Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Man hunt

I was told the only way I’d ever get a boyfriend in Japan was if I made the first move. All I had to do was take the lead and the men would follow.

Well, what a load of crap that turned out to be. I’ve transformed myself into a brazen hussy and I still can’t get a date. My attempts at seduction are about as subtle as a baseball bat to the skull. But no matter what I do, I just can’t crack their pathological shyness.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, let me give you three examples of how my not-so-smooth moves have been rebuffed.


Name: Nobuo (or, as I like to call him, Nobu-oohhh!)
Age: 28
Occupation: Employment status unknown
How we met: He plays on my volleyball team

Okay, so the real reason why I’ve been enjoying volleyball so much is because of Nobuo. He is, quite simply, one of the sexiest guys I’ve ever seen. He’s tall and lean with thick black hair and beautiful brown skin. Don’t even get me started on his body. The boy has abs you could break glass on (I know this because he takes his shirt off after every practice and, oh my god, I can’t even write about it without getting hot and bothered).

Plus, he’s fun and playful. He’s always bouncing around and cracking jokes with everyone. Everyone but me, that is. Up until last week, he barely said more than a single word to me. He’d mumble hello at the beginning of practice and mutter goodbye after it was over.

I asked one of the girls on the team why Nobuo went out of his way to avoid me. She gave me the same tired excuse I’ve been hearing for the past four months.

“He’s shy,” she said. “He’s afraid to talk to you because he can’t speak English.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I thought to myself. “I’m so sick and tired of this shy and timid bullshit. If that’s the way he’s going to be then I’ll be the man and wear the damn pants and show him how it’s done!”

At school the next day, I went straight to the vice-principal for help. He does nothing but practice magic tricks and surf the Internet all day so I figured he’d jump at the chance to do something useful. I pulled out a pen and some paper and asked him to translate a list of phrases, such as “Are you single?” and “I think you’re handsome” and “Let’s go for a drink sometime.”

I showed up at volleyball practice last Monday armed with an arsenal of Japanese pick-up lines. Nobuo gave me the perfect opening when he walked into the gym wearing his hair in a different style. I pounced.

Me: Nobu-oohhh, sumimasen. (Excuse me, Nobuo.)

Nobuo: Hai! (Yes!)

Me: Kami wa . . . (Your hair . . .)

Nobuo: Down?

Me: Hai! Hai! (Yes! Yes!)

Nobuo: [silent]

Me: [batting my eyelashes, flashing him a huge smile and throwing in a little shoulder shimmy] Kakoii desu ne! (You’re soooo good looking!)

His response? He sort of half smiled and then turned and ran (yes, ran) out of the gym. See what I mean? How the hell do you ask someone out for a drink when they run away when you try to talk to them? Okay, moving on to Exhibit B . . .


Name: I forget
Age: 31
Occupation: High school English teacher
How we met: At a bar

I was out drinking with some of my co-workers when a handsome stranger walked in from out of the cold. He strode into the bar wearing a black leather jacket, baggy jeans and a striped scarf. His motorcycle was parked out front. He was like a Japanese version of George Stroumboulopoulos.

He joined our table and I swapped seats so that I was sitting next to him. I introduced myself in Japanese and was surprised when he answered back in perfect English. He told me he was a high school English teacher but his real passion was writing poetry. I asked him if he was single. He said he was. Things were looking up.

Late into the night, the conversation turned to romance. Everyone around the table took turns describing their dream date. When it was my turn, I pulled out the metaphorical baseball bat.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to ride on the back of a motorcycle with my arms wrapped around a cute guy,” I said, looking directly at the cute motorcycle-riding guy sitting beside me.

Someone asked me to describe what the guy on my fantasy date would look like.

“Well, he’d be wearing a black leather jacket,” I said, looking directly at his black leather jacket.

“And a striped scarf,” I said, looking directly at his striped scarf.

“And glasses,” I said, looking directly into his bespectacled eyes.

His response? Stunned silence. He just sat there blinking, not saying a word. I tried to drop more hints but I couldn’t penetrate his fortress of shyness. I haven’t seen him since. And that brings us to Exhibit C . . .


Name: Kashida-sensei
Age: 28
Occupation: Art teacher
How we met: He teaches at my school once a week

Every Tuesday, a foxy young art teacher visits my school. He always sits next to me between classes (but only because there’s nowhere else to sit). Our desks are so close our elbows touch.

It would be highly erotic if Kashida-sensei wasn’t so ridiculously shy. In four months, he has never initiated a conversation with me. He won’t even say good morning unless I say it first. And he never, ever, looks me in the eye.

