Saturday, December 27, 2008

Modern art through the eyes of a security guard

I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario on Saturday. It was educational, eye-opening and enlightening. But not in the way the art gallery intended.

I was wandering around on the fourth floor of the art gallery, where the works of contemporary art are on display. At one point, I found myself standing in front of five identical canvases hanging on one of the walls. Each canvas was painted completely white except for a small square of beige in each corner.

Mistaking my jet lag for stupefaction, a security guard decided to approach me.

"Can I ask you a question?" he said.

"Of course," I replied.

"What do you think about that?" he said, pointing to the five white canvases in front of us.

His question took me by surprise. I wasn't sure how to answer it. I didn't know whether to give him the "right" answer or an honest answer. The truth was that I didn't think much of the paintings at all. I didn't like them. But I didn't dislike them either.

I wasn't sure if he was a passionate art lover looking for an lively discussion or just genuinely curious to know what I thought.

"Um . . ." I said, stalling. "Um . . ."

I couldn't think of anything intelligent to say so I just decided to tell him the truth.

"Well, modern art isn't really my thing. So I don't know."

He loudly kissed his teeth to signify his disapproval.

"I don't like this stuff," he said.

He told me he wanted to paint a tiny black dot on a canvas and call it a car in a snowstorm.

"They'd probably hang it up in here," he said with a laugh.

He told me he hated patrolling the fourth floor. The second floor is where it's at. He said he likes the older stuff because it gives you a real glimpse into history. He told me he never gets bored when he's working on the second floor. But the fourth floor? Pure torture.

"Have you seen the sink?" he asked.

I told him I hadn't.

"Okay," he said. "Come with me."

He led me through a few rooms and stopped in front of a huge canvas with an actual bathroom sink glued to it.

"There you go!" he said.

The mere sight of it inspired another round of teeth kissing and eye rolling.

He took me around to see a few other works of art that he particularly despised. It was my own private tour of the art gallery. With a security guard. Who hated modern art. It was like the anti-tour tour.

It was educational, eye-opening and enlightening. But probably not in the way the art gallery intended.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Home for the holidays

Greetings from the city formerly known as Toronto. That's right. Toronto has a new name and it's "Snowmageddon." (Or at least that's what the scientists at Environment Canada are calling it.)

And while it's easy to dismiss this sort of thing as over-exaggerated hype, it really did feel like I was flying into some sort of apocalyptic nightmare on Friday. I was on my way from Osaka to Detroit, where a huge winter storm was whipping up winds and dumping snow across the region.

Now, hearing people scream is disconcerting at the best of times. But hearing people scream on an airplane is downright terrifying. Severe turbulence was shaking the plane like it was a pop can in an earthquake. At one point, the plane suddenly dropped about 20 feet. We were lifted out of our seats. You could actually hear all of the overhead luggage rise and then thump back down. It was so bad that people were screaming.

I wanted to hold someone's hand but I was sitting in the dreaded middle seat, sandwiched between a half-drunk elderly Japanese man on my left and an aspiring rock star working on a concept album about underwater robots on my right. I didn't think either one of them would appreciate me whimpering in their laps.

Despite the ice pellets, howling winds and thick fog, we managed to land safely in Detroit. I was supposed to catch a connecting flight to Snowmageddon but it was being walloped by an even worse winter storm. As a result, my 2 p.m. flight was cancelled and I was rebooked on the 5:30 flight out of Detroit.

So I wandered around the Detroit airport for a bit. Had a bean burrito at Taco Bell (my first burrito in three months! It was surprisingly delicious). Just before 5 p.m., they cancelled my second flight and rebooked me on the 9:30 p.m. flight.

So I wandered around the Detroit airport some more. Ate some sushi (it felt like I had been in Detroit for months and was feeling nostalgic for Japanese food. It was surprisingly terrible). I made some American friends. We talked mostly about the weather and our cancelled flights.

Just before 8 p.m., they cancelled my third flight. I lined up for an hour only to be told there were no more flights going to Snowmageddon that night and that the earliest flight they could book me on was the one leaving at 9:30 . . . the next night!!

There was no way in hell I was spending 26 hours at the Detroit airport. Not after a 12-hour flight from Japan. Not after spending eight hours at the Detroit airport. Not after not sleeping for 24 hours. Screw that and screw them.

I got the last seat on the last bus leaving Detroit for Snowmageddon. Due to the severe weather conditions, it took almost seven hours of painfully slow driving to get to Toronto. But I finally arrived. At 3:15 a.m. on Saturday. More than 35 hours after leaving my apartment in Kyoto.

