Friday, December 26, 2008

Mochi, onsens and nabe oh my!

While some of you are blissfully far from this small island nation during the holidays, some of us are still here holding down the fort. You know how I feel about Christmas now and I've never felt too bothered about being in Japan for "the holidays" at this time of year, not counting when I got all teary-eyed last year on an expensive keitai call to my mom from the beau's family home in the snowy north. Yes I do miss going to Granville Island in Vancouver to buy all manner of delicacies to keep us satiated through our days off from work and school, getting up at a ridiculous hour and shopping all day with my mom on Boxing Day, and of course the time-honored tradition of buttery popcorn at the movies on Christmas Day. But I'm here to remind those of you "stuck" here for the next week while your friends are back home with their families, clothing stores with more than one size and pizza with no mayonnaise, that this small island nation does have some winter delights that you can partake in too. So here we go, a small and possibly erratic list of some of the things I am looking forward to next week (the shit list to follow later of course!):

Mochi: Because who can resist pounded rice cakes?! This year as with last I get to look forward to eating mochi prepared by the beau's mom in a tasty soup and also roasted and wrapped in nori with a salty-sweet soy dipping sauce.

Onsen: To reward myself for spending a couple nights at the beau's family house in an ice cold room and not complaining (much) I am going to experience my first rotemburo in the snow this year! It's going to be a 3-day bathing fest!

Nabe: Food again! I love nabe in the winter here, especially putting rice into the broth after eating all the fish/meat/veggies/tofu, mixing it all up and enjoying another tasty treat.

Hatsumode: This year I am going to wear kimono for the first time to hatsumode, the first visit of the year to a shrine. If you go to the bigger ones there are always stalls selling food and stuff you don't need, and if you're lucky, there will be a whiff of carnival in the air.

Cinemas, Roppongi Hills: Sitting in the warm dark, eating a box of half & half butter/caramel popcorn is just the way to spend a cold winter afternoon. The endless and satisfying cycle of sweet-savoury is dizzying!

Museums: I have been holding off on going to the new exhibits at both the Mori Museum and the Teien Art Museum until next week, how blissful it will be to visit on a weekday!

O-souji: Cleaning is not fun but I do like how the Japanese clean their houses from top to bottom at the end of the year, it's a nice way to start the new one!

Eki-ben: OK food again and this isn't even limited to winter but riding the shinkansen means going early to Tokyo station and picking up some nice bento only available there. Crack open an Asahi SuperDry on board the train and you are set.

Geisha frivolities: The Tokyo scene is definitely different to that in Kyoto but the few Tokyo geisha I know always get decked out for the first week of the year with shiro-nuri (white make-up), elaborate hairstyles and special kimono just for that one week, a look completely different to the one they usually sport. I always get a thrill seeing them together in January in their finery playing stupid games and getting very drunk with customers, and I don't think it will ever cease to excite me.

If you're spending the next couple of weeks in Japan, what are some of your favourite winter things?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas at the Kaisha

I don't know what first comes to your mind when I say "Christmas at the Kaisha" but I'd imagine half-naked men, women in schoolgirl uniforms and sequined hot pants aren't exactly top of the list. You know, I actually had men in speedos come to mind after last year's debacle but the head honchos (side note: did you know "honcho" came to English from Japanese?) at the Kaisha really outdid themselves this year.

Apart from the lovely buffet spread that included a teppanyaki station and open bar that readily supplied me with copious amounts of champagne, the Kaisha made sure the program was so chock-full of entertainment we never had to worry about talking to one another. I guess I should probably tell you how I was involved at this point. The planning committee puts together a video every year to be played at the party and this year's theme was Sex & the City. I lent my voice as the Carrie voice-over that narrates the whole thing, and the rest of the people in the video were all men. I've got to say, the four Professionals who played the girls in drag made some pretty fine ladies after all the make-up, wigs and dresses borrowed from someone's drag queen friend.

