Friday, October 29, 2004

On the Persecution of Beards

If Miyazaki Hayao can be rich and famous and wear a beard in Japan, why can’t I be poor and obscure and wear a beard in Japan without feeling like an uncouth barbarian? When the first graders in one of my elementary schools wrote essays about their first encounter with me in the classroom they all, without exception, commented on my beard. “Luke-sensei had a beard, and I was very surprised.” “Luke-sensei has a beard. My grandfather has a beard. Luke-sensei reminded me of my grandfather.” My supervisor’s comments on my beard have evolved over time from: “When did you start growing this?” to “What did your fiancée say about it?” to finally, last week: “Hmmm. Luke, you’d be a handsome man if only you’d shave off your whiskers.” The second year students in the junior high school are continually begging me to shave. What is “beard,” that we should take such notice of it? Allow me to present in full Pears Cyclopedia’s “The History of Beards."

A beard is one of the distinctive signs of manhood, and was regarded as a sacred possession by ancient races.
The Jews were proud of their beards and wore them through the days of their Egyptian bondage, though the Egyptians shaved.
The Greeks and Romans of the ancient days mostly shaved, and the term barbarous (beard-wearing) was applied for a long period to people who were considered out of the pale of polite society. Still, beards were largely worn even then, and came to be associated with wisdom.
Alexander the Great prohibited beards among the soldiery, and soldiers in all countries have since been generally beardless.
Beards have been taxed occasionally, as in Russia by Peter the Great, and at an earlier date in England.
In modern times beards have been worn or unworn as a monarch or male leader has, for no particular reason, set the example.
Shaving of the beard continues to be practised in all ranks of life in this country [England], though the moustache, once despised by the English, has now been in vogue for many years.
Bearded women occur occasionally, and have sometimes been exhibited.

But beards are not a footnote of Eurocentric history. Let this represent

J-beard ancient, and this

. . . J-beard (more-or-less) modern. Rulers of the land, all of them.

Even the emperor Meiji had a beard. So why am I unclean for having a beard, such as it is?

This is a special poster from my participation last Christmas in a Canadian Army experiment on winter warfare facial hair (I lie)

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The House of Elliot and the Ajigaswa Churchstead

This past weekend I visited my folks back in Aji, and it was good to reconnect once more with my old stomping grounds. Back in the day, when Japanese school teachers still beat their students and I still lived with my parents, my family rented a house down the hill from Ajigasawa High School. On Sundays, my parents would fold their futon and put it in the closet (they actually did that part every day), remove the sliding doors separating it from the spare room, and bring the pulpit out of storage. Then the church would meet right there in their bedroom. The year after I left home the church family built (literally, by hand) this chapel and the semi-detached manse. This is where the annual Ajigasawa/ Tsugaru/ Aomori Reformation Day festivities will take place this Sunday (I’ll see you there if you’re coming to party like it's 1517).

In North America I always used to boast that my ability to do crunches hanging by my toes from a tree was due to the simple peasant fare we used to subsist on. Here are my father and my sister Sarah enjoying an upgraded version consisting of borscht, cabbage salad, and rye muffins seasoned with caraway. Lest you conclude that I grew up in luxury, though, I remember living entire months on cornbread and squash soup.

I also remember that I never knew what it was like to breathe through the nose until I was about sixteen years old. I began sharing my bed with cats in my infancy, and I am allergic to cats. I generally went through half-a-box of tissues a night. Today, there are four resident cats, and they always want to sleep with the visitor(s). Yes, that’s where I slept this past weekend—cats and all. I still feel like there are cats living in my beard.

This is what one might expect to see on the daily Elliot morning walk. I love the walk because it allows some of the cat hairs to escape from my nostrils.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Congratulations, Yuko!

True, the pages of this blog often plumb the depths of banality in reports on kancho and the deodorant market, but on occasion I also like to utilize them for the higher purpose of celebrating those dear to me. And today congratulations are in order for the dearest of them all. Yuko has passed her Japan Society of Certified Clinical Psychologists exam, bringing to a successful close a long, uphill journey. Unlike most of her fellow students, Yuko had to work her way through grad-school as a school counsellor at a high school, and subsequent to her graduation she had to work full-time under stressful conditions at a psychiatric hospital while preparing for her big exam. In the months leading up to the exam her father has been hospitalized for a serious health condition, and more and more stress factors have seemed to just keep piling on to her. So huzzah for a successful conclusion against all odds!

This photo is actually from Yuko’s master’s degree graduation last year, but it is an appropriate visual aid in communicating the festive spirit of this final closure.

Friday, October 22, 2004


Early Years Spent in the Sulphur Mines
Matthew Lindheim, fellow Missionary Kid featured in previous posts, sent me this long forgotten photo of one of our money making rackets. We were desperate in those days, so we jumped at the chance to earn some extra yen by digging out some breathing space for the wooden structure of one of the hillside cabins at the Takayama Beach Company. This photo was taken around midnight. In other news, I signed my re-contracting form today, although technically it’s not due until February. At the same time, my supervisor showed me the blueprint of the new “singles” residence being built for me (and future JETs) by the village. It has a covered parking space and seems to be efficiently designed, but it is two rooms smaller than my current abode and inconveniently located in a crowded neighbourhood down by the river. Moreover, my supervisor has taken to thinking out loud about all the exciting possibilities in setting my new rent. I was initially shocked last month when he began muttering about raising my rent to 15,000 yen from 12,000 yen—“because it’s a new house.” Today he had the blue prints out on his desk again and he started throwing around the figures of 20,000 and 30,000 yen. Granted, in Toronto I earned less than half of what I make now and paid much more than 30,000 yen worth of Canadian dollars per month as my share of a three room apartment shared with two others. Still, I’m a JET now, and any dilution of this paradise can only be perceived by me as a belligerent encroachment on my happiness. I should also note that Yuko, in response to my previous post, reminded me that she herself uses spray deodorant to positive effect.

Harvest Time at the