Craptacular!

This weekend was just what I needed. I took a roadtrip down to Miyazaki City for the Cheesy Disco Party with Mark and Joe Fingerhut to meet up with the usual suspects. To say that things got out of control would be an understatement, and there are many good stories from Saturday night, but I will limit myself to posting an email I got from Joe Debiec:

Dude, shit is natural.
Mine is toxic. God speed.
I am nasty. Please forgive
it was funny at the time,
but now I feel like crap…
no pun intended.


I will let you ponder the meaning of this email, and give you some pictures from Yabe in Southeast Kumamoto to look at while you’re thinking.
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This is Tsujyun bridge, famous for shooting sustained arches of water out of both sides, just above the apex of the stone arch. On the day we went, they had turned the water off…
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They’re pretty good at making things out of wood. I’m good at burning things, but unfortunately I didn’t have any matches.
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Musashi has two wooden swords, like one that you start out with in the very beginning of The Legend of Zelda.
Hey, watch where you point that thing!
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This guy has a serious tanuki boner.
OK, back to the story. Admittance to the disco party was 2,500 yen, and it included unlimited drinks for the night, “a bargain!” I thought. We knew it was going to be “one of those nights” right away when we ordered our first round of screwdrivers. The girl behind the bar (calling her a bartender would be streching the truth a little too much) took out some plastic bottle vodka, mixed in some generic orange flavor beverage syrup, and added soda water. It tasted like orange flavored pediatric flourinated mouthwash with carbonation. Seeing as the only liquor available came in large plastic jugs (as do Popov, Lucky Charcoal Filter Vodka, and other forms of rubbing alcohol), I stuck with shochu and tea for the night and was content.
The night got pretty wild, and eventually we made it back by 5 in the morning. At 11:05 A.M., Joe D calls me up apologizing profusely, and I thought that it was just a joke. I was mistaken. After a nice breakfast and checking out “Ed from Miyazaki’s” nice collection of vinyl, his Technics, and GTA Vice City, we finally got to my car. Sitting on top is a paper bag from McDonalds. Just as he said, he had done a bad job of wiping, and there were finger-smudged bits of feces on the edge of the bag. Inside was a full loaf, and spent napkins. This pile had been allowed to bake in the sun all day, and was so toxic that it left a small stain on the roof of my car. I didn’t “Just drive off really fast…” so that “…it will fall off the back.” as he suggested. I was shocked to hear Joe tell me that he had left a bag of his own shit on my car, but I wasn’t really surprised. Ah, what a good weekend, even if I did have to deal some shit. The only thing is that I don’t really know how to one-up him. I could always wipe some crap on his face when he is sleeping, like that guy does on CKY2K, but maybe I will just pee on him… My friends are a bunch of disgusting degenerates, heh.

