Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Commuter Survival Tutorial Vol. 1

I think it appropriate to begin this potential series (potential as you never know whether I will make it past the first installment) with a focus on umbrellas and how to use them to your pedestrian advantage. Why appropriate? you may ask. We've now entered the rainy season in Japan, a time when, at least personally, internal commuter rage is at its annual peak.

As an aside, I would much rather use the word "monsoon" to describe the month-long rains we see here every summer as it sounds much more hardcore than "rainy season," which makes the speaker sound like a pussy to someone hailing from the Pacific NW. Talk of weather here is a bona fide national pastime, but for the cajillion times a year people tell me that the summer is hot, it is really fucking hot. Sweat running down your crack hot. For the number of times I am warned about tsuyu (rainy season, whatever) in Tokyo then, you would think it would be some big production every year, when in reality, I don't notice it all that much. For me, "monsoon" conjures the heavens opening up and violently raining down on the peons below who go rushing out into the street to wash themselves. That doesn't exactly happen here in Japan. This doesn't mean however, that we can't pretend it does. And we do, really, despite that fact that people have it much worse in other regions of Japan and Asia when it comes to typhoons, rain, and snow. What am I getting at? For all the chow chow on weather here, I wish there was at least something fiercer than "rainy season," to describe the phenomenon that, if not particularly awesome in reality, certainly is in our collective conscious.

But back to what you came here for. Commuter skillz.

1) Ever walk down the street and have to constantly dodge people who are checking their cell phones, talking to their friends or gazing into the sky? Ever had one of them run right into you? You must not be using your umbrella properly. When it's not raining, you can employ your umbrella the way a crotchety old man might his cane, and use it to fend off irresponsible pedestrians. See a salaryman engrossed in his cellphone and heading right for you? Hold your umbrella out at a 45 degree angle from your side and the threat of this jabbing him will tear his attention back to the main task at hand - walking down the street. The threat of getting hit by an umbrella works with surprising frequency and indicates to me that people are paying attention, they simply don't care unless it's them getting hit. Is there a huge stream of people coming your way and forcing you to walk in the gutter? Stick out that umbrella and threaten to run it along each and every one of them, much as you would a stick along a row of metal bars. The crowd will part like the red sea and you will make it through unscathed. ***If you're past the preventative stage, your umbrella can also be used for restitution. A quick but sturdy accidentally-on-purpose tap on the offender's leg will have them thinking twice about not being a conscientious commuter in the future.

2) Ever have trouble getting down the stairs at a station on a busy morning (in addition to the shit eyes everyone gives you as you try to squeeze down along the banister)? This is where your sopping wet umbrella comes in. When it's raining, I never fold mine up until I am in the actual station. Instead, I hold it out in front of me like a jousting lance and watch as the commuters climbing the stairs suddenly don't feel the need to get all up in my face anymore. It's funny how afraid people are of a little water. Maybe Japan's rain is more dangerous than I thought?

3) Once you're on the train, don't think your umbrella's work is done yet. You can employ it as a warning device to anyone whose crotch is getting to close to your face if you are sitting, or, if you are standing, to someone who is breathing down your neck. A certain Foreign Salaryman has employed the delightful term "crotch presser," which makes me giggle and cringe at the same time because it is so bang on the mark. So how does this so-called warning device work? Well, despite being rather primitive and entirely manual, quite well. You simply use it as you would when walking down the street: eyes straight ahead, pretend to be examining a poster depicting a cure for pattern baldness, and allow your umbrella to accidentally-on-purpose (this is a key concept, really) wack into their leg and it's amazing how quickly they get the picture. I almost want to applaud them.

I'm not condoning random acts of umbrella violence, but simply showing you how, when employed with skill and light force, your umbrella can help to improve your daily commute through the sweaty crush of salarypeople. Good luck out there.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Learning to be Japanese

At my most recent kimono lesson, the only other student there was a new person and it reminded me of how far I've come. Seeing the sensei repeat everything over and over while using hand gestures put things in perspective for me. I sometimes get discouraged during my lessons if I can't remember something, or if my sensei gives me a direction from across the room and upon me not understanding it, comes over to show me. By my own fault, this makes me feel like I'm not good enough for kimono, or like I'll never be as good as my Japanese peers, which is of course not necessarily true. Language and body movement aside, it comes down to skill and maybe some natural grace.

Watching and listening to this new person's lesson reminded me that just because I can't do something here, it's not because I am foreign or not Japanese, but because I haven't learned how to do it yet. This is something that can be so easily forgotten in Japan, where I often feel clumsy, big and like a giant sore thumb. I think it can be easy to get down on yourself living here, especially when you feel so different. I catch myself unconsciously telling myself that the reason I can't do something is because I'm not Japanese. Looking at Japanese people and thinking how well they do something (whether it is kimono or conducting oneself in a social situation) has nothing to do with them being Japanese, and everything to do with the fact that it is simply learned behaviour.