And that was just the beginning of it all. At some Japanese companies, there is a strong tendency to make first-year employees do humiliating things at company drinking parties and so on but at the Kaisha we like to up the ante so to speak, and do our shaming and humiliating on a much grander scale at the Christmas party every year. Aside from a few "musical performances" including a Professional in drag as a very ugly Beyonce, the male Professionals all wore nothing but little white shorts and white hachimaki and did some dance/exercise performance that I didn't understand due to my lack of cultural reference. This was followed by some J-pop song with a few secretaries in sequin skirts and 2 female Professionals in black sequined hot pants stripper-dancing all over the stage. I was half-expecting some kind of Thai ping-pong act to follow but luckily it was just a huge group of around 50 first-year Professionals and secretaries dressed in schoolgirl uniforms doing some Sailor Moon dance that required them to affix permanent manic grins to their faces and waves their arms around while twirling. Only in Japan. I'm sure such a performance would probably warrant some kind of lawsuit overseas but in Japan there was just a lot of clapping and hidden boners.

Yes, in Japan we not only humiliate the first year employees but turn women with professional degrees and educations who have come to actually work into sex objects because glitter and bare legs make them so much easier to deal with! In fact, I'm sure it is these humiliating performances and experiences that cause employees at Japanese companies to become so tight-knit with the others in their "year" and everyone looks upon them more as bonding experiences than anything else. If this is the case, I wish they had signed me up! If all it took was some sequined booty shorts to get in tight with people at the Kaisha, I would have done the fucking choreography myself!

Not many people came out of the woodwork this year to introduce themselves to me and I was almost disappointed when I didn't get lectured by a Top Professional on how I should be dating a man with lots of money, a degree from Waseda or Keio and a high powered job like last year. This was the same guy who once when asking what my type was followed it up by saying, Well as long as he's younger than your father right?! Riiiiight. Really though, only if he name is Ken Watanabe and he is wearing a sword.

I did make an effort though to make nice conversation with Mr. Inappropriate Comment from last month and appear super nice and smiley around all the snaky secretaries, because really, I can wait to January to continue my grudges. I was all too aware that the Christmas party is truly a once-a-year opportunity for everyone at the Kaisha to peep the 0.0141 percent of foreigners employed there and analyze our native dress, customs and eating habits. I played along fabulously until I spotted someone I knew who would give me a cigarette. I believe I may have mentioned that no women (or a number so small it is negligible) use the smoking rooms at the Kaisha and while statistically some of the secretaries have got to be smokers, they weren't having any of it at the Christmas party. There was a small smoking pit outside the banquet room of the hotel and a small congregation of male Professionals could be found there throughout the evening. However, as the party progressed I cared less and less if people saw me having a smoko so I marched over there and got one. This gave me instant cred among some of the smoker Professionals but I'm sure the secretaries now have another bullet as ammo against me.

I will write another post later about the after party and its after party but for now let's leave it strictly on the Kaisha turf. I can hardly wait for next year! After this year's party though, I'm more convinced than ever that the party is thrown just for the secretaries. I mean come on, they are the ones crowding the buffet tables and orgasming over the desserts, wearing prom dresses and sparkles in their hair, and saving the glossy invitation as a memento for their grandchildren (after they get married and quit their jobs to breed of course). As I looked around the gathering of almost 1000, it was a bit like a twisted family party with the men standing around like creepy old uncles delighting in the playful and naive activities of the young girls frolicking about.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I fucking heart the Kaisha!!!

I apologize to those of you who have Google Reader or some such device and had the unfortunate pleasure of reading my very sloppy post on my section's bonenkai. I was just so elated! Here is a slightly more cleaned up version.

I was so fucking nervous about my section's bonenkai tonight that I did a little overtime and showed up 45 minutes late for it. Last time I attended a section party I literally went home and wept but I figured what the hell, I might as well see how this drinking and forgetting stuff works. And it does!!! I have totally forgotten my ill feelings towards my section peeps, secretaries and Professionals alike, and I am ready to ride off into the sunset with them singing kumbaya. Or some shit.

After I arrived a secretary and two Professionals who I do work for but never talk to showed up and sat next to me and we were chums for the rest of the evening. As I said before this workship is bound to fade away by tomorrow and I will be back to my white gaijin ghetto cubicle, eating raw apples and carrots and generally scaring people away, but tonight was amazing! I wonder if maybe it just has to do with who you end up sitting next to. At the last section party it was so painfully obvious that I was being ignored that over tears later that night, I vowed to the beau never to attend a section function again.

It's a very strange situation. When I first arrived at the Kaisha there was no Welcome Whitie sign in my section and no one even knew I existed until they walked by and saw a crop of blond curls peeking out from behind my cubicle wall. At a welcome party held for new secretaries and Professionals in the section, I wasn't even introduced. It was like I was so white I was see-through and therefore neither seen nor heard. Not speaking unless spoken to. It was as if I was so far on the outside that although I was a necessary presence, people would just pretend I wasn't there so they wouldn't feel uncomfortable talking to me.