Life In Transit

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This picture is how I have been feeling for the past two weeks. The weather has been improving and the buds on the sakura trees are about to bust open, but I am in a cloudy mood. There are beams of light piercing through the ominous layers, but they are in the background and overwhelmed at the moment. This week I have gone to too many graduations in Ubuyama. Monday was Ubuyama Chugakko, Wednesday was Yamaga Shogakko, and today was Ubuyama Hoikuen and Nambu Hoikuen.
To me Japanese graduations are about three things: tears, bows, and boring speeches (there are good speeches too, but these usually fall under the “tears” category). I stopped counting how many times I bowed, but 100 for this week seems like a good guess. Sometimes when I’m not thinking I look at the person’s face to whom I am bowing, a vestigal habit from taking Tae Kwon Do when I was 5 (my Sensei explained that one should NEVER take their eyes off of their opponent at ANY time. now that man was truly a badass!) and sometimes I do the proper deep immersion eyes-cast-to-the-toes bow. I wish that they would just adopt the handshake to replace bowing at these events. It just seems silly to have each person giving a speech bow a minimum of 6 times, especially when others must also bow unless, of course, the flag is being bowed down to.It has been an ordeal, having to listen to the same speeches over and over by the same old men, and sit quietly watching and empathizing with the children who are trying their best not to fidget. I have used much of this time to meditate, leaving my body and mind on auto-bow mode.
As for the crying, I am just not used to seeing so many people- students, teachers, parents, and spectators both male and female- cry with such intensity and with no shame at expressing these feelings. I think its cool how they are so open to everyone on this special occasion, but I can’t relate. Sure, graduations are sad but I was always overjoyed to be freed of the classes and homework with prospects of a summer spent at the beach in the immediate future. I have to admit, I got a little misty and had a couple of lumps in my throat as I heard the little girls trying to give speaches on how greatful they were to the teachers who they were leaving behind. I suppose this was a very gratifying experience for everyone, in a sad sort of way.
Almost all of my favorite teachers are leaving from Ubuyama in one fell swoop. One is going on pregnancy leave, one is moving to Saga-ken, and the rest have been transferred to different schools. I feel like I am being forced to repeat my senior year of high school, as all of my friends are going off to different colleges, but I am happy for the ones that didn’t get shafted by the switch and sorry for the ones who did.
Also, this week is the last time that I got to chill at the separate hoikuens, with my separate groups of children and teachers. No lessons, just pure 100% playtime with the little ones, and long chats with the nursery school teachers (these teachers are not subject to switching. this is the most stable type of teaching job in Japan if one wants to work in the same place for a long period of time). No one seems especially happy about being joined into one hoikuen for the village, but it makes financial sense for them. Ubuyama hoikuen is to become more of a daycare service- some of the kids are going to be spending 6 out of 7 days there, for up to 12 hours a day! If you have kids, or have taught pre-school and kintergarten, then you know why this will 1. be rough on the teachers, and 2. not be the best situation for the children. But what do I, the token gaijin, know about anything? So I just watch and deal with it.
Some of my favorite children will be moving as well, but as much as I will miss them I am glad because they seem excited about moving (I think I would too). In a way, this is good because saying goodbye in July will be much easier. I’m pleased with my decision to not stay for a 3rd year in this village, as much as I love the children here. Its time to go, and this point continues to be driven home.
But things are looking better already. Perhaps some cool, talented teachers will replace my friends (but I can’t imagine that they can fully measure up to these great teachers. it just doesn’t seem possible right now). I know that I am going to have a blast in my classes in April, and have some new ideas that I want to try to get the students motivated. For now, its time to pack for a weekend in sunny Miyazaki. Finally I get to enjoy this great weather at the beach and forget about this week.

Bento

Calling a bento a “lunch box” doesn’t do it justice. It is a lunch box in the sense that sometimes it comes in the shape of a box (and sometimes not), it often has the picture of a cultural icon on the lid (My Little Pony, Ultra-man, He-Man, Hamutaro, and Mr. T. come immediately to mind), and it contains a lunch inside. However, lunch boxes are typically comparatively massive, rectangular in shape, and have a hinged door that clasps tightly shut by two levered latches, located next to the handle of the lunch box. Examples of typical contents found in a lunch boxes include a thermos (usually full of milk or soup), a sandwich, some vegetable sticks, a bag of chips or cookies, a box of juice, and a stick of string cheese. It is also interesting to note that most people stop using lunch boxes after leaving elementary school and switch to the brown paper bag as the vessel of choice for their midday meals. I fondly remember my lunch box, but its contents were always predictable and partly pre-packaged. Opening a bento is more of a mini-adventure.
If you are lucky there may be treasures under the lid of the bento bako, just waiting for you to uncover them at lunch time. Geisha Asobi has some interesting glimpses Japanese culture, including a link to some few highly stylized bento designs. As for a bento that emphasizes equality in form and function, I like these bento made by Mizuko Ito, who examines the question “Are bento an artistic form of motherly love, or are they just another oppresive tool used to shape Japanese society?”. Anyhow, you may notice that these bento pictures have been snapped from a cellular phone camera (she also studies the effects that cellphones have on society- pretty interesting stuff), like the ones on Justin’s moblog, or the smaller pictures that I was posting up until the demise of the camera on my D251.
This is diverging from the bento theme of this post but still related, in the sense that if your bento contained some undercooked meat or fish you might grow a 28 foot-long friend in your intestines.