I arrived in Snowmageddon but my luggage did not. It is being held hostage at the Detroit airport. It may arrive. It may not arrive. If it doesn't get here before Christmas, there will be no Hello Kitty-themed presents under the tree.

In the meantime, there is snow to shovel, gingerbread men to eat and parties to attend (in the same clothes I've been wearing for the past three days). Blogging will be light to non-existent over the next two weeks. So until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Me on the BBC

For those of you (okay, all of you) who don't live in South America, you can listen to my interview on BBC Radio Ecuador thanks to the magic of the internet.

The following clip features me on the BBC talking about my pilgrimage to Obama, Japan. I think I did okay. Except for the part where I said "buenos dias" when I should have said "buenas tardes." (Oh, yeah. I'm sooooo international.)

The interview runs about eight minutes. The questions are translated into English and my answers are translated into Spanish. There is a lot of translating going on. So I really only get about four minutes of airtime.

Enjoy! Or don't enjoy! It's up to you.

Monday, December 15, 2008

School daze

The following post is dedicated to my sister Jane, who sent a mass email to the entire family congratulating our two younger sisters on getting through the fall semester at their respective universities. My name was conspicuously left off the list of studying Marchildons.

"How could you forget I'm in school?" I wrote. "What the heck do you think I'm doing out here?"

"I don't know what you're doing," she replied. "You just write on your blog about your adventures, so I forget you're doing work."

She has a point. So instead of writing about my adventures, I'm switching gears and writing about what it's like to be a Canadian student at a Japanese university. Jane, this one's for you!

In addition to studying Japanese five days a week, I am taking a variety of other classes, including one called "Japan in Charts and Tables." This does not accurately reflect the content of the class so I have privately renamed it, "How Japan is Going to Hell."

Every Tuesday afternoon, from 4:30 to 6:00, we learn about the various ways Japan is going to hell. The formula is always the same. Each class is devoted to one serious economic issue facing Japan. The professor takes us through a series of mind-numbing charts and tables (all of the data is in Japanese) to illustrate the severity of the problem and underline its causes.

In addition to bombarding us with charts and tables, the professor also hands out long lists of obscure Japanese vocabulary. Pages and pages of words I will never use and promptly forget.

Seriously, what's the point of learning the Japanese words for "crude steel," "appreciation growth," "detailed aggregative analysis" or "foreign currency exchange reserves?" I don't even talk about that stuff in English.

After the lecture, we break up into small discussion groups to solve the problem . . . in 10 minutes or less. (Here's a sample discussion question: "What should be done to balance the burden of medical expenses in Japan's aging society? Discuss especially from hospital management perspectives.")

Hospital management perspectives? The only perspective on hospital management I have is from watching Grey's Anatomy.

None of us are even remotely qualified to solve Japan's complex social issues. We're students, not government policy advisors. It is a credit to the professor -- who is keen and earnest and absolutely wonderful -- that he actually thinks we would have something worthwhile and intelligent to say.

Trying to get my discussion group to agree on anything is like herding cats. Because we all come from different countries, we all come at Japan's problems from different perspectives.

When discussing poverty, Seema from India refused to acknowledge poverty was a real problem in Japan.

When discussing unemployment and the slowdown of Japan's economy, Onika from Jamaica suggested that maybe Japanese people shouldn't work so hard.

Ricardo from Mexico can't speak English so he usually sits there not saying anything at all.

I tend to fall into the role of the peacemaking Canadian, who just wants everyone to get along. Our solutions to Japan's problems tend to be the same every week -- more government regulation is the basic theme.

We then present our solutions to the class while the professor furiously writes down all of our ideas. We suspect he is feeding our solutions to the Japanese government. We also suspect this whole "scholarship" thing is just a cover for the Japanese government to get some cheap international consulting. We're getting paid to solve Japan's problems. (I'm totally putting that on my resume.)

How Japan is Going to Hell is one of my favourite classes. The professor is incredibly intelligent. He is Japanese, speaks fluent English, has a PhD in economics and spends his spare time installing environmentally sustainable technologies in developing countries.

Plus, it's refreshing to hear about Japan's problems, especially from a Japanese person. Everyone else wants to talk about how wonderful and special this country is. How Japan has the best food, the most polite people, the most beautiful cherry blossoms, the most cutting-edge electronics, the most efficient trains, the cleanest cities. A lot of people believe Japan is perfect. Well, it's not. It's good and bad. Just like every other place on earth.

There you go, Jane. A little bit about what I'm really doing out here in Japan. So the next time you give a shout out to the students in the family, I hope you remember to include me.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sex + Chicken = Christmas in Japan

The other day, the topic of conversation in my Japanese class turned to Christmas. Our teacher wanted to know how we celebrated Christmas in our home countries.

