “are you serious?” look that was part smile, party wince and part hiss and was scary even if you saw it from across the room. (And yes, she would get hit on in the office. More on that some day.)

We got along well but by then I was dating She Who Must Be Obeyed and had been scared away by that “Are you serious?” look so didn’t consider trying anything. Later, as people started moving around and mingling, the principal came up to me, poured me a beer and got very serious. We then had this conversation:

Him–I see you are sitting next to Ms. Yamazaki.
Me–Yes I am.
Him–Good luck.

At that point I felt as if I’d let down the entire school.

After the main party, there’s almost always a second party (also done on the clock). For this party whiskey and karaoke are involved. In my first year in Japan, at the Board of Education after party, my boss dragged me up on stage to sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I didn’t actually know the words or the tune, but I did my best.

Later, I’d learn that my boss didn’t remember singing with me. But that’s sort of the point of the Forget Year Party: You vent your frustrations and drown them in alcohol. Then you forget them and move on. (Or at least you pretend you do.)



‘Tis the Season to Humbug and Complain

I usually don’t get moody during the holidays (that’s usually reserved for October) but I’ve been out of sorts lately. A lot of odd little pressures have added up.

One of the pressures was the karate test that was scheduled for tomorrow. I’d practiced some, but not enough and after a careful assessment of my skill level and my quantity of practice, I decided to withdraw from the test in the most clumsy manner possible. Although I’d made up my mind in my gut (so to speak) to withdraw very early on, I still held out some hope/denial that I’d pull things together. Then, right at the last minute, I withdrew. Part of it is that I haven’t been having much fun with practice this year–lately it’s started to feel like a job–and I can’t help but feel I’ve got as good as I’m ever going to get at it.

(I also need to teach my sensei how to use Gmail on his phone AND his tablet which would have helped the clumsiness. Long story.)

The other stresses have involved family and work. I’ve said before that I’m tired of not working where I work. Recent revelations have made that a bigger issue, or at least made me think about it more (it will take a long post to explain all that). That said, some of the revelations have been positive and it’s still a pretty easy job.

I’ve also got a sneaking suspicion that She Who Must Be Obeyed wants to move back to her hometown. Mother of She Who Must Be Obeyed has been doing well after her surgeries, but the thought is always there nagging away at her. I think it would do the girls good to be out in the middle of nowhere with some land to help maintain. (Actually, it might do me some good too, now that I think about it.)

That said, I’ve also learned never to make long term decisions when I’m in a mood like this. Next year, I’ll go back to karate practice, or I won’t. We’ll move to Nou or we won’t (probably not until our oldest finishes junior high), but I’ll decide that when I’m less moody–a period which lasts for five minutes every couple of months.

Some Assembly and Swearing Required

I am at war with Apple. They don’t know it yet, but I am.

Going to war with Apple is not easy as the droves of cultists, er, fan-persons strike back quickly and without mercy, after a period of denial and attempted persuasion. In fact I can almost hear them whispering in my ear as I write this. (It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.)

Part of this is that, despite having an Android phone and a strong dislike for iTunes (It’s not a bug; It’s a feature.) I like the iPod touch and find it the easiest way to acquire podcasts. I also have a couple Japanese language dictionaries I’ve already paid for and that Android doesn’t have a clear alternative for. (See, told you Apple was better. We love JOBS!)

The problem is, my eight year old 2nd generation iPod touch (My goodness, man, what is this, the dark ages?) has finally begun to show its age via headphone jack problems and on/off button problems. (It’s the Sleep/Wake button, moron. Jobs is disappointed in you. Oh, and it’s not a bug; it’s a feature.) Because of this, I bought a 5th generation iPod touch yesterday. (Good for you. Jobs will be with you, always.)

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered a couple problems. (They are not bugs; they are features!) First, I had to install a new version of iTunes as the squirrels powering my old version didn’t like working for the new iPod. (No animals were harmed during the upgrade of this iTunes. Right?) After that, my new iPod, after a deceptively good start, suddenly got the Apple equivalent of the blue screen of death when it told me to connect to iTunes even when I was connected. (It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.)

I tried every piece of advice Apple customer service and a couple internet cranks–but I repeat myself–gave me. (Blasphemer.) I rebooted it; I reset it; I reset it again; I tried it on a different computer; I lit a candle near it; I sacrificed a chicken for it; I sold my soul to some guy named Timmy; but I still get the “connect to iTunes” error. (And now you know A LOT about how to factory reset your iPod. See, it’s not a bug; it’s a feature!)