When I tell people this, often I get some surprised responses. I think many people assume that one of the many perks of being a foreign female in Japan is being showered with attention. That is only half true. Half the time I am met with adoring fans and the other half I am as good as non-existent. Not even a blip on the radar. I can't speak for foreign men though and I wonder what it's like for them. I've tried mentioning this to a couple Japanese girlfriends to get some perspective on why everyone ignores me at the Kaisha. Their simpleton response was that I am so cute that people are either intimidated or think that pretty=stuck up. I don't think it is that easy. And whether it is a collective reason that can be applied to most people or if everyone in my section has a different reason for ostracizing me. Is it the combination of being female and white? Is it because they can't be bothered cultivating a relationship with someone who might not even be at the Kaisha for more than a short time? Perhaps one day I will find myself in a situation with a Professional so drunk that I can ask him what the fuck is up.

What a bizarre situation. Even if I can't expect (and I certainly don't) to form meaningful relationships with my colleagues I would at least settle for completely meaningless and shallow ones, spent drinking on a tarp under the cherry blossoms or choreographing the cross-dressers together for next year's Christmas party.

The bonenkai gave me hope though, that people do respect me but for whatever reason won't go out of their way to make contact in person. I do acknowledge that I probably seem a little brusque to some, as I've built up a bit of a tough shield after realizing that I am on the outs with everyone and for no attributable reason. As I suspected the next day I ran into one of the Professionals I had been so chatty with at the bonenkai, and while he did say hello, it was like the previous night had never even happened.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A chill in the air and bonenkai season

I'd like to make an amendment to my statement a few posts ago that I will have had 3 good friends leave Tokyo by the end of this year. It's actually 4 now that I've discovered through her blog posting that another friend is leaving. Kind of like being broken up with by email. That gripe aside though, she will be sorely missed as the number of witty ladies who I can smoke and drink with while conversing with what some would call sarcasm, is sadly low in Tokyo.

It's going to be a cold winter.

Hopefully my 2 work parties this week will help to warm things up, but I'm not holding my breath. First off, tomorrow night I have a bonenkai for my section, which I'm hoping doesn't leave me in tears like the last one did. The first section party I attended went fairly swimmingly, with a taxi ride back to the office in which a secretary, a Professional and I all made tipsy promises and future plans of hanami parties and summer fireworks. The second party did not go as well. Despite knowing that they could converse with me in either Japanese or English, the two Professionals I sat by insisted on directing their questions to the secretaries at our table and blatantly ignoring me. Not cool, especially considering I do work for one of them all the time. I know that these people don't know what box to put me in, I'm definitely a strange appendage to our section, but what happened to Japanese people opening up with alcohol? It was a sad sad night. Luckily for me, I don't have to return to work slightly tipsy tomorrow night so I am going to at least not enjoy the party, smashed.

At the end of this week it's the much-anticipated Xmas party! Held at another swanky Tokyo hotel this year, my only real dilemma is deciding whether to wear a faux fur stole and the level of cleavage to show. I figure no one can resist a little valley, as they call it in Japanese, so even if I only attract valley-grazers, at least I will have someone to make meaningless conversation with and deter the Professional who always brings me chocolate from monopolizing my time. And let's not forget my voice-acting debut either! But that is a secret until the party so I will have to refrain from spilling details until then.

A quick weekend in review:

While getting my nails done on Saturday afternoon the nartist (nail artist) asked me if the sparkly design I was getting would be OK for work. I assured her it was while thinking, Are you fucking kidding me?! I have seen enough veritable diamond claws around the Kaisha on secretaries and female Professionals alike to render my sparkly tipped nails tame. Love Japan!

After that sweet little encounter I had to ask an ornery fucker of an ojisan if it was alright to buy a pair of earrings from his antique stand after getting a "what?" and no move to come help me after I sumimasened him. Prick. You get so used to polite if not fake service here that I get a little over-incensed when the service falls below that mark.