We talked about Santa and presents and lights and carols and food and eggnog and tinsel and TV movies and all of the things we think about when we think about Christmas.

"Do you know how we celebrate Christmas in Japan?" the Japanese teacher asked us. "We eat chicken and have sex."

She matter-of-factly explained that Dec. 24 is called "Holy Night" because that's the night young people rent hotel rooms (on their parents' dime) and have sex. She told us her own son is desperately trying to find someone to spend a very unholy night with. He has been going to singles' parties three times a week in order to find a girl he can unwrap on Christmas Eve.

However, the "Sexy Christmas" concept is only for young, single people. Everyone else simply celebrates Christmas by eating chicken. Which probably has less to do with the availability of turkey and more to do with the size of ovens in most Japanese homes.

Basically, we learned that Christmas in Japan has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with sex and chicken. It is refreshing to see a non-Christian country celebrating a Christian holiday in a most unchristian way.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Protecting The Great Bear Rainforest

One of my favourite bloggers, Darren Barefoot, is working with a coalition of conservation groups to help save British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest.

When Darren emailed me to ask if I would consider promoting their efforts on my blog, I said yes right away. Protecting one of the world's last great wilderness areas is a cause close to my heart.

I have spent a lot of time hiking, camping, kayaking and canoeing in British Columbia's beautiful backcountry. The value of these wild places is not something you can put a price tag on. You can bulldoze a forest for short-term economic gain, but once it's gone, it's gone. The loss is incalculable.

The campaign to protect the Great Bear Rainforest is called Keep the Promise. It focuses on a B.C. government agreement to protect almost 2 million hectares of land on the B.C. coast by March 2009. Darren does a good job of explaining it so I've simply cut and pasted his email below.

Here are the details:

The Great Bear Rainforest is the largest tract of intact coastal temperate rainforest left on Earth. It comprises over 77,000 square kms--about the size of Austria. It's home to three kinds of bears (grizzly, black and kermode), six million migratory birds, 3000 genetically distinct salmon stocks and many species of plants unique to the region.

Two years ago, the province of British Columbia committed to protecting this region under a new conservancy. All the stakeholders--the provincial government, logging companies, First Nations and environmentalists--agreed to a new approach to resource planning, and committed to its implementation by March 31, 2009.

While some progress has been made, BC must still initiate a regional plan to ensure conservation of these critical ecosystems. With the March 2009 deadline fast approaching, we're running a campaign to help secure the fate of The Great Bear Rainforest.

Individuals can send a message to the government of British Columbia, urging them to keep their promise to concerned citizens in BC and around the world by signing an online petition.

We've also made a two-minute video that you might want to check out. And we just launched a photo contest on Flickr.

Cheers. DB.

The campaign needs all the support it can get, so please join in! Do it for the bears (the real ones, not the gummy ones).

Friday, December 05, 2008

Autumn in Kyoto: Part II

Three weeks ago.

Three hours ago.

It is strange to be on the cusp of fall with Christmas just around the corner. The timing is all wrong. Snow, not leaves, should be falling from the sky.

It is beautiful, though. Tourists from every corner of Japan have come to Kyoto just to see the changing leaves. They really are that spectacular (the leaves, not the tourists).

Leaf viewing can be a bit of a gong show. You have to share the experience (and the trains and the shops and the restaurants) with hundreds of thousands of Japanese tourists madly snapping pictures of absolutely everything. It takes away from the natural beauty and the quiet serenity of the parks and gardens. But, at the same time, it's nice to share an appreciation for the simple beauty of a fiery red maple leaf with other people.

I wonder how my pictures would turn out if I bought a fancy digital SLR camera instead of using this cheap, little point-and-shoot camera. Japan would be a good place to invest in a real camera and learn how to take pictures properly. I certainly wouldn't be out of place walking around with a huge camera strapped around my neck in these parts.

Speaking of people walking around with huge cameras strapped around their necks, my friend Kathleen and I were approached by an old timer who wanted to know where we were from (I've said it before and I'll say it again, the old guys love me out here. I swear, if you are single and in your 70s, Japan is the place to be). He seemed really happy and excited to talk to us. He even gave us copies of photos he had taken (which we are holding in the picture below). I think he may have been drunk.

It was fun taking in the fall colours with Kathleen. And not just because it meant I got to spend the weekend with a girl I met on the internet (I love how dubious that sounds). Kathleen and I have been reading each others' blogs for years so when we finally met in person, it felt like we already knew each other. Or, as Kathleen put it, it felt like we were catching up rather than getting to know each other.