Now I have to wander down to an Apple Store and face the cult, er, customer service in person. If they can’t get it working, it’s back to the store it came from.  My biggest problem then will be deciding to get a new iPod, or switch completely to Android. (Shame. Shame. Shame.)

I’m generally brand loyal, but if a brand becomes more trouble than it’s worth, I have no problems moving on. That’s one of my features. (It’s a bug.)


The Great Big House of Stuff

Today I got to go to one of the most dangerous places in the world and managed to spend less than I’d planned.

Because the trains were finally working normally (more or less) I managed to get down to Tokyo and do some Christmas shopping. My store of choice, when electronics are involved anyway, is Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara, which is an eight story (plus at least one basement level) Mecca of gadgets cameras and stuff. It is to camera what Gart Brothers in Denver used to be for sporting goods.

My favorite YC branch is actually in Shinjuku. It’s spread out over several buildings and has one six floor building with nothing but cameras and camera stuff. (In fact, you could supply an entire photography business, complete with old school darkroom equipment, simply by starting at the top floor and moving down one floor at at time.) The main store is three buildings connected by a maze of narrow halls and short stair cases where the floors don’t quite match.

Unfortunately, the Shinjuku branch, for all its creepy charm, is a difficult place to actually shop, especially as its layout is confusing to the employees too. YC Shinjuku is better for getting lost whilst window shopping than for Christmas shopping. The YC branch in Akihabara, on the other hand, is well laid out and bright and, for the most part, the employees know where everything is. If you get hungry, it has restaurants on the 8th floor.

Unfortunately, the things I wanted were on different floors and I had to make my purchases in the correct order to take advantage of the credit points earned from the purchases. I paid cash and started with the items that gave the most points (10% of purchase price) and then worked my may to the ones that only paid 5% or 1%. This helped me pay down the larger ticket item.

Now II have to hide stuff for a week.

The gifts themselves shall remain a secret. All I shall say is tablets and games. (Oh, and a new iPod touch for me.) At least that’s the start.

Christmas Can Wait for Karma and Attitude

Today I started to go Christmas shopping, but the the Japanese train system wouldn’t let me. Then a couple eye rolls from a teenaged girl made me reconsider Christmas all together.

I think that’s called karma.

My plan was to leave the house at 9:30 and go shopping for the bigger ticket items and then sneak them back in the house. However, our oldest was feeling under the weather (thanks to a headache) and it was decided she should stay at home to rest. (Not decided by me, I should add.) Despite this, my trip to Tokyo was cleared because although She Who Must Be Obeyed would be out in the morning, she’d be back by lunch.

I ended up leaving the house around 10 and heading to the station. As soon as I reached the station street, I knew there was a problem as lines of people were gathered in front of the station. A sign in front of the ticket gates explained there’d been an accident involving a person (suicide) and that the trains had stopped just 11 minutes before.

Having been through this before, I knew nothing would happen for at least an hour and a half. (After a suicide and/or accident, the police stop the trains until they can conclude an initial investigation and clean up some of the mess.)

I went home and thought about going out later and then decided that tomorrow would be better as everyone would be back in school and sneaking things in would be easier.

Then, during the evening, our oldest decided to have several “Teenager Moments” involving selective hearing, selective memory, stubbornness, denial attitude and eye rolls. As a result, her Christmas present may simply be the return of her Nintendo 3DS. As I like to point out to her, usually after an eye roll, if she thinks I’m annoying now, she has no concept of how annoying I can actually be when I want to. I even make sport out of it. Just ask my students.

If you’re keeping score: My leaving late caused me to delay departure which caused me to miss the last moving trains which caused me to delay the shopping trip which led eye rolls and attitude which is making me double check the naughty list and rethink the shopping trip altogether. That’s definitely karma.

Bah humbug.

Back to Back Atom to Atom

I’ve lived in Japan long enough to know that I was in trouble and about to suffer.

Although Japan has an excellent train system, when things go wrong they go wrong in a painful way. This morning, thanks to data delivered to my TV via the new terrestrial digital system, I saw that the train line I use every day was delayed but running. I was worried but hopeful because I wasn’t leaving right away.

As I approached the station, I could see the entire platform was packed with men and women in suits. If I’d been smart, I’d have called in sick right then and there, but instead I had a moment of grown up responsibility and decided it was best I go to work.

In the station, the crowd was organized into neat rows. One thing impressive about Japanese trains is when the door location is marked on the platform, you can be certain that’s where the train will stop. If the driver misses, he backs up until the train is in the right position.

Today, as the first train arrived, I could see it was already crowded but was impressed that half the people on the platform managed to fit on it. This is partly because the Japanese are so desperate to get to work that they want to get on the first train available, even if it’s already full. The second train was also crowded and the other half of the people managed to fit on it. I waited for the third train and was pleased I could see actual bare floor when the doors opened.