I'm not articulating myself very well so I will just say this: in no aspect of my life here do I feel desperate to fit in with Japanese people, save for my kimono classes. I look at these women and how incredibly natural they look in kimono, putting it on, and dressing others in it. I fret about sitting seiza and looking like the dumb foreigner who has to sit with her legs to the side and even then they cramp up. I worry that my teachers will be more lenient with me than other students because I'm foreign (totally not the case), while at the same time wishing I was a bit more spoon fed because sometimes I don't understand the words they are using and this school is my lifeline to kimono - kimono dressing is taught to us like we have mothers or grandmothers to sew shit for us or to pass on old kimono wisdom. Most of my fears above are unfounded. These women that I admire have learned everything that I admire about them, or had help from elsewhere. They weren't born in kimono and for them, in this day and age, learning about kimono is a choice, not something that happens by osmosis. This is somewhat comforting, especially as I progress in the higher level master class, where the teachers have no qualms about bluntly telling you what you're doing wrong.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Postcard from the Kaisha: perfect harmony

Picture it, my secretary and I are sitting in our cubicles formerly of the white ghetto, and out of the corner of my eye I can see her eyes hovering above the partition. Looking back at my screen there is an email from her asking me to do some work . I am tempted to look over at her and acknowledge receipt of the email, but she is staring at her screen with an intensity I imagine comes from trying not to look at me. I have to repress a little smile that involuntarily forms at the absurdity of it all. I send her the stuff she needs, wondering if we will be greeting each other in the mornings by email from now on, and half expect her to vocalize her thanks. Instead, she sends me an email, thanking me for my trouble. We are each essentially pretending that the other is not within physical reach. This must be what it feels like to be in perfect harmony with another human being.

I may have to begin surreptitious construction of a wall that will run along the top of the partition, obscuring her from my view if I am to keep up this farce.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Event of the Season (I)

You may not have asked for a frothy white wedding with a dress change in the middle but that is exactly what you're going to get. If asked my initial impressions of the wedding of Baby Mama and Baby Daddy, I would tell you that it read like an instruction manual on how not to get married. And I'm not even talking about the whole baby up the hoo hoo issue either. But we'll come back to all of that later.

And just to give you plenty of advanced warning, there was even a special guest at the wedding! See if you can guess who.

After preening around the hotel lobby like three black peacocks, our gentlemen escorts joined us to catch cabs over to the hotel where the wedding was being held. The beau's cousin who I can't understand he speaks such a strong Aomori dialect, had come down with someone I think is the beau's uncle. I had just met him the night before and by met I mean was in the presence of for several hours but not formally introduced until after the first round of beer at dinner. By the time I yoroshiku'd him it felt a bit late and contrived but who am I to argue with tradition. Before the said dinner, the beau's mom had me in the elevator alone and asked when we were getting hitched. I tried to look aloof slash cute and told her to discuss it with the beau. Let him deal with it. This will not be the last of the corner-the-whitie-RE:-marriage-game and I frankly wish I'd of at least gotten an invitation to it so I would have known what to expect.

While I realize every detail of the wedding down to the cue to start crying was left to the hotel's wedding planners, the beau's parents knew absolutely nothing about what was going to go down in terms of contrived chapel ceremony or what have you. We had all received little cards in addition to the main invitation, inviting us to join a ceremony beforehand, so I was really looking forward to the English teacher moonlighting as a fake white priest (the priest part being fake mind you, not the white part). When we arrived at the hotel and were ushered into the formal waiting room however, it started to seem as if there wasn't going to be a wedding ceremony and I was starting to wonder why the hell we had been told to show up an hour and a half before the reception (read: drinking) began.

At last we were all called down to the basement of the hotel for the one and literally only, family photograph. Going down the hallway to the room, we got our first glance at Baby Daddy and Baby Mama, who were posed for photographs in front of some cheap-ass white arch that was being strangled with fake ivy. Under fluorescent lighting. Despite my protests, I was included in the family photograph. Plus one point for the beau's family because I was truly included in the circle of trust; minus one point for Baby Mama's family, who will forever have to contend with some random white bitch lighting up the only professional photo they have from their daughter's wedding.