We also tested out Japan's famous "anti-hangover drink." I don't know what is in this drink exactly, but everyone swears up and down that if you drink it before you drink alcohol, you will not get a hangover.

We downed one little bottle each on Saturday night. I am happy to report that we woke up bright and early on Sunday morning hangover-free. However, I suspect this has less to do with the magical potion and more to do with the fact that we didn't drink very much alcohol.

That little anecdote really has nothing to do with fall. I just wanted to post the picture of us posing in the drugstore. I like the story behind the photo. We bought the anti-hangover drinks and decided to ask the pharmacist to take our picture. It seemed like a ridiculous thing to ask of a pharmacist. But she played it straight. She didn't bat an eye. She didn't crack a smile. She simply took our photo like she was filling a prescription. I wonder what she was really thinking.

Returning to the original spirit of this post, I leave you with one last picture of fall before all of the leaves turn to mush.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Layer upon layer of absurdity

Life is absurd. But my life seems extra absurd these days.

Last week, a BBC radio producer in Ecuador emailed me out of the blue. She said she had read my blog post about my recent pilgrimage to Obama, Japan, and wanted to interview me about my visit.

I wrote back and said I would be happy to talk about it. We arranged a mutually convenient time for a simple interview. Or for what I thought was going to be a simple interview.

When the producer called at the designated time, she asked me to hold the line for a few minutes before she patched me through to a live talk show. A live talk show? Now? I started to panic.

She explained that I was going to be on a South American-wide evening talk show and that the hosts would ask me questions in Spanish. She reassured me that the questions would be translated into English, and my answers would be translated into Spanish. So there was nothing to worry about.

And just like that, with no advance warning, I was thrown into the middle of a live BBC talk show. In Ecuador. From Kyoto. On Obama. In Spanish. Absurd doesn't even begin to describe the experience.

The hosts (a very lively duo, whose names I forget) asked me lots of questions about Obama. What was it like? What kind of town is it? What do the people of Obama the town think about Obama the man?

My favourite part of the show was when they asked me if I had heard the song "Obama is Beautiful World," which was recorded and produced by the "Obama for Obama Support Group." I told them that not only had I heard the song, but that I was lucky enough to have had a private listening of the CD with none other than the president of the Obama Support Group himself.

They asked me to recite a few of the lyrics, if I could. I told them this was tricky. The song is written in Engrish so the lyrics don't make a lot of sense. It's better to listen to the meaning behind the words. So I talked about how the song meant that the world would be a better place with Barack Obama in power. Or something like that.

It was at this point in the interview when the absurdity of the situation hit me. Here I was, sitting in my apartment in Kyoto pontificating about a Japanese town that accidentally shares its name with the next president of America on a live BBC radio show out of Ecuador when I should have been in class studying Japanese, which is something I am actually getting paid to do.

My life at that moment seemed buried under layer upon layer of absurdity. But that's exactly the way I like it.

The more absurd things get, the happier I am.

Friday, November 28, 2008

This ain't Tokyo

To be honest, I wasn't entirely convinced going back to the town where I used to live was a good idea. I regretted my decision to leave Japan for a long time after I returned to Canada. I was on the brink of despair when I left and it took almost a full year for the feelings of loss and longing to finally fade away.

Saying goodbye the first time around was traumatic enough. I was worried I would go to pieces and never recover if I went back and left a second time. Part of me thought maybe it would be better to never go back at all.

During the past year, not a day went by when I didn't think about the town where I used to live. I missed the people, the scenery, the mountain roads, the rice fields, the food, the river, the schools, the kids. I wanted to go back. I didn't want to go back.

I was torn. But in the end, I decided to go. Even at the risk of reopening old wounds. It seemed worth it.

When my train pulled into the station on Friday afternoon, many of the same people who had seen me off more than a year ago were there waiting for my return. They were smiling and waving, welcoming me back with open arms. It felt as if I had never left at all. The time and distance between us evaporated.

A few of my former students also came to the train station to see me. Even the brooding kid who was suspended for biting a teacher last year was there. I was touched, in a weird kind of way.

I ran into many of my former students during the course of the weekend (yes, the town really is that small). All of them seemed surprised to see me. But they all remembered me. I was worried they would have forgotten me but they didn't. It may seem like a small thing but it made me deliriously happy.

The whole weekend was kind of like that. Nothing extraordinary happened. I simply spent five days with people I missed for the better part of a year. We went for walks together, ate dinner together and just sat around doing nothing together. But I couldn't have been any happier.

And while I did experience a little bit of sadness and longing while driving through the streets that used to be mine, I also felt a sense of relief. I was waiting for a flood of emotion to drown me in sorrow and regret but it never came. Nothing had changed. Nothing had gone away. Everyone was just as happy to see me as I was to see them.