Unfortunately, it took 15 minutes to travel two stations (which usually takes five minutes) and when we arrived at the second station, half the population of the Earth (more or less) was waiting on the platform and most of them squeezed on my train.

If you’ve ever been in a concert crush or a football crush or gone shopping for the latest gizmo on Black Friday you can get some sense of what it was like in the train (minus asshole reporters looking for trouble). We weren’t shoulder to shoulder; were were pressed atom to atom. (Technically true so shut up Niel deGrasse Junior High.)

I ended up squeezed against several people and the entire time was happy I was tall, especially when I saw the top of the head of some poor woman caught in the middle of the crush. Eventually, I was forced onto one foot and could feel my leg and knee straining against the crush.

After 20 minutes of crush, I finally arrived at my station and then had to zig-zag and force my way through the people on the platform in order to get out.

I’ve probably caught something and I’ve clearly done something to my knee. And this wasn’t even all that bad. I’ve had worse train rides.


Rock Paper Scissors Hammer Helmet Pain

After you’ve been in Japan a while you discover, much to your surprise, that the game Rock, Paper, Scissors is a martial art and that you suck at it.

The Japanese even give it a name: Janken (pronounce like John Ken) which ranks it up there with Karate and Judo. In the West we merely describe the basic parts. If we did the same with Karate and Judo in the West, Karate would be “punch kick throw” and Judo would be “try to grab uniform, try to grab uniform, grab uniform, throw, argue with referee”. (Something like that.)

The basics are the same: rock beats scissors beats paper beats rock in that endless Mobius strip of winning and losing. The players start with a similar gesture, but whereas in the West we say something like “Rock, Paper, Scissors 1-2-3” the Japanese have a chant that translates to “First we are stones.” Then they say “JohnKen pone” and throw rock, paper or scissors. Draws get another chant which translates to roughly “Looks like a tie!” with the new throw happening on “tie”.

At this point, however, once the basics are mastered, the martial art moves to the black belt level. On a one on one level, the Japanese add another move. The winner points at the loser and says “Look this way”. On “way”, the loser turns her head as the winner points left, right, up or down. If the loser looks the same way the winner points, it’s another loss.

From this point, the martial art moves on to the multiple black belt level with group “Janken”. The most I’ve ever seen play at once is 10 people. They form a circle and start playing and they are so good at they can figure out in moments who has lost. I tried it once, got yelled at for slowing down the process and just gave up. I was like “To hell with this. I don’t want the last cookie anyway.”

Finally, the Japanese add a bit of the old ultra-violence to the martial art (which is what makes it martial). In the most famous version, the winner tries to pick up a plastic hammer or paper tube and hit the loser whilst the loser attempts to pick up a helmet or bucket and cover his head. It looks something like this: (I suspect this was happening in either math or English class.)

I’ve learned a few tricks in my years in Japan and can hold my own, especially if I’m playing best three out of five, but I still avoid making any big decisions this way.


The Awful Very Bad No Good Crappy Day

No matter how you look at it, today was a crappy day. The best thing I can say about it is it could have been worse (in a loss of limb, loss of life sort of way).

Whatever happened, my crankiness level still would have been at 11.

The crappy day actually started last week at karate. I was hoping to move practice to Saturday (yesterday) so that I could attend the girls piano recital today. Instead, before I even got to ask the question, my sensei announced that Saturday would be a special practice for the higher level student (who is also taking a test) and that I wasn’t invited. To make matters worse, Sunday practice would have to be early because the athletics center was shutting down at 8:00.

This meant I couldn’t attend the piano performance and then rush to the station at the last minute as I’d planned to do. I either had to cancel the practice or skip the performance. With my test next week, I couldn’t skip the practice.

I told She Who Must Be Obeyed about this and she was not pleased as it meant she would be in charge of the cameras. The last time this happened, she failed (after a comedy of errors involving an unattended child and a dropped program) to get a video of our youngest’s rhythmic gymnastics performance. She was relying on me to run the video this time. I told her I couldn’t go and she went “Hmmm” which is Japanese for “this is going to end badly” and “I must break you”.

Then, soon after I woke up today, I got my migraine spot. I popped a couple aspirin, drank some extra coffee and waited for the pain. I wouldn’t be able to practice as much as I wanted.