So I took it upon myself to make the first move. Every week, I share my secret stash of chocolate with him. I slip him cookies under the table. I always pack an extra mandarin orange in my bag just for him. And he just sits there and giggles. Not because he thinks I’m funny but because I make him so uncomfortable. (The vice-principal pulled me aside and spelled it out for me, “He’s shy.”)

And even though I make the effort to speak to him in Japanese, our conversations are painfully one-sided. For example, I once asked him what he did in his spare time. He said he liked fishing. I said I liked fishing too. He giggled. I told him we should go fishing together. He giggled some more. I asked him if he would take me fishing. He giggled even harder. After about five minutes of this, I gave up and rolled my eyes (not that he noticed since he kept his head down the whole time I was talking to him).

The thing is, it’s hard for me to sustain interest in any of these guys when I’m doing all the work and getting nothing in return. It’s like a game of tennis. I’m hitting easy serves across the net and these guys are just standing there letting the balls pile up on their side of the court. It’s no fun if they’re not hitting the ball back.

Who knows? Maybe they’re not shy at all. Maybe they’re just not that into me. Maybe I should go back to being less brazen and wait for one of them to take the lead. Or maybe I should just resign myself to a life of celibacy in Japan. I don't know what to do. These guys are driving me crazy. And not in a good way.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I went to Kyoto

I went to Kyoto last week. Unfortunately, half the population of Japan also went to Kyoto last week.

I blame the media. You see, it’s autumn and the leaves have started to change colour. The Japanese media have been reporting on the “leaf front” sweeping across the country as if they were in hot pursuit of OJ Simpson’s white Bronco. The leaf front has been the lead story on almost every TV newscast for the past five days. We’re talking live hits, helicopters, expert commentary and graphics. All for a bunch of dying leaves.

When the leaf front finally hit Kyoto on Tuesday, there was wall-to-wall media coverage. I was both excited and annoyed that the leaves had decided to explode into fiery shades of red the exact same week I was going to Kyoto. I knew it would be beautiful but I also knew I’d have to share the view with hordes of people.

Undeterred, Zoe, Aiko and I set off for Kyoto at dawn on Thursday. It took three and a half hours by train to traverse Shikoku Island and cross over the Inland Sea to the Japanese mainland. Once we were on the mainland, we hopped on the bullet train to Kyoto.

The bullet train was fast. It was a strange feeling riding on a train that went more than 300 km an hour. It felt like we were sitting in an airplane that was barreling down the runway just before takeoff. Towns and cities whipped past the windows. An hour later, we were suddenly in Kyoto.

We decided to spend the first day walking around. We saw geisha wrapped in beautiful silk kimonos.

We walked along cobblestone streets lined with traditional wooden houses.

And then we set off for some Buddhist temples to see what the entire population of Japan had flocked to Kyoto to see. Blazing leaves!

Now, you may think this was all very beautiful. But the photos don’t tell the whole story. For example, there were news helicopters circling overhead. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a temple garden when the air is filled with the constant thwack-thwack-thwack-thwack of propeller blades.

And whenever I tried to take a picture of something, there were 50 other people jostling to take the same picture as me. There was not one moment of quiet reflection. Nowhere to wander off by myself.

Visiting the temples was like a ride on an amusement park. You queued up in line. You paid your money. You shuffled along a roped-off path with hundreds of other tourists. You took some pictures. And you popped out the other side. One bus full of tourists drove away and three new buses arrived.

The experience wasn’t much fun. I didn’t hate it, though. There were parts of Kyoto that were breathtakingly beautiful. Like this golden temple just before sunset.

I also had a cinnamon bun and a latte for the first time in four months. It was almost as exciting as riding the bullet train. (Yes, I went to the cultural centre of Japan and Starbucks was one of the highlights. Go ahead and mock me. But you try living in a rural area where there’s no coffee and cinnamon buns and people who speak English and then tell me your heart wouldn’t involuntarily skip with joy when you saw those familiar green letters!)

We spent Thursday and Friday night in Osaka. Actually, the real reason we stayed in Osaka was because it was impossible to get a hotel room in Kyoto and Osaka is only half an hour away. I had tried reserving a room in Kyoto months ago but everything was booked solid.

We were lucky to even get a hotel room in Osaka. Then again, this was the view outside our hotel room window.

But Osaka was great. It was miles and miles of nothing but concrete and neon. I love neon. I’m like a moth drawn to the lights.