Out Of The Loop

The Japanese educational system is so frusterating sometimes. It seems that the head honchos on one side and the grunts on the other are working with very different agendas, completely seperated while working on the very same projects. They call the shots based on inferences, deductions, hypothesis, research, and other forms of information processing yet keep themselves pretty well insulated from the body of the operation.
You would think that they (the kencho, the kyoikuinkai, and the other people who call the shots) would want to get to know what the grunts on the frontline think of the decisions, kind of like an engineer physically examining the physical incarnation of their sketches and talking to the test pilots who come to know the capabilities of their aircraft based on intimate knowledge as well as study of the designs. It may be the engineer who designs the plane, but it’s really the asses of the pilots and planes that are on the line should anything go wrong. You would think that these people would know how valuable direct input from the teachers, who know their classes and the materials and their plans better than anyone else, really is because these same people were probably also teachers before they got appointed to their lofty positions. With great powers come great responsibility, you would think…
See, that’s where you’re wrong. They don’t seem to care what you think. Independent thinking and any form of dissent is discouraged among the same peer groups and especially from those belonging to the lower castes, even if it may be painfully clear that a change would be greatly beneficial. The nerves may scream out in pain from being cut and rubbed in salt and lime juice, but the synapses are being jammed, the attention is directed elsewhere.
To be fair, sometimes they get things right. Sometimes they implement good, well thought out policies that work really well. Sometimes. But wouldn’t it be better if they could do it faster, more efficiently, and more democratically? Keeping things the same may be orderly and produce consistent results, but how many of us would prefer a perfect McClone cheeseburger over a Fatburger (they taste a bit different at the different locations and depending on who is making them, especially when you order them with more toppings and condiments)?
The words above could be in used a myriad of contexts, by many people that you know, and probably by you too. I just wonder if any of the people who are in positions of greater power and responsibility used to feel this way, and if they still do. Have there been any significant changes recently in the infrastructure of the Japanese educational system, and will it eventually change for the better any time in the foreseeable future? I truly hope so, but I have my doubts.

Memories Of Little Saigon

Visiting Little Saigon, unlike other designated ethnic areas, gives me the feeling that I’m in a place that lives up to its namesake. Short of a trip to the real Saigon, it is as authentic an experience that you will ever get, smack in the middle of the O.C.. It’s an island made up mostly of people with black hair and brown eyes and names like Nguyen, Pham, Trung and Minh (and some guy named Dr. Phouck) within the homogenous racial mix of Southern California. You know this place is legit Southeast Asia style, as 90% of the cars in Little Saigon have, at the very least, one obvious dent or scratch. If you’re looking for cheap imported goods, look no further than the Asian Garden Mall, full of all sorts of strange smells, cheap knockoffs, and stuff you can’t find anywhere else. When you walk in a Vietnamese supermarket, you can see black patches where the linoleum has peeled off. If you order a catfish from the tank, the butcher will grab one by the tail and smash its head into the concrete, wrapping its still quivering body (now that’s a fresh piece of fish!) in a pink sheet of butcher paper. And it smells of Southeast Asia: lychee, rotting detritus, urine, etc…
But the main reason to go to L.S. is for the food, namely the Pho Restaraunts.
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For all of you wondering what type of sauce is in the green capped bottle in front of Justin, that is called Shiracha and is arguably as versatile a condiment as ketchup is. Now look at the bowl in the bottom of the frame. This is the infamous bowl of Pho (no. 10), the prime suspect for causing my bout of projectile vomiting and diarrhea on Christmas Eve. However, I like the pho so much that I plan on eating it again on my next visit. After all, whats a little projectile vomit and diarrhea now and again. A fair trade-off for eating great food, I say.
Pho is not a complicated dish, and that’s one of the reasons why it tastes so good. Its a simple rice noodle soup with a light beef broth, some meat, and assorted vegetables and herbs. I have eaten pho in Japan, Santa Barbara, Seattle, and other random places, but the best pho I have eaten so far is in Little Saigon.
Pho should be eaten with an order of cha gio and a glass full Vietnamese style iced coffee.
chagiao.jpg If your cha gio arrive cold, with old vegetables and no fish sauce, you should be very worried. If they come still sputtering out steam with ample freshly washed vegetables and a bowl full of fish sauce, be prepared to cry (from burning your tongue AND from the sublime flavors that your olfactory system will eventually register after the pain fades away).
The egg rolls above are known as cha gio. The filling is usually seasoned pork and rice vermicelli. They taste great by themselves, but the taste awesome if you wrap them in a fresh leaf of lettuce, along with some Vietnamese pickled daikon and carrot slices, and dip them in the nuoc mam (badass stinky fish sauce- don’t be scared!). Eat them right when they come out of the frier if possible, when they are still capable of causing third degree burns. Bite off a piece and use the lettuce to shield your tongue from the intense heat as you inhale and exhale rapidly in an attempt to cool down the morsel. Trust me on this. A Vietnamese meal would not be complete without a cup of Vietnamese coffee. The coffee comes dripping from a cheap metal aparatus, into a small mug holding a generous amount of condensed milk. By the time you are half-way finished with your meal, the coffee should be completely filtered and ready to pour into the ice-filled cup.. I love this coffee because it is as thick as a cappuccino, and creamy and sweet due to the condensed milk. Iced coffee is the only way to go, and the caffeine counter-balances the urge to siesta.
There are many other mysterious, often delicious foods to be eaten in Little Saigon. The sandwitches are cheap and kick major ass (picture a sub sandwitch with butter, pate, roasted pork, vietnamese pickled vegetables, jalapenos, and lettuce), the deserts look like they were taken from the set of Star Trek, and their take on French cuisine is truly refreshing.
So if you do end up coming to Orange County, don’t wuss out and go to El Torito, Applebees, or P.F. Chang’s after spending all of your time and money at Disneyland. Go to the beach instead and after that get your ass down to Little Saigon, experience an adrenaline rush from almost getting into an accident, and enjoy some truly interesting and delicious food!
As for pronouncing Vietnamese words, good luck. I just point at the pictures in the menu and ask for things politely in English. This may be unfounded, but I get the feeling that these dudes are more likely to spit in your food if they think that you are a prick. At least they’re not sneaky about it, like the clowns over at El Torrito.