The volleyball team I used to play on even held a party in my honour.

I stayed with the PE teacher and her family on Friday and Saturday nights. I stayed with my former supervisor on Sunday night. And I stayed with my friend Sachi on Monday night.

The PE teacher, her friend and I went on a little road trip on Saturday. We drove to the top of a nearby mountain and went for a long walk. We were so high up that there was snow. Not much but enough to make a mini-snowman.

My supervisor roped me into doing a 10 km race with her on Sunday morning. My time was slow (54:17) but good enough for second place in my age group. My age group, by the way, was "12 to 39." In what world is that a fair age group? I would have placed first if the age groups were a little less broad. Instead, I suffered the indignity of being beaten by a 13-year-old girl.

Because prizes were given out to the top three finishers in each age category, my second place finish meant that I had to go up on stage during the awards ceremony. I was presented with a medal, a case of juice and an official certificate.

It was all very formal. You have to bow when the guy hands you the certificate. He bows and you bow. You bow when you get up on the stage and you bow again when you get off. There was a lot of bowing. I showed the 13-year-old punk who beat me how it's done.

The next morning, we woke up to pounding rain but my supervisor simply looked out the window and said, "Let's go hiking!"

She threw her 9-year-old daughter and the family dog into the back of the truck and off we went.

I spent Monday night with my friend Sachi and her family.

Sachi's niece is only two years old but she can already pose like a pro.

When I went to the train station on Tuesday to head back to Kyoto, I felt some of the same emotions I felt the first time I left, but on a much smaller scale.

The first time I said goodbye, I was on the brink of despair. I knew that as soon the train left the station, my life here would be gone. I could visit but it would never be the same. I would never be able to return to the life I once had here. I was inconsolable.

Leaving this time was different. I was a little sad. But I knew that Sakawa was never mine. Even if I had stayed an extra year or two, I would have had to leave eventually. My time here was never permanent. I have come to terms with that now.

Saying goodbye this time was easier. I know that I'll always be welcome in Sakawa and that I can return any time I like. It will never be just a vacation. It will always be a trip home.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A return to the place I used to live

Kyoto University is hosting a massive, multi-day festival starting tomorrow and, as a result, classes are cancelled until next Wednesday. So I have decided to spend my five-day weekend in the place I left more than one year ago.

I'm going back to Sakawa, back to the town where I used to live. It feels like I'm on my way home.

Word has gotten around that my train arrives at 4:10 p.m. on Friday afternoon and I've received a flurry of emails from friends who want to meet me at the station. When I left Sakawa to return to Canada, the whole town turned out at the train station to see me off. Now that I'm on my way back, the same group of people will be at the train station awaiting my return. It will probably feel like I never left at all.

My Japanese friends have taken it upon themselves to plan my entire weekend for me. My former volleyball team is hosting a party in my honour on Friday night. I will stay with the PE teacher and her family on Friday and Saturday night (I don't think she's given up on her dream of marrying me off to her son).

I have been roped into running a 10 km race with my former supervisor on Sunday morning (is it possible to run a 10 km race without actually training for it? I will find out and report back.) She and I will spend the rest of the day together and then I'll sleep over at her house Sunday night. On Monday, I will spend the day with my friend Sachi and stay over at her place that night.

If I have time, I hope to squeeze in a visit to see my tea ceremony teacher, some of my students, the lovely young woman who replaced me and, of course, the vice-principal.

It will be good to go back to the place I used to live. These are the kind of trips I like best.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Only in Japan . . .

Guess what I found on sale at the grocery store last night? Hello Kitty toilet paper!

I bought four rolls. But it's almost too cute to use. I think I'll save it for when I have guests over. They will be rationed two squares per day.

Is it just me or is there something slightly subversive about slapping the Hello Kitty logo on toilet paper? The company that owns Hello Kitty has very strict rules about what kind of things it will and won't endorse. It's not okay to use Hello Kitty's image on cigarettes, hard alcohol, guns and "sharp objects." But it's okay to use Hello Kitty's image on a product you wipe your ass with?

Speaking of awesome finds at the grocery store, I also discovered single-serving size boxes of sake for sale. Just like a juice box, the sake box comes with a little straw glued to the side and a hole on top. Perfect for school lunches!

They only cost 100 yen ($1 Canadian) each. Boxed sake is cheaper than bottled water. The mind boggles.

If drinking cheap sake out of a box isn't classy enough for you, you can always pour it into a porcelain sake container and pop it in the microwave for a more sophisticated drinking experience.