Moving along though, we do have a schedule to keep. After the photos the reception hall was opened and as guests started wandering in, we wondered when the hell the actual ceremony was. Before entering the reception, each guest has to "check in" and this is the point where you hand over your hard-earned cash wrapped in a special envelope. Being the classy couple that we are, the beau and I gave our money in an envelope made from a cute furoshiki from a local shop, so that BD and BM can re-use it to wipe up spilled breast milk or something in the future. Are you interested to know how much we parted with? I may have mentioned before that people were telling us up to 100,000 yen is standard as siblings of the couple but this is kind of extravagant and frankly out of reach given the short notice (ha). When giving money at weddings, it needs to be in an amount that cannot be divided into two even numbers (signalling eventual divorce, etc.) so we settled on 70,000 yen, which is still pretty fucking ridonculous if you were to ask me for my honest opinion.

In exchange for our cash, we were each given a seating plan for the banquet room, presumably so that we could both seat ourselves and know which tables to visit to offer up bottled beer/respect. Not that this should come as any surprise, but at weddings here the seating arrangement is almost the exact opposite of its Western counterpart. BM and BD sat alone on a raised platform and the tables closest to them were for people from work. Then radiating out from that you have the tables for friends and finally, out in Siberia, the tables for family. People from work are given the highest honor while family members might as well be put in a separate dark room. Or even a closet. Sitting on every chair was the standard large shopping bag containing gifts from the bride and groom, said to equal about half of what we just relinquished at the reception desk. We will discuss this later.

After being seated, what followed was a two-hour circus complete with dramatic light shows above us, a fiery torch ritual and of course, a costume change.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Inappropriate clushes

We all have them don't we, crushes on people that aren't necessarily our usual "type" or even, dare I say, mildly attractive? I'm not sure if it's a result of low self-esteem issues or that I'm pretty much over the fucking moon when people actually talk to me here, but I have a developed a small list of crushes that I am going to share with you in this all-exclusive tell-all.

Gyoza man: this guy who runs a gyoza shop by my apartment is actually physically attractive. He is one of those very special Japanese men that can get away with (nay, should have) long hair tied back in a ponytail. Call me un-PC but he is a modern day samurai and this is fucking hot.

Smoking professional: professional at the Kaisha who is not only not typically attractive but smells like smoke. I honestly have no idea why I like doing work for him (no connotations there, please) but I seem to find him charming despite the way he shuffles down the hall in exhaustion looking as if he is about to fall over. Maybe it's because his secretary once told me he never grins at her the way he does me...

Easy cool guy professional: cute, young and well-groomed professional at the Kaisha. He does not have a dorky accent when he speaks English and speaks it with confidence. He signs his emails "Best, Kenji" and I think this is super cute and not a little cool.

Dapper professional: we weren't ever totally sure of his orientation but Other Whitie and I used to dote on this extremely well-dressed professional at the Kaisha. He makes argyle sing and looks exceptional in pink and grey. He even has a slight British accent to boot, despite being Japanese, which is so freaking cute. American accents on Japanese do not achieve this effect.

Tokyo Metro guy: he is responsible for my safety during the morning rush hour, maybe this is why I've come to crush on him. The sure and steady way his white-gloved hand points his flashlight down the train platform makes my heart flutter. He doesn't have the buffest physique, but I am a sucker for uniforms.

NHK guy: he arrives at all hours of the day, even on the weekend after the dinner hour. He little oyaji face peers up into the security screen inside my apartment waiting for me to open the door so he can charge me for NHK, something I rarely even watch. I do not open the door for him. OK, this last one is a complete lie but I couldn't help myself.

Any inappropriate crushes you'd like to share with me?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Weekend in snapshots

Back in business.

Remember when I went to try Heineken's super cold beer and felt like a gullible victim of false advertising? Well I am pleased to say not much has changed. I tend to shy away from lining up for things although it is all the rage here and really, how can you truly know the value of something if you don't have a line to judge it by? Let me tell you a little secret: I have my suspicions that people line up here because of the line. Everyone is dying for a little exclusivity so if you see a line here, well shit, whatever it is must be worth lining up for.

I do make an exception for beer that is chilled below zero. Asahi has set up a temporary standing bar smack in the middle of Ginza that is open until mid-August where they will be showcasing their Extra Cold Super Dry (don't you just love stringing adjectives together) for 550 yen a pop. And, gentle readers, let me tell you, it is tastay. It doesn't do anything exciting like burn your tongue off, but it is extra cold. If you like the sensation of your gums burning, I suggest you order their 3-kind mapo tofu dish and take a little spoonful of the one on the far right. I suspect they do this so that you will order more beer, and nothing the beau can say will convince me otherwise.