And that was it. We took the train back home on Saturday afternoon.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

My first volleyball tournament

I played in a three-day volleyball tournament last week. It was one of the most nerve-wracking, vomit-inducing things I’ve ever done.

Forget the cockroaches in my apartment. Forget the fish heads for lunch. Competitive volleyball is way more terrifying.

I was a little surprised my teammates asked me to play in the first place. These are the same people who banned me from the last tournament because I suck so bad. And it’s not like I’ve improved that much since then (although, to my credit, I no longer duck and scream when the ball comes my way). Maybe they were just waiting to make sure I wouldn’t publicly embarrass them before they invited me to play in a tournament.

Secretly, I was thrilled they wanted me to tag along. During the past three months, I’ve grown to like volleyball so much that it’s now one of the highlights of my week. But I was about to learn that volleyball practice and a volleyball tournament are two very different things.

When I walked into the gym on the first day of the tournament, I felt like I had stepped into an alternate universe. I barely recognized the place. Everything looked so . . . professional. There were line judges and officials and score keepers. There were even spectators in the stands.

Six different teams were warming up at the same time, filling the gym with the sound of squeaking shoes and balls pounding against the floor. I watched as they practiced spiking the ball with such force and speed it looked like the hardwood floor would splinter into a million pieces.

I was in way over my head. I told my teammates that I’d rather just watch. But they insisted that I play. I couldn’t argue with them. I mean, I wanted to argue with them but I couldn’t because my Japanese is too limited to explain how I was feeling.

They told me I wouldn’t be playing until the second game, which meant I had lots of time to sit around and get more and more nervous. Now, I’ve competed in countless swim meets and triathlons and I’ve always felt nervous before the gun went off but I’ve never felt the kind of anxiety I was feeling before I stepped on that volleyball court. I knew that if I screwed up I’d be letting down a whole team of people.

And if it’s true that a team is as strong as its weakest link, well then I felt like a rusty paper clip trying to hold a chain of iron rings together.

By the time the second game rolled around, I was so nervous I wanted to throw up. But my teammates dragged me onto the court. I was told to stand in the back, to the left of the server.

I started to panic. I looked around wildly and yelled in Japanese, "Hajimete desu! Hajimete desu!" (It’s my first time! It’s my first time!). I wasn’t trying to be funny but everyone started laughing. I didn’t want them to think I was joking so I repeated it again, in an even more panic-stricken voice. But this only made them laugh harder.

The official seemed annoyed by me jumping around flapping my arms and yelling in Japanese so he blew the whistle long and hard to shut me up. Once everyone was quiet, he blew the whistle again and the game began.

I silently prayed for the ball not to come near me and for a while it didn’t. But then we scored a few points and the other team scored a few points and before I knew it I had rotated from the back of the court to the front. I was inches away from the net, expected to “attack.”

I knew that if the setter hit the ball my way I was supposed to jump and raise my hand over my head and hit the ball so it would land on the ground of the opposing court. But every time I tried to spike the ball in practice it usually ended up in the net. So instead of spiking the ball during the game, I decided to just make sure it ended up on the other side of the net.

Whenever the setter passed the ball to me, I simply pushed it over the net with my fingertips.

When it came time for me to serve, once again my goal was just to get the ball over the net. Fortunately, my first serve sailed over the net and dropped into the middle of the opposing court. Unfortunately, my second serve veered wildly to the right and hit the official in the head.

The set went on like that for what seemed like hours. When we finally won, I was more relieved than happy. I was even more relieved to find out that they only wanted me to play that one set during the entire three-day tournament. I guess it was sort of a token goodwill gesture.

I still like volleyball and I’m still looking forward to practice tomorrow night. But I don’t think I’ll be playing in any more tournaments any time soon. I'd rather stay home and kill cockroaches and eat fish heads.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Carrot sticks: Part II

Since I got such a kick out of seeing Japanese people react with revulsion whenever I ate carrot sticks, I decided to take my raw-vegetable freak-out fest to the classroom.

I was curious to see what kind of chaos I could create by offering my students carrot sticks at lunch.

I figured the elementary school kids would be the perfect guinea pigs for my little experiment. These kids think everything is fun and exciting. All I have to do is walk into the classroom and they start jumping up and down, screaming “YAY!!!” I knew if I showed up bearing carrots, the excitement level would be through the roof.

I ran the idea past the homeroom teacher first, since I knew how controversial carrot sticks could be. The last thing I wanted was to get fired over a damn vegetable. He looked at me like I was proposing to feed the kids leeches for lunch but agreed to go along with the plan.