Mado Lounge party that night fell short of expectations. There were some burlesque performances that ended up feeling more like sleazy stripteases due to the disproportionate number of foreign guys straining their eyeballs to get a peek of nipple from behind the performers' pasties. Did someone take a bus to Gaspanic in Roppongi and kidnap all of their customers? It sure felt that way. The hooping performance however, was fan-fucking-tastic, with the ladies using LED light hoops to spiff things up. All in all though, I feel bad for anyone who didn't have an invitation and had to pay 3500 yen for a douchey party. The space they have to work with on the 53rd floor of the tower at Roppongi Hills is incredible and sexy with the most killer view to ever be seen from a club in Tokyo but that was sadly not enough.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Project Host continues

Welcome back to another episode of Project Host! For your reading pleasure, I went and checked out Club Acqua in Kabukicho with two lovely and very discriminating Canadian ladies.
My first hurdle was sneaking out of work. Not in the sense that I was playing hooky in order to go carousing with some big-haired men in Kabukicho, but in that I had to get spiffed up in the Kaisha bathroom and then make it down to the lobby without anyone seeing me and discovering that I am actually moonlighting as the White Host Hunter. I successfully manoeuvred may way out of the building and I was safely on my way.

I don't know what it is about Kabukicho, maybe its the smell of sleazy money and fabricated love, but I adore passing under the Kabukicho gates and entering its seedy world. A bit like a twisted modern day tale of making a visit to the Yoshiwara, once you walk through the gates you can be anyone, you can be with anyone, as long as you have enough money to see you through until morning. When walking through Kabukicho you know you've reached Hostland when the billboards displaying glamour shots of attractive boys with high cheekbones and even higher hair start popping up, and when the amount of men wearing sharp suits and sharper shoes hanging around on the street corners increases exponentially. Yes, there is no doubt when you've arrived.

There was a small moment of uncertainty and panic when we passed what I though was Ai but turned out to be its sister club, as I feared we would run into Roses or one of his henchmen and I haven't been returning his calls...

We soon arrived at Acqua and were greeted by an attractive young man with blond candy-floss hair. I asked for a table for three and he asked if we could speak Japanese and whether we had photo ID on us. After assuring him we could and we did, he asked us to wait on a leather sofa. A few minutes later and he returned bearing a coaster with the first time price for 2 hours written on it and showed it to us for our agreement. We then had to show them our IDs before they took us to a table (Ai also required this on their website but not in practice). After we were seated we were given the choice of brandy or shochu and a range of mixers before being given an explanation on the system. We had the option of flipping through their man menu and choosing some choice meat (my god how bad does that sound) but after having a quick peek we decided to leave it up to them and asked to have a range of men paraded before us.

I counted the number of cards I had when I got home later and there were 10, which means we probably had around 5 host changes, with 2 or 3 hosts in each set. About an hour and a half in, one of the managers came by and told us to each choose one host that we fancied to sit with us for the rest of our time there. That done, the three of them came over and situated themselves between us so that we had some one on one time for the last half hour. The host I chose wasn't really my type in the way he dressed, but he was one of the ones who stood out in my mind from earlier and I remembered that it had been fun talking to him. During our one on one time we talked about music, relationships, whether I was mote mote in Canada, my hair and finally, cheating. I would like to point out though, that he brought it up, not me! He asked if people in North America cheat and whether I thought it was more or less than Japan. I asked him whether he thought people in Japan cheat a lot and he said it wasn't so much that they cheat a lot, as there are many many pervs. And then he added that his women were always running around on him and that he couldn't understand why someone would cheat. True story? A line? Who knows. He then showed me some cuts on his knuckles that he got in a fight with another host at the club last week. Apparently the guy "pissed him off". Nice. I wonder if there are host fight rules, like no punches to the face. Gotta preserve that money-maker.

The service in general was pretty good, but not entirely seamless. There were a couple times when we were left alone at our table while the hosts scurried around and although the condensation wiping was attentive, I sometimes reached for my glass and discovered it was being wiped again or was practically empty. When we first sat down they gave us soft blankets to place over our knees, which was a nice touch and I am assuming was for warmth and not to preserve my modesty in a skirt that was not at all modest in its length. The cigarette lighting was also pretty good, although most of the hosts had plastic lighters, unlike their classier versions at Ai who all had expensive gold and silver ones. See how discerning I am getting?! The big downer was the rat. While we were waiting for our first set of hosts to come, we saw a rat climb down a wall that led to an outside door, which was not the right way to start the night off but we quickly forgot about it as we were plied with alcohol.

