Archive for August, 2008

Last week I started the “Summer Intensive Japanese Class,” basically a classroom setting for a two week Japanese class with ten lessons, two hours each day. It’s timed each year to be the two weeks immediately after the new crop of JET Programme ALTs arrive, and conveniently provides them with a crash course in survival Japanese if they haven’t any existing skills, or improves their skills if they’ve already started studying the language. As I already have some Japanese under my belt, I’m in level two of five, and the class is perfectly suited to my level. Like me, everyone can read Hiragana and Katakana, and most of us can read a few Kanji.

One of the neat things about meeting all of these new English speakers is that my social circle suddenly doubled in size (at least). Unfortunately, I work in the evenings, when the JET ALTs are getting together and being social, but Sundays are good for everyone.

Well, I started talking to a JET from Britain, and we decided to hang out today, and it turned out to be the best day I’ve had in a while.

The main activity of the day was making Tobeyaki pottery at this place. Tobeyaki is handmade pottery from Tobe, a small town to the south of Matsuyama. It’s something I’ve been interested in doing for a while, and this was a great opportunity to be social and accomplish one of my goals.

Getting down there was pretty easy. Navigating the bus system is relatively straightforward if you’re armed with a list of stops. Even though our list was a little confusing because it didn’t include all of the small neighborhood stops, I still recognized the kanji for Tobe. The bus driver even helped us figure out the closest stop to our destination (a service I wouldn’t expect in the states).

We had a couple hours to kill before our 1:00 appointment, so we ate a fantastic Indian lunch at a tiny restaurant we wandered into. Just walking in the door, I could smell the authenticity, and the food didn’t disappoint. My mutton curry was even appropriately spicy (something I’ve found surprisingly unusual in Japan).

It was the first time Vicky or I had used a pottery wheel, and we were both glad to have aprons.
We both made a few pieces. My plate and tall cup were a bit awkward, but my soy sauce saucer, bowl, and small cup turned out pretty well. The largest piece you make is free, and the rest (that you choose to keep after seeing how your pieces turn out) are ¥200 per 100 grams of clay.
Vicky’s pieces are on the left, mine on the right.

Total cost of the 45-minute session with instructor, and the purchase of my two extra pieces: ¥2800 (~$28.00), which I think is a pretty good deal. Our instructor was a really cool twenty-something Japanese guy who graduated with an art degree from the University of St Cloud in Minnesota (I requested an English-speaking instructor when Ms. Semba helped me make the reservation).

These kids started as we were finishing. (A for effort!) Their mom was shooting up a storm on her digital camera.

You can see their instructor’s grey toe socks in this shot.

Now, they fire the pieces in a slow kiln for four (?) days. We go back in a few weeks to paint the pieces, then they glaze them and they’re ready for pickup after that (or they’ll mail them to you for a small fee).

The bus ride back to Matsuyama was uneventful. We each grabbed a green tea doughnut (an unusual taste to be sure, but quite good if you like matcha) from Mister Donut, and walked over to Starbucks for a chat.

Like I said, the best day I’ve had in a while. =)

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The first time I was ever complimented on my chopsticks use was while I was living in Reno. I was sitting in Meadowood Mall food court eating my Panda Express chicken teriyaki bowl on some lazy afternoon, and this random Asian couple actually came over to my table to ask me where I learned to use chopsticks. Thinking I was doing something wrong, I replied that I had just figured it out on my own, and how should I be doing it? Through seemingly non-native English, they replied that I was using a specifically Japanese grip. I was confused, but didn’t think much of it.

Over the years, I’ve had a couple of other people mention that I hold my chopsticks in an unusual way, but still thought nothing of it. However, since moving to Japan five months ago, I’ve been complimented on my chopsticks usage by half a dozen random Japanese people (including my Japanese teacher, my school’s manager, and the ramen slinger at a shop near my apartment), most recently this afternoon.

I occasionally eat lunch with my Japanese teacher after our lesson, and today she told me about a traditional Japanese-style restaurant with a lunch counter (which doubles as a sushi bar) a few blocks away. I don’t really have any way of finding little hole in the wall restaurants in the area on my own, so I gladly accepted the invite.

During the meal, she told me the special names for soy sauce and green tea when each is paired with sushi (both of which I promptly forgot), and quizzed me on my ability to describe my surroundings in Japanese. When we were each paying for our lunches, a waitress asked her about my chopsticks, and described my usage as “more Japanese than most of our customers.”

Having finally had enough of the mystery, I wanted to know what was up with how I use my chopsticks. After a brief discussion, I learned that I hold my chopsticks in an “elegant” and “noble” manner. Apparently, when Japanese kids grow up, they tend to grip the chopsticks in whatever manner gets food to their mouths in the most expedient way possible (and don’t bother relearning), but children of high upper class families have a specific way they hold their chopsticks, which I’ve accidentally taught myself.