As soon as the bell rang, I joined one of the classrooms for lunch (kids in Japan eat at their desks). I quietly reached into my backpack and pulled out a bag of carrot sticks. Before I said a word, the kids swarmed around me.

“WHAT’S THAT?!? WHAT’S THAT?!?” they yelled (I have no idea why these kids insist on screaming when they try to talk to me).

“Carrots,” I said.

One boy frantically pointed at himself and then pointed at the carrots.

“Would you like one?” I asked.

“YES!!!” he yelled.

He grabbed a carrot, ran back to his desk and shoved it in his mouth.

It took a few attempts before he was able to bite off a small piece (the kid looked like he was trying to gnaw through a steel cable).

Once he finished chewing and swallowing, he stood up and proclaimed the carrot stick “DELICIOUS!!!”

Upon hearing this, a few other students ran over and demanded a carrot stick. I think they expected the carrots to be delicious because when they bit into them they looked completely bewildered, like someone had poured salt in their coffee instead of sugar. This kid was not impressed.

The girl in the photo below took a bite and said something in Japanese that sounded like, “WTF? This is the grossest shit I’ve ever tasted. Oh my god. I’m going to throw up now.”

Who knew carrots could be so much fun? Next month, poutine tasting!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Carrot sticks

You’d think it would be pretty difficult to gross out a bunch of people who have no qualms about eating fish with their heads still attached and squid so raw it’s still moving.

But I have discovered the one food that makes Japanese people recoil in horror. Yes, I’m talking about that most repulsive food of all -- raw carrot sticks.

The first time I brought raw carrot sticks to work it sent shock waves through the staff room. You would have thought I was biting the heads off bats.

“What are you eating?” asked one of the teachers, her eyes wide with disbelief.

“Um . . . carrots,” I said.

My explanation only confused her more.

She wanted to know if they were boiled. I told her they were raw. She wanted to know if I thought they were delicious. I told her they weren’t particularly delicious. She wanted to know why I was eating them if they weren’t delicious. I told her they were healthy so I enjoyed eating them. She wanted to know if everyone in Canada ate carrot sticks. I told her lots of people in Canada ate carrot sticks. She wanted to know if I was joking. I told her I wasn’t.

I noticed some of the other teachers were eavesdropping on our conversation so I held up my little container of carrot sticks and asked if anyone wanted to try one.

There was a collective gasp and some nervous laughter before they started backing away, wildly waving their hands in front of their faces and shaking their heads. In a country where raw horse meat is considered a delicacy, not one of them was brave enough to try a carrot stick.

I continued to bring in carrot sticks a few times a week and they continued to point and laugh. It took about a month for the novelty to wear off. After two months, one of the teachers worked up the courage to try one.

He took a bite, chewed and swallowed. He took another bite, chewed and swallowed. The poor guy looked like he was trying not to gag. He had an expression on his face that seemed to suggest he was eating pig rectum or blended rats.

He somehow managed to choke down the whole thing. I asked him what he thought.

“It was delicious,” he said. “Thank you.”

If the teachers at my school thought carrot sticks were disgusting, I can’t wait to see their reaction when I bring poutine to work.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Two minutes with a wild monkey

I had my first encounter with a wild monkey on the weekend.

I was walking across a bridge, minding my own business, when I saw a flash of fur out of the corner of my eye.

It took a few seconds for my brain to process what I was seeing. A monkey sitting on the bridge. I did a whiplash-inducing double take. “Holy crap! There’s a monkey sitting on the bridge!”

I pulled out my camera and slowly tiptoed toward it. I didn’t want to get too close. It was unnerving to come face to face with a monkey without a cage between us. Also, the monkey was not exactly cute and cuddly. It had a red face and pinched features, which made it look mean and angry.

A voice in my head repeated itself over and over: “Don’t look the monkey in the eye! Don’t look the monkey in the eye!” I had read somewhere that monkeys will attack you if you look directly into their eyes. Or maybe that was bears. Either way, I wasn’t going to take any chances.

So with my eyes looking everywhere but at the monkey, I inched forward and blindly took a picture.

By this point, the monkey was attracting a small crowd (“small crowd” meaning “four people”). Someone threw some crackers on the ground and the monkey jumped off the railing and started eating them.

However, the crowd seemed to be more interested in watching me take pictures of the monkey than in the monkey itself. They were looking at me with the same amused expression I get when I see tourists taking pictures of raccoons and squirrels in Stanley Park. (“Ha, ha. Look at the tourist taking pictures of that nasty-ass monkey like it’s some sort of exotic and beautiful animal. Ha, ha.”)