The interior was lots of white with long black leather sofas and bluish light. It is a decent sized club but probably has less than half the number of hosts that Ai does. There were a couple screens set into the walls playing music videos and the tracks were all hip hop, which gave the place a young hip feel. I don't remember what was playing at Ai, probably because I was blinded by all the sparkles and lights. The hosts all seemed to be in their twenties, but I assume there are a couple older ones that we didn't see. A few were dressed in suits but most of them wore the kind of outfits you see running around Shibuya and one even showed us his tattoos. In general they all had a much younger and more casual feel about them-I saw one across the room with his foot up on the sofa-and a couple times I wasn't sure we were going to make it through the conversation when our host seemed like a newbie and unskilled at conversation. In the end though, most of them were pretty good at what they did. During one set however, we ended up with two strung out hosts. The worse of the two had the biggest blond hair out of everyone (including me) and blue contact lenses that kept swishing around inside his head. They were both slurring their words and were probably smashed, although I think Blondie was on drugs because of the way his eyes keep rolling into the back of his head and the way he licked his lips after telling me I had an impressive rack after I stood up to go to the bathroom.

The conversation at Acqua was good for the most part, although we didn't have much time with each host because of all the changes. It was fun meeting a lot of hosts and some of them were good at keeping the conversation on the up and up (with a little down and down sex talk) but I have to say the boys at Ai (and perhaps because we spent more time with them overall) were flawless in their conversational skills from their puns to their promises of love. The host who initially received us at the beginning of the evening pulled me aside later and explained that they sometimes get customers who say they can speak Japanese but then can't, which makes it really hard on the hosts to converse with them, and so they have to be careful about who they admit to the club. I think this was his way of offering an apology for the way we were received at the beginning.

As the time drew near, our chosen hosts became our escorts out, the option of designating the escort often carries it's own price tag but was included that night, and they carried our purses up to street level. Before leaving the club there had been a little talk of hanging out and going to karaoke with my host and when he asked if I had a cellphone I turned the conversation around like a seasoned Host Hunter: I've got your number so I'll call you honey. Crisis averted. He waved me away into the Kabukicho lights with the order to email him and with my faux promise to do so soon.

All in all a fun evening well spent. The hosts at Acqua are younger on the whole than those at Ai and some of them even told us their stories of moving to Tokyo to make money as a host. I wouldn't say they are wilder, just younger and more inexperienced, which means you feel more like you are hanging out with some cute boys than being taken care of like a princess. Acqua offers a different kind of host, one who seems more like a boy you'd pick up in Shibuya than a seasoned professional. The club itself was fine but was certainly not as dazzling as Ai. Where to next? If anyone wants to suggest a club to go to, I would be more than happy to oblige.

Club Acqua, Kabukicho

(On a five-star scale)
Professionalism ***
Club decor **
Hosts' fashion ***
Conversation ***
Attentiveness ***1/2
Overall ***

System: 5000 yen for 2 hours includes 指名料金 (designation fee)

***Thanks to a couple lovely readers I will be doing away with the stars very soon, well really as soon as I can figure out how to use a computer!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Have yourself a very melly Christmas too...

Now that both the Canadian and American Thanksgivings are out of the way, it's time to focus our attention on what's really important: buying shit for Christmas!!! Now I should preface this by reminding you all that I am from the Hanukkah tribe and not the one that also includes Christmas trees (not that there's anything wrong with that). Or "Hanukkah bushes" for that matter, which instead of a thinly-veiled Christmas tree makes me think of what someone might call getting some holiday lovin' from their partner who doesn't believe in waxing. No, we deal strictly with menorahs.

I've participated in a Christmas celebration maybe three times, and this has been on the extremely rare occasion that I was in the US visiting my family in the Christmas tribe. And well, I love them to bits so honestly no complaints there. But the years of being the only Hanukkah girl at school, nay for miles, I have come to reject every aspect of Christmas as something I might possibly engage in. During the years La Familia de Geisha spent in New Zealand, my parents had to go and talk to my brother's teacher when he was 6 and ask her to stop telling the class that the Jews killed Jesus. When I was 7 my teacher sat the class down for me and taught them that they should stop drawing swastikas in the classroom. No, none of this has to do with Christmas and I am not trying to jerk any tears with an oh-poor-me Hanukkah girl act, but growing up in the environment I did, (I think) really made me equate Christmas with the Christian religion, despite that for many, it is a secular holiday. I cannot imagine celebrating it as a secular holiday, which is really the crux of why I think it is so batshit crazy the way Japanese people celebrate Christmas!