She Who Must Be Obeyed tried several increasingly angry approaches to convince me to change my mind, even suggesting I could see part of the performance and use a taxi to get to the station. Unfortunately for her (and for me) the migraine had already made me sociopathic and cranky. I said, once again, that I couldn’t go, and suddenly became He Who Disobeyed She Who Must Be Obeyed. (aka MUD)

My morning was spent listening to She Who Must Be Obeyed trying to get a teenager and a nine year old ready to go somewhere. (Not a good thing when you have a migraine.)

I practiced karate some and then took a much needed nap after the girls left. Unfortunately, when I got to practice, I pointed out there was an entire section of my test that I’d never actually practiced. The result was two hours suffering through a migraine and an hour of being shouted at for being incompetent.

My crankiness took over right at the end of practice and I’m surprised I didn’t get the punch I probably deserved. Luckily my “I stopped giving a shit 10 minutes ago” quote was in English. (All they heard was “I stop blah blah shit 10 blah blah blah.”)

Tomorrow the migraine will be gone and I’ll feel human again. Until then I can only hope She Who Must Be Obeyed managed to get some video or my name will be a lot worse than MUD.

The Glorious Blue Flame of the Good Stuff

One time, when I was in Albania, I set my fingers on fire to test my beverage.

I’ve mentioned before that when I was in the Peace Corps, raki was one of my favorite drinks. It’s basically a form of Ouzo, with a faint anise/licorice flavor, but with a lot more punch. It tastes good both at room temperature and chilled, and, for reasons we never understood, didn’t deliver a powerful hangover. Instead, you spent the day after stuck in slow motion.

The traditional way to test the quality of raki was to dip your fingers in it and light your fingers on fire. The bluer the flame, the better the raki. I did that once–but more on that later.

My best Raki experience involved a weekend that, in the short run, would cause me a lot of problems. However, at the time, I had a lot of fun.

I went to Elbasan to proctor an entrance exam for a local university. I was supposed to stay at a local hotel managed by the gregarious and funny Abdul (not his real name). However, as soon as I arrived in Elbasan, Abdul informed me the entrance exam had been cancelled but that I was welcome to stay at the hotel a couple nights.

The next morning, Abdul took me a to a local vineyard to see how Raki was made.

In a nutshell, grapes are crushed in a concrete vat and left to rot. At some point, and this is a key step, the rotting mess attracts flies. Eventually, though, even the flies are disgusted by the rotting mess as it swells up out of the vat and move on to a fresher rotting mess. Finally, the rotting mess deflates back into the vat and it’s time to distil it.

Because I was apparently the first American to ever visit the vineyard, I was given the honor of the “first drink” from the still. It was still a bit warm and was awesome. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, because I was the first American to visit, every Albanian who worked there or who was visiting (all 9 or 10 of them) wanted to toast with me.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, there were only two glasses. I got one and everyone else shared one and took turns toasting with me. My glass was refilled for each toast. This meant that by 10:00 a.m. I’d had 10 or so glasses of raki and had developed the power to fly and shoot laser beams from my eyes. (More or less.)

This remains one of the best experiences I had in two years in Albania. I didn’t test the raki by lighting my fingers on fire. I’d do that later and discover I was drinking high quality raki.

It wasn’t as good as that trip to vineyard though. That was real quality.

Move Here Go There Drink This Do You I Do

Back when I was in Albania I was invited to a Catholic wedding in Northern Albania. The wedding took two days and involved lots of alcohol.

Because I had visited my friend Eddie at least once and had met his host family, I was invited to his host sister’s wedding. This started on Saturday afternoon with her getting dolled up and then sitting in a room that had also been dolled up and stocked with sweets and booze. Guests would then arrive and pay their respects and eat some sweets and drink some booze.

The tradition is that the bride should never be left alone which meant each visitor would stay until the next visitor arrived. Eventually the groom arrived and escorted the bride to the “Bride’s Family’s Party.” This party took place in the courtyard of a relative’s house, featured a band, lots of jokes, and lots of food and alcohol. The alcohol was served in courses with Raki being first. That was followed by wine, more Raki and, finally, beer. At some point everyone was expected to guzzle a glass of Raki. Or two. Or three. (Luckily, I guzzled one less than some of the others and managed to guide us all back to Eddie’s.)

The next day we weren’t hungover so much as trapped in perpetual slow motion. (More on Raki and its effects in another post.) We then took part in the procession of cars to the restored Shkoder Cathedral  where the bride and groom joined an assembly line of several other brides and grooms for a ceremony that involved the priest walking down the line and going “Do you? Do You? You’re married.” to all the couples.

After that was more driving around and honking of car horns followed by lunch. Sunday night was the Groom’s Family’s Party, which was a smaller, more exclusive event I wasn’t invited to. I stayed at Eddie’s place and relaxed.