Jump Picture Start

A jump in front of Kaimon-dake, Kagoshima. Props to Kaori Tanaka, the photographer.
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Taking good jump pictures requires a few things including but not limited to a steady hand, good timing, interesting locations, and a willing partner or group. The jumper must be willing to jump off of whatever will make the picture look its best. The photographer should be ready to place themselves in the location which provides the best angle to shoot from, framing a shot so that the captured environment will complement the jump. Both of these roles can be dangerous, and in the case of the photographer the danger may come from the jumper smashing into them. The photographer and jumper should change roles occasionally, depending on whose turn it is.
A few years back, I took part in a collaborative project with Justin, Sayaka, and Taro in taking various jump pictures. On our Kyushu roadtrip we stopped at various scenic areas and shot up countless rolls of film, a good portion of which involved us jumping. We jumped off of high places, took running jumps, flip jumps, jumped into things, onto things, etc… Some of the jumps were foolish to try and invited injury, but taking chances is how one takes part in greatness.
So now I think I will try and revive the project, maybe make it an interblog project with Justin and possibly Taro (if he should ever start writing again). Of course feel free to send in your own jump pics, and I will post any good ones that I see. Just don’t cry to me if you hurt yourself or someone else in pursuit of a jump picture. That’s just part of the price for such high-stakes photography.
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Hifuri Asobi

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Me playing with fire. Picture courtesy of Ben Colbridge.
This is the last picture that I will post, for now. I can not stress how much I love this particular festival. For those interested in participating, it takes place every year in mid March (at Aso Shrine, located in Japan, Kumamoto-ken, Aso-gun, Ichinomiya-machi). Though not as dangerous as some of the more famous matsuris, such as the one where a hundred people ride a huge log down a hill (people get crushed under the log) or the festivals in which massive floats are carried or pulled through busy streets lined with spectators (even more people get crushed to death by crashes and trampling) or drunken horse festivals where you can get kicked in the face (death by severe head wounds or other internal injuries), the fire swinging festival feels very dangerous in comparison.
Everyone is a pyro at heart, except for those with unfortunate phobias dealing with fire. We all love to play with fire. Fireworks, flammable liquids, matches, barbecues, campfires, blowtorches, the kitchen stove, the bunsen burner in Chem. We have all melted action figures and Barbie dolls, disposed of incriminating report cards, exterminated pesky insects, shot bottle rockets at dear friends, watched meat sizzle on the grill, and just stared into the flames in a hypnotized state. These are no less fun experiences than the fire festival, but a religious ceremony that invites anyone to take part in such a wild and seemingly dangerous activity makes the experience more profound. Hell, if there was fire swinging after Mass, I would probably go to church occasionally with my Catholic friends.

Hifurishinji

The hissing swoosh, the flaming orbit of a fiery body in motion. Yes, that sillhouetted object in the background, just under the flame, is someone’s leg.
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The booming thunder of Taiko drums. Unorganized, erratic swinging of massive fireballs, participation available to all who dare enter the fiery grounds of hell. Orange flames gnawing free of their tethers of smouldering rope, smashing into people, to whom I am telling stories of this very same scenario from last year to, at this very moment. Smoke in the eyes, and stepping in piles of combusting combustibles. Braving all of this to take pictures. Me and my friends and many more strangers in a strange land. More to follow…