Do not scorn the microwave. Japanese microwaves can do magical, mysterious things like bake cakes and toast bread. In Canada, microwaves have automatic settings for popcorn. In Japan, microwaves have automatic settings for sake. (Take a close look at the second button on the microwave panel below. That is the sake button. Cheap, cold sake goes in the microwave. Delicious, hot sake comes out. All at the press of a button. It is a magic machine.)

The more sake you drink, the more you have to go to the bathroom. The more you have to go to the bathroom, the more Hello Kitty toilet paper you use. Forget the Lion King. This, my friends, is the real circle of life.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Autumn in Kyoto

Fall has almost, almost, arrived in Kyoto. It's still warm and muggy during the day but when the sun goes down, the temperature drops too. The nights have been cool enough for long enough that the leaves have finally started to change colour.

Fall and spring are arguably the most beautiful seasons in Japan. It's impossible to chose one over the other. Red maple leaves or pink cherry blossoms? The crispness of autumn or the warmth of spring?

Personally, I prefer winter. Cold, quiet and stark. It's also the only time of year when there are no cockroaches in Japan. They should put that in their tourist brochures.

Despite the disturbingly large number of cockroaches seeking warmth inside my apartment these days, fall is truly a lovely season. The yellow, orange and red leaves are dazzling.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Misadventures in video store membership

I scored 100 percent on my Japanese midterm exam last week. I say this not to brag, but to illustrate how completely useless written tests are as a measure of competency in a foreign language.

I may have gotten a perfect score on my midterm exam but I failed spectacularly when I put my Japanese to the test at the video store the other day. (Although, technically, it's not a "video store." It's a "culture convenience club.")

All I wanted to do was get a membership card and rent some movies. Sounds simple enough, right? Simple for a native speaker, yes. Simple for a foreigner trying to muddle her way through the language, not so much.

I walked up to the counter and explained (in Japanese) that I wanted to get a membership card.

So far so good.

The kid behind the counter understood exactly what I said and pulled out a laminated brochure and placed it on the counter between us. The brochure contained two photographs of two seemingly identical membership cards with two very long and very detailed explanations written underneath (all in Japanese, of course).

In rapid-fire Japanese, the kid explained the vast and varied differences between these two identical looking cards. After his long-winded speech, he asked me to choose a card. The only problem was I didn't understand a word he had said. I looked at him with a blank expression on my face.

My reaction caused him to be completely embarrassed and flustered. Instead of responding to me, he simply bowed his head and refused to make eye contact with me. There was at least a minute of complete silence between the two of us. Unable to stand the awkwardness any longer, I told him in Japanese that I didn't understand what he had said and asked if he could repeat himself.

So he did. Afterwards, he gestured to the brochure and asked me once again to pick a card. I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders, and told him I still didn't understand. I apologized profusely.

He grew quiet again. He bowed his head, keeping his eyes glued to the floor.

I studied the brochure to see if I could find any clues as to what he might have said. But the only thing I could understand was that one card was free and the other card cost 200 yen. A minute of silence ticked by. Two minutes of silence ticked by.

It was more awkward and uncomfortable than two stiff-armed teenagers attempting to slow dance. I asked him to repeat himself a third time. And a fourth time.

The fifth time around, two words in his speech finally jumped out at me: "credit" and "rental." A light bulb went on above my head. Maybe one of the cards was a credit card and one was for video rentals! I tested my theory on the kid behind the counter and he crumpled with relief.

"Hai!" he said.

I told him I didn't want a credit card. I just wanted to rent movies. He handed me an application form and told me to go over to a nearby table to fill it out.

Assuming the worst was over, I walked over to the table, grabbed a pen and was about to fill out the form. Until I actually looked at it.

Here we go again, I thought. I was tempted to run back to the counter and tell him I couldn't actually read the application form but I wanted to give the poor kid a break. So I decided to pretend I knew what I was doing.

I assumed they wanted me to put my name and address somewhere on the form. But I wasn't sure where they wanted me to write those things exactly. I put my name in the top box and my address underneath. It seemed like a good guess. I wrote the date in the right hand corner. And then I gave up.

There was a line-up at the counter and I joined the queue. As I got closer to the front, I could tell the kid was hoping not to have to deal with me again. He seemed to take an extra long time with each customer, stealing a furtive glance at me every now and then.

By the time it was my turn, another barely-out-of-high-school kid had the unfortunate pleasure of serving me. I handed him my (incomplete) application form and told him I couldn't read the Chinese characters.

He asked me something in rapid-fire Japanese. I didn't want to have to go through the awkward language dance all over again so I decided I would just fake it this time around. I assumed he was asking to see some sort of ID so I handed him my alien registration card. It was a guess but it was the right guess.