Suddenly, without warning, the monkey charged toward me. I had a terrifying vision of it leaping onto my face and digging its claws into my hair.

I shrieked and jumped out of the way. I also managed to snap a photo at the same time.

The monkey kept running and disappeared into the woods. And that was the end of my first encounter with a wild monkey.

Postscript: I thought it was a pretty unique experience until I went home and googled “Japanese monkeys” and found out Japan is overrun by monkeys. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article about the monkey population explosion:

Rural villages sometimes post bounties of up to $1,000 for the leader of a particularly destructive monkey troop. In cities, sensational news reports about monkeys "molesting women and children" have stirred police officers to form monkey posses, patrolling streets with nets and bananas tied to poles.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The weirdest girl in town

Most of the time, living in Japan isn’t all that different from living in Canada. But just when I think I’m starting to fit in, I unintentionally do something to set myself apart. Like walking to work.

Who knew something so innocuous would turn into an international incident?

It started out innocently enough. I woke up early. It was a nice day. I thought to myself, “I’m up early. It’s a nice day. I think I’ll walk to work.”

That day I was teaching at a small school out in the country. It’s about four kilometres away and you have to go up and down a few steep hills to get there. But I like walking, especially when I get to pass through scenery like this.

So I hefted my backpack over my shoulders and set out for what I thought would be a nice walk through the countryside.

I got about 10 minutes away from my apartment when a car slowed beside me. I looked over to see one of the teachers from my school rolling down the passenger-side window and frantically waving for me to get inside the car.

“No, no,” I said in Japanese. “Walking, good. Exercise, good. Car, no thank you.”

My explanation only seemed to confuse her (either that or my Japanese is completely incomprehensible). She patted the passenger seat and urged me to get in.

I thanked her profusely, bowed and continued walking. She drove beside me for a little while. I pointed at my feet, pointed at the road ahead and gave her the thumbs up. Over and over and over again. She eventually got the message and drove off ahead of me.

Ten minutes later, a second car slowed beside me. It was a different teacher but he did the same thing. He rolled down the passenger-side window and frantically waved for me to get inside the car. I played another round of charades, pointing at my feet and the road ahead, until he drove on.

Five minutes later, a third car pulled up beside me. This time, it was the principal. Instead of slowing down to offer me a ride, he brought the car to a complete stop in the middle of the road and started shoving the junk on the passenger seat onto the floor. He didn’t even ask if I wanted a ride, he just assumed I’d hop in.

By the time the fourth car pulled up beside me, I realized the teachers weren’t offering me a ride just to be nice. They were offering me a ride because they assumed something had happened to my bike. They thought I was walking because I had to, not because I wanted to.

Amazingly, another car pulled up beside me when I was just one block away from the school. The teacher rolled down the passenger-side window and frantically waved for me to get inside. Now it was my turn to look at her in disbelief. The school was literally no more than 50 metres away.

“Um . . . the school is right there. I can walk,” I said.

She gave me a look that said “You are the weirdest f*cking person I have ever met” and turned left into the parking lot.

By the time I walked into the staff room, the gossip mill was churning at warp speed. The way they were talking, you would have thought I was the first teacher in the history of the school to have ever walked there. (Actually, I probably was.)

They wanted to know how long it took (45 minutes), did I ever walk such great distances in Canada (yes), do other people in Canada walk to work (yes), was my bicycle was broken (no), was I tired (from walking, no. From answering their questions, yes).

I tried to explain that walking to work was a nice way to ease into the day and get some exercise in. That I liked breathing the fresh air and looking at the scenery.

They smiled and nodded but I don’t think they really understood. By lunch, their tone had shifted from awe to concern. They wanted to know how I was going to get home.

Good lord, I thought. Here we go again.

I cringed inwardly and told them I was going to walk home. And so I went through the whole process of turning down rides all over again. By the end of the day, I had managed to convince them that I really didn’t want a ride.

I hefted my backpack over my shoulders and set out for what I thought would be a nice walk home through the countryside.

I got about 10 minutes away from the school when a car slowed beside me. I looked over to see a cab driver rolling down the passenger-side window and frantically urging me to get inside the car.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I’m okay.”

He seemed to think I was turning him down because I didn’t want to pay the cab fare. So he started yelling, “Free. Free. No money!”

I had already experienced the novelty of a free cab ride in Japan (I once had a cab driver waive the $30 fare because he said he enjoyed our conversation so much that he thought it wouldn’t be right to make me pay). So I pointed at my feet and the road ahead until he drove away.

All of this just because I decided to walk to work. What does a girl have to do to fit in around here?