Take for example, last week. I was enjoying a pleasant stroll around the Ginza, because really what other kind of stroll is to be had there? and my ears were suddenly assaulted by Christmas music. Granted if I walk into a store I am consciously subjecting myself to hearing whatever they have spinning, but I would like to enjoy my walks outside at this time of year sans Christmas music. I will probably get some flack for this post which is fine, because I have no problem with other people doing Christmas, I just wish it hadn't become this blanket holiday that you would think everyone participated in from looking at the amount of public hooplah that surrounds it.

I think my main problem is that I simply cannot separate Christmas from Christianity and have never been able to understand how my Hindu, Buddhist and Atheist friends do. The beau is not into Christmas and so you would think given that Christmas here is not a national holiday, I would be able to avoid it. Not quite, as many couples with scheduling conflicts do Christmas on the 23rd, which is the ever-so-convenient Emperor's birthday. Nevertheless, in the past couple years we have managed to do OK with a movie and Japanese food, the Japanese- Jewish equivalent of a Jewish Chinese-food-and-movie Christmas.

Christmas is one of the best Western things to hit the retail and food industry in Japan in the last century. Between the two of them, these industries have fashioned a holiday that appeals to the Japanese love of eating, buying exorbitant gifts and factory-standard dates. Check out any magazine on the stands this month and there will be at least a few pages dedicated to romantic hotel packages, restaurants with special Christmas courses, suggested gifts from Louis Vuitton and the requisite fried chicken take-out places. All of this food, shopping and lovin' is fine by me, I just wish it wasn't all in the name of the birth of baby Jesus, granted many Japanese think it is actually Santa's birthday on the 25th. I have rarely tried to articulate this to a Japanese person, for asking them why they are celebrating a Christian holiday is usually met with a short and furious burst of blinks.

Those who do not live in Japan would probably assume that we are fairly isolated from Christmas over here but it's quite the opposite in fact. Every year in Japan too, I deal with my feelings over whether to nod and smile or correct people when they either wish me a Merry Christmas or ask me what I'm doing for Christmas, and these are Japanese people. Even the Kaisha is having a Christmas party that should rightly be named a 1000-person bonenkai, except for the chorus interlude when a group sings some Christmas songs. Yup, they sing their little hearts out to a room full of Japanese people, 2% of which probably know who Jesus is.

There is a fantastic article here written a few years ago about Christmas in Japan that my dad sent me when I was first studying here. I do feel for the foreigners here who can't be with their family back home on Christmas, and I hope that at least the superficial celebrations of it here get them in the Christmas spirit, as I believe they call it, but for me I think it will always be something that makes me flinch. For something that is so often touted and assumed to be a shared cultural holiday, I think it's not shared by as many people as we think.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Japanese Love Proctor Tendencies

I learned a new feeling of pain at the Test on Sunday and it wasn't located in my head. I mistakenly thought I didn't need to use the bathroom before the listening test and figured that even if I ended up having to go, it was only a 45-minute test. Kind of like holding it at the movie theatre right? Wrong. As soon as the stupid recorded Japanese woman's voice started droning on about not chewing gum or leaving the classroom, I felt like a faucet had been turned on inside me and rather than a gradual feeling of having to go, I had to go right. then. and. there. But this being the Test, one cannot leave the classroom until every last answer sheet and test booklet has been collected, counted, recounted and shuffled around a bit by the proctors at the front for good measure. Imagine a time that you have really had to pee but haven't been able to. Then multiple that by about a thousand and try holding it for OVER AN HOUR.

The listening test is my strongest one and I suppose that makes it a good time to have to go so bad you feel like you're drifting in and out on consciousness, but I spaced out on a couple questions because I couldn't focus due to the stomach cramps and innate fear that at 25 I was going to go and pee my pants. Not such a hot situation when I had planned for my listening test to tilt the scales in my favour. I don't know if anyone else noticed that I was constantly moving around in my seat, scratching a scab on my hand until it bled and finally, peeling off my pretty sparkling nails, just to keep me moving in a way that didn't trigger the flood gates so to speak. I am such an idiot for not going to the bathroom before the test I know, but hasn't this happened to anyone else? I kept glancing around the room to see if anyone else looked as distracted and distraught as I but everyone was calmly listening to a man and woman discuss a painting of an ogre. I was so afraid I was going to get distracted and stop squeezing my bladder closed for just a moment, that I seriously considered calling over a proctor and forfeiting the entire Test. Somehow I managed to hold it together and almost body checked a fellow Test-taker trying to get out of that classroom at the end.