I will admit to being a fan of the show in public and a skeptical one of the first movie to you here, so it was only natural that I go see the second movie this weekend. I figured if it was terrible, I could simply severe its connection to the show in my mind, which is basically what I did for the first. In my mind, Sex & the City ended in the last episode of season six. This most recent movie was embarrassing. At first I thought the lack of laughs from the audience came from poor translation but in retrospect, part of it probably came from the simple fact that it wasn't that funny. Or sad for that matter. The movie's treatment of Islam was appalling and while I get what they were trying to do when they had Samantha throwing condoms around and gyrating in front of a group of religious men, it made me cringe. And then of course there was Carrie's wide-eyed little girl look as she took in the wonders of the Middle East, which wasn't dissimilar from the clueless look she had plastered on her face in Paris. I understand what it's like to be in a new country where you don't speak the language or culture, but these four women are shown to be completely out of fucking touch. I shouldn't have expected much, that's true, but given their age, salaries, lifestyle and purported wisdom, the SATC ladies look like a bunch of crass first-time tourists (not to mention they only hang out with white people at home). Props to all of you who visit other countries without acting like this and bigger props to those of you living in Japan as graceful as you can be as a foreigner. Lord knows it ain't easy.

After seeing the movie I couldn't wait to get online and read all the scathing reviews, which I have now done. I then moved on to Metropolis and this gem of an article where they round up four Japanese "versions" of the SATC ladies and interview them. Thank god they did, because the woman who was supposed to be Japan's answer to Samantha threw out this nugget of poop, the ramifications of which I am still considering:

Q: The women in Sex and the City have such melodramatic love lives. Is that true for you, or for your friends or Japanese women in general?

A: The characters' lives can't really be compared to the ones of Japanese women...My friends, or perhaps Japanese women in general, are more virtuous and have better morals than people would imagine.

Does this mean she thinks Japanese women are all thought of as floozy sluts willing to spread their legs for brand-goods? I would love to know what she considers to be virtuous and moral qualities in a person. Srsly. Funnily enough, I didn't encounter any women like this when I went for a pre-movie drink at the Oak Door bar in the Hyatt. I recall reading somewhere that the scene at the Oak Door was akin to that at Heartland but with higher monetary stakes. I would tend to agree with this wise person and add that not only is the financial standing of the men higher, but the age too. That goes for most of the local women there as well, who I'm sure were virtuously looking for some investment banker strange. Fun times.

Friday, June 4, 2010

How to make me want to cut you, bitch.

Rock up to the yellow parallel lines on the train platform indicating where the doors will be and stand on the left side, which puts me on the right (in other words, you dictated the side I stood on). Despite this clear demarcation of directional duties when it comes to which side of the door we will step to when the train pulls up (not to mention years of social training and conditioning), decide to try and step diagonally towards the stopped train so that you are in front of me (i.e., on my side). When, as we wait for the doors to open, I try to assert my territorial power and jockey to get in front of you, if only to teach you a lesson, start to push your whole body into me so that when I don't back up you are putting pretty much your entire body weight into me. Feel that physical passive aggressive tension? That is me not backing down. When the doors finally open after what feels like an eternity of pushing against each other, try to shove me out of the way with your arm so that you can get into the crowded train first. When that works and I shove you back, poke me with your fucking umbrella once our backs are facing each other in the middle of the carriage. You must have me mistaken for someone else with my hair like Goldilocks'. I have you beat in both the weight and height division, lady. I was having a pefectly fine day until now. I could really put the hurt on you if I wanted but instead I am standing here, fuming to myself about what a rude fucking woman you are, didn't your mother teach you better and haven't you lived here long enough to understand the train lining up rules!?!

This is why I get headaches.

Please do it agaaaaaaain

And agaaaaaaain. How appropriate, especially given we are about to head into the rainy season and then another hot and wet Japanese summer.

Not that I use the phrase "hot and wet" on a regular basis, but when I do, it always brings to mind a snippet of dialogue from Good Morning Vietnam, the soundtrack to which I had memorized well before seeing the actual movie. I didn't even know what the Vietnam war was but I could recite things like "It's gonna be hot and wet! That's nice if you're with a lady, but ain't no good if you're in the jungle." I could tell you it was "Time to rock it from the Delta to the D.M.Z.!" for years and the DMZ could have been the name of a mall for all I knew. My parents had a cassette tape of the soundtrack and used to play it over and over on road trips. I must have been 7 or 8 at the time but I can still sing all the songs and mouth along to the snippets of dialogue between them, the only difference being now I actually know what a poontang is.

I suppose I should give some commentary on this month's poster instead of detailing the history of my filthy mouth. The good Samaritan this month has a striking resemblance to a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, perhaps even more so in the second box where he appears to be accosting Creepy Sweepy. He even looks a bit hot in the third box, but maybe that is just in contrast to Creepy's meek facial expression. Guy just can't catch a break. Bon weekend gentle readers!