From the way she was describing it, I’d analogize it with the difference between a Cockney accent and Received Pronunciation.

So I guess I’m one step closer to being Japanese than I thought. If only I could speak the language.

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Lego Jones and the Exploding Chicken of Doom

You’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, right? I haven’t, but there’s apparently a scene at the Nevada Test Site that shows Indiana surviving a nuclear blast by hiding inside a lead-lined refrigerator. Some Japanese people are upset that Spielberg would include what they construe to be gratuitous depiction of atomic weapons and disregard for their aftereffects, as Indiana is right as rain after a quick spray-and-scrub, while many Japanese families are still dealing with the long term effects of radiation exposure, sixty plus years after the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I guess it’s still buzzing around the Japanese blogosphere, a little over a month after the film was released here. From a Japan Today article:

Film critic Ken Terawaki criticized Spielberg for including scenes of a nuclear blast ”just for fun” at a time when the world is struggling to do away with nuclear weapons as ”a common enemy of humanity.”

As I mentioned, I haven’t yet seen the film. However, I think it’s an easy conclusion to reach in saying that Japanese people would collectively be the group of people most sensitive to depiction of nuclear weapons in the world, and however inconsequential the bomb is to the actual story line, I imagine no other group has the same reaction.

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I don’t know the name of the show I’m watching right now, but it’s really neat. It’s kind of a cross between Mythbusters, Crash Lab, and one of those shows that capitalizes on the embarrassment of its hosts.

They started by creating a remote control replica of the Mach V car from Speed Racer (“マッハ GoGoGo!”, “Ma-ha GoGoGo!” here in Japan), and tried to replicate a stunt where he drove upside down inside a tunnel. They added some carbon fiber aero parts to create lots of downforce and created a neat ramp that twisted to align the car with the tunnel wall, but their experiment just ended in a spectacular spread of carbon fiber and miniaturized electronics. The professional who hand crafted the car looked like he was ready to cry when the meter-long car fell from about fifteen feet up in the air. The slow motion playback was great.

The second segment had them trying to replicate an egg cutting scene from a TV show or movie I’ve never seen, where a swordsman cut through a raw egg suspended on a string. What made it remarkable was that the cut was clean and sharp, and the slow motion replay showed the egg actually draining out of the shell after it was cut, rather than the whole thing exploding as you might expect. Anyway, they got some sort of master swordsman (this is Japan, after all) and he not only replicated the stunt, but then proceeded to cut edgewise through a 0.4mm thick sheet of what looked to be galvanized aluminum in one smooth stroke. I guess the sword must be really sharp.

In the third segment, they recreated two of the three little pigs’ houses, each about five feet tall. They made one out of bunches of straw and one out of 1″x6″ wood planks, then blew the houses to smithereens with a swamp boat fan hooked up to what looked like a big V8 engine from a car. The great part was the woman with a microphone standing right in the airflow holding a pocket anemometer in front of the houses. As you can imagine, the straw house blew over pretty easily, but not so the wooden house. This poor woman was standing in hurricane-force winds, shouting readings into her microphone, struggling to stay on her feet, until the house finally blew over and fell apart, in winds somewhere upwards of 100kmph. I’m sorry I don’t remember the exact number, I was laughing too much.

Japan really has some crazy TV shows, with very dedicated hosts.

Oh, like the female host who went in for a colon polyp removal and had the entire thing broadcast on national television (including video from the scope itself showing the hot wire actually removing the polyp), all the while commenting on her experience and talking to the doctors.

You know, I think it’s about time I wrote a full post on Japanese television programming. Maybe I’ll do that over my vacation in the next ten days or so.

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Ms Semba likes going to local onsen pretty frequently, five or six times a week. Sometimes she goes to the onsen I’ve been to near my apartment, Himehiko Onsen. Last week, while coming back into the locker room, she saw one of our students.

A male student.

His mother was finishing getting ready to go out to the pools while he stood there waiting for her. They were both also wearing their birthday suits, but the boy was the only one looking around. Semba-san realized he was one of our young students after she realized he was looking at her oddly. He’s eight or nine years old, and the cross-gender bathing limit is ten years old, so technically they weren’t breaking any rules.

Personally, I think this is a bit tacky. I don’t know of any students at my school whose parents are not married, so I have to assume it was a choice rather than a matter of necessity. At any rate, Ms Semba was understandably mortified. She was still a bit flustered the next day, which was, perhaps unfortunately for her, Parents’ Day. The boy’s mother ended up leaving halfway through the lesson without saying a word to anyone on her way out of the school.

She must have had to make a really important phone call.

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