The rest of the Test was fairly uneventful, obviously it would have gone better if I had actually studied before going, but I think the fact that I didn't blast my pants makes it a smashing success. This year the proctors' explanation of the yellow and red cards felt a bit like airplane safety instructions and I was half-expecting them to point out the exits to us using their index and middle fingers. And I forgot how ridiculous they all look. There is always the proctor who doesn't care about following the rules and then the one who is holding the rule book the whole time, making sure he is doing everything exactly according to plan. And then there is of course the fact that all the Tests at one level must be synchronized to the minute so you actually end up waiting about 10 minutes after the test instructions for the test to begin and then another 10 or 15 minutes once the test has finished, for the proctors to get their shit together and count every last piece of paper to make sure it is all accounted for before letting us leave the room for a break. Not the best 6000 yen I've ever spent but.

Group of rambunctious gaijin girls descend upon Nakano

Last Friday night a group of 7 fabulous gaijin ladies flocked to Nakano together. How do I know? I was lucky enough to be one of them. After a champagne-fueled conversation at 57 one night, a small group of us decided that we had to go to Nakano to try this black sesame ramen that I had been raving about. We started to question our identity as gaijin however, when we ended up setting a date more than a month away to ensure that we could ALL be at this momentous dinner.

At the appointed time we began arriving one by one, until there were 7 of us, compliments of the GGG, or the Gaijin Girl Grapevine. I don't know if it was the fact that it was Friday, or our special gaijin girl superpowers, but we were so giddy that while walking to the restaurant, people started to give us "who let them out" looks. Not in a bad way though, but it was clear Nakano has never seen the likes of it.

After being shown to our table, the combination of the Asian-chic red lantern hanging over it and the dim lighting of the restaurant made our dinner feel like some kind of mafia meeting, except the heads of each family were gaijin girls. I think the restaurant staff were certainly surprised by us but nonetheless they did our bidding, bringing us bowls of black sesame noodles, accompanied with gyoza, spring rolls and ebi chili.

Full, we headed out to the long narrow street that runs parallel to Nakano Broadway, which is becoming overrun with snacks and hostess clubs. Is this part of Nakano the new Kabukicho?! Not knowing quite where we wanted to go and dodging the advances of dodgy men, we headed down to Juke 80's, a "one coin" 80's bar where all the drinks are 500 yen and the song requests are free. Before long we were getting down with the locals, singing along to songs of the 80s and admiring Michael Jackson's cheek bones.

I have not laughed that hard in a really long time. If I say that the night out with the girls brought me back to life it sounds trite and also as if I haven't been doing very well lately. Which isn't true. I've been doing fine but I've allowed myself to forget how fun it is to have a warm and fun group of girlfriends to hang out with. By the end of December I will have lost three close friends to their home countries this year. And according to my calculations, that leaves me with not a whole lot. The past couple years in Japan have been pretty lonely for me, sporadically dotted with fun time spent with friends, for which I am grateful, but constantly wish there were more of.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I want to be a shellfish

This past weekend the beau and I went to see a real downer of a movie. I should probably qualify that statement, as most Japanese movies are downers, so let's just say we practically had to talk each other back from the ledge once it was over. This won't be a movie I recommend to anyone on a date, or anyone who doesn't want to be sent into a dark spiral of despair for that matter. We went to see 私は貝になりたい (watashi wa kai ni naritai or I want to be a shellfish). I had not heard of the movie before we made the fateful decision to see it, so you can imagine my surprise when I realized by the end that I was getting all welled-up over a Japanese war criminal. It's not quite that simple however, and while I should probably go brush up on my WWII history before embarking on this post, I won't, so bear with me.

To give a brief summary, a kind and slightly disabled man is drafted during the war and following the orders of his superiors (at gunpoint), he kills an American POW. When the war is over he returns to his family only to be arrested and tried in Tokyo during the American occupation. The court rules that he is a B class war criminal and he is sentenced to hang. I was pretty shocked by the end of the movie as I hadn't realized until then that in the post-war era, lowly soldiers had been tried and executed for crimes committed under the orders of commanding officers. I had been under the (mistaken) impression that it was mostly the higher-ups who were held accountable for the atrocities that happened at the hands of the imperial army. In the end, the movie did a commendable job in drawing out indignation and shock from the audience at the fact that blame was also placed on an "innocent" man simply obeying orders, and not just his commanding officers. I'm not so sure that is a job that needed/should be done.