And then he asked when my birthday was. Except he didn't want to know what year I was born in. He wanted to know what era I was born in. Umm . . . era? Yes, era.

[Note: In Japan, they count years based on an emperor's reign. For example, the current year is not 2008. The current year is Heisei 20. That's because the current emperor has been in power for 20 years. I was born in the 49th year of the Showa era. I know that now thanks to the magic of the internets. Unfortunately, I did not know it at the video store when I actually needed to know it.]

I told him I had no idea what era I was born in. At this point, I noticed the large beads of sweat trickling down the kid's face. And the way his hands were trembling.

I apologized some more and prayed for this epic ordeal to end quickly. I wrote down the year I was born and asked him if it was okay just like that. He nodded his consent and, finally, handed me a membership card.

But it wasn't over yet! He had to explain the pricing system. The late fees. The cost of a new release compared to an old movie. I nodded my head and pretended to understand. I wanted this to be over more for his sake then for mine.

In the end, I walked out of there with a membership card, a DVD and a headache. I suppose I technically succeeded. We communicated only in Japanese. No English was spoken. Not by me. Not by the employees. But they were able to understand what I wanted and I was able to understand what they needed from me in order to get what I wanted.

If it had been a test, I would have gotten 50 per cent. A passing grade, but just barely.

It kind of puts the 100 percent I got on my midterm exam into perspective.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Cute overload

In Japan, cute is the lubricant that keeps the economic engine running. Cute is used to sell absolutely everything here.

Hello Kitty's image is stamped on everything from airplanes to electronics to toilet paper. You can buy Hello Kitty stationary, Hello Kitty candies, Hello Kitty clothing, Hello Kitty school supplies, Hello Kitty alarm clocks, Hello Kitty guitar picks, Hello Kitty golf caddies, and even Hello Kitty sex toys.

The only things banned from carrying Hello Kitty's image are hard alcohol, cigarettes, guns and "sharp objects."

In Japan, people of all ages and genders are obsessed with cuteness. You can see it in all aspects of Japanese life. From the businessman who has a Snoopy charm dangling from his cell phone to the cartoon characters painted on the sides of trains to the hordes of adults who bury their noses in comic books while riding the subway.

None of this is at all weird.

I spent Saturday afternoon in a shopping mall in Kyoto where I nearly overdosed on cute. It was like walking through a cartoon world. All that was missing were sparkling rainbows, dancing unicorns and baskets of fluffy kittens.

The vast majority of stores were shrines to cuteness. It was impossible to find non-cute things. Even the socks were cute. (These socks, by the way, are for adults.)

And in case those socks aren't cute enough for you, you can buy socks with happy doughnuts and bumble bees sewn onto them.

There are no plain bobby pins for sale here. If you want to tie your hair back, you have to do it with pink bows or farm animals.

The clothing stores are filled with sweaters adorned with ruffles, bows and lace. In Japan, cute is sexy. Flip through any women's magazine and you'll see what I mean. The models are doe-eyed, sweetly smiling girls. They are pretty and nonthreatening.

I don't know what it is that makes Japanese people gravitate so fiercely toward cuteness. I mean, I like cute things simply because they make me happy. Maybe it's not more profound than that.

Or maybe this love affair with cute is way to escape from the serious social problems plaguing modern Japan -- economic recession, increased unemployment, homelessness and crime, as well as the rapidly aging population and the sharply declining birthrate.

Of course, not everyone worships at the alter of cute. Cute culture has been sharply criticized for being juvenile and infantilizing. Others worry that cute culture will displace traditional Japanese culture. Garish, saccharine cartoon characters are the antithesis of the restraint, minimalism and discipline featured in traditional arts such as tea ceremony and karate.

Is cute culture harmless fun or the sinister harbinger of doom for traditional culture?

I'm not sure. I like Japanese tea ceremony but I am also powerless to resist the cute. Perhaps I will contemplate this question while washing dishes with my cute new soap dispenser.

Or maybe I'll write some of my thoughts down in my cute new memo pad.

If those ideas are no good, I can throw them out in my cute new garbage can.

Perhaps I'll save the deep thinking for the bath.

After a long hot bath, I can change into my Snoopy pajamas and wrap myself in my cute new fleece blanket.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Welcome to Obama, Japan

If Barack Obama wins the U.S. election tomorrow night, there will be few people more excited than the people who live in Obama, Japan.

They have embraced Obama with the kind of gusto, entrepreneurial spirit and quirkiness you can only find in Japan.

I spent the past weekend in Obama, and awesome doesn't even begin to describe how awesome it was.

Obama, a fishing village on the Sea of Japan, has transformed itself into a hotbed of Barack Obama activism. Although, I suspect the people of Obama are rooting for Obama not because they like his politics, but because they like his name.

The charming portrait of Obama featured in the flags and posters that line the town's main street looks like it was sketched in about five minutes.

Do Obama's ears really stick out that much? What's going on with his left ear? And why does he have stubble for hair?

A local plumber was commissioned to create the statue of Obama that stands outside the town's department store. At least I think it's a statue of Obama. It's either that or a bust of a very tanned Japanese guy out for a night of karaoke.

Whatever it is, it is clearly a very special statue, as evidenced by the fact that someone went to the trouble of roping it off. Don't touch! It's art!

The entire town has gone Obama crazy. Souvenir shops are selling Obama t-shirts, Obama headbands, Obama chopsticks and Obama bean cakes.

My friend Aiko and I even met a local celebrity. Seiji Fujihara, secretary-general of the Obama for Obama Support Group, introduced himself to us after he saw us taking pictures of an Obama poster. He said he hopes to go to Washington for the presidential inauguration if Obama wins.

Mr. Fujihara also told us that the members of the support group recorded a theme song called "Obama is Beautiful World." You can find copies of the CD for sale in the lobby of the Hotel Sekumiya.

Mr. Fujihara played the CD for us. Let me share some of the lyrics with you: "The sea spreading far out and the bright sunshine reflect the future of your country, America. / Laaa. La-la-la-la. O-ba-ma! / Obama is beautiful world! / Obama is Number 1!"

I was so inspired that I filled out an application to join the Obama for Obama Support Group. I hope they accept me. I've got Obama fever and I need a support group to help me recover.

When we weren't meeting local celebrities, we were treated like celebrities. Two elderly men spotting us walking down the street and begged us to join them for tea. So we did.

For some reason, Japanese men over the age of 70 find me irresistible. They love me. Especially the drunk ones. Why can't I have the same effect on men my own age?

Over cups of hot green tea, we learned that they ran Obama's volunteer tourism office. They told us they hoped Obama would visit Obama if he won. And then they asked if they could pose for pictures with us. I felt like a rock star. With octogenarian groupies.

Despite its famous name, Obama isn't a tourist hotspot yet. Everyone seemed genuinely thrilled to have us there. I don't think I've been on the receiving end of so many deep bows in my entire life.

Locally, Obama is well known for its lacquer chopsticks and fishing industry. But there aren't many tourist attractions. So it is impressive to see this little town reinvent itself into a place that is attracting worldwide media attention.

Another highlight of the trip was meeting Taako, who runs the Guesthouse Nima just outside of town.

Taako left a career in teaching to set up a hostel after a life-changing trip to India. She is the hostel's only employee. She is cook, cleaner, manager, owner and host extraordinaire. And she does it all with a warm smile. If you are ever in Obama, I highly recommend staying at the Guesthouse Nima.

If that's not enough to tempt you, perhaps the beach behind the guesthouse will provide more incentive to make the pilgrimage to Obama.

The flipside of its remote location is that the hostel is somewhat difficult to find. Aiko and I almost never arrived at all. It was our own fault. Neither of us bothered to print a map. The directions on the website simply said to walk with the ocean on your left side for about 10 minutes.

It seemed clear enough. Except it turned out that there were many different streets where the ocean would be on your left side. After walking around in circles for about 25 minutes, we decided to wave the proverbial white flag and ask for help.

The only problem was that there was absolutely nothing around. No convenience stores, no restaurants, no gas stations. Nothing. We were literally in the middle of nowhere.

Eventually, we spotted a guy walking down one of the side streets. We ran over to him and asked him if he knew where the hostel was. Fortunately, he was also heading to the hostel. Unfortunately, he was also lost.

He also spoke no English. However, in times of emergency, I can magically speak and understand fluent Japanese. I told him that I had written down the hostel's phone number and asked him if he had a cell phone so that we could call the hostel to ask for directions. Luckily, he had a cell phone (I'm not sure why he didn't think of calling to ask for directions himself). Had we not run into him, we probably wouldn't have found the hostel at all.

It turned our Japanese saviour was a fellow Obama fan. He traveled from Osaka to Obama for no other reason than to buy a t-shirt. Back at the hostel, we all decided to put our t-shirts on and pose for pictures. You can see our little photo shoot on Taako's blog (hi, mom. I'm famous in Japan!).

I hope Obama wins the election tomorrow night. President Obama will be good for America, good for the world and, most importantly, good for Obama, Japan.

(The rest of the photos are here.)