To help lift our spirits we headed to Orange for warmth and champagne. The beau and I talked about his family and mine, in terms of their involvement in the war. His dad had 12 siblings, 3 or 4 who died in the war. 12! Can you believe it? I could imagine it one more generation back but not in the same generation as my parents, whose four-children families seem large to me today. One of my grandfathers was in Pearl Harbour and the other in the merchant marines (I think). I don't know if I would go so far as to say how utterly amazing it is that things have changed so much since then that the beau and I were able to meet, let alone be together, but I think it's pretty fucking cool. Unfortunately none of our grandfathers are around today to talk to, because I would love to hear what they would say about this Canadian-Japanese couple. I'd also like to hear about post-war Japan from the marines grandfather who was there and who brought kimonos back to the States with him, one of which I have today.

Going into the movie, I really had no idea of what it was about or the background behind it and after a little digging the only English information I could find was this article, which was conveniently published just last week. After reading it, a lot of things fell into place for me. Superficially at least, I see the film for what it is: a remake of an older film AND TV series, which has been directed by someone over at TBS and is thus overly dramatic and made-for-TVesque. There are also two members of SMAP in the film, one who I completely missed and the other who left me thinking, why the fuck does this guy pop up EVERYWHERE?! I probably would have taken more notice if it was Kimtaku, who is all hot man, hot hair. Then there is the music, which is at times ridiculously cheesy and what the above article calls "literal-minded". At times it all felt like a really bad daytime soap, something to which the Japanese acting aesthetic lends itself far too well. These thoughts were not in my head however, when I was crying along with the rest of the captivated audience.

There is no mistake that this is an anti-war film but there is always the delicate and ever-sensitive issue of how much Japan will be portrayed as a victim, blameless except for an elite and monstrous military few. I'll readily admit that throughout and maybe even immediately after the film I kept thinking how wrong it was that this man who was clearly forced to kill another in war, be held accountable. I agree with the points the article's author hits on however, especially when he says that "the filmmakers, however, have loaded the moral dice by making an extreme case like Shimizu the protagonist, instead of the more numerous torturers and murderers of POWs who rightly ended up on the war-crimes docket". Maybe I should have walked into the movie with a more critical eye but I think I can safely say that my initial reaction is similar to what most people feel when watching this movie, which is perhaps where the danger lies. It's much easier to feel bad for a disabled barber-turned-soldier than an officer who let men under his command rape women in China. How many average Japanese people equipped with the "national average" amount of knowledge of WWII walked out of that movie and decided to read a few history books to brush up? Or who even thought past feeling that the barber's fate was unjust?

I don't have the answer, I don't know at what point people should be held responsible for their actions in situations such as that laid out in this movie, or if it differs depending on the cultural perspective. Would Japanese people be more inclined to hold the highest person in a chain of command responsible, whereas their American counterparts believe it is the individual who has to step up? If your life was threatened would you harm another to nullify that? Cheesiness aside, this was a truly depressing film where by the end I too, understood the protagonist's longing to become a shellfish.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Call for submissions

Does anyone out there have skillz when it comes to computers? If, for example, I was to ask you to make me a little icon of either a host with big hair or a pointy shoe, not unlike those worn by hosts, would you be able to? If so, please let me know! I need an icon to use for my *patented* host rating system and I got no skillz!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Please do it at home in December

Happy December gentle readers. The metro folks are at it again as we knew they would be, and just in time for bonenkai season, when the inhabitants of this island nation band together in groups to drink copious amounts of alcohol, in the native belief that this does wonders to help one "forget the year". I think that says a whole lot right there. Instead of celebrating the passage of time, the Japanese just want to forget it ever happened.

The main text on the poster tells us to Please refrain from drunken behaviour. Well for people to do that, they would need to refrain from drinking too much. The metro people certainly have their work cut out! I do think it a sweet gesture however, to include a small note in the white bubble encouraging us to "also take care not to drink too much". What's next metro peeps? Only three months left until Tokyo has so many manners it doesn't know what to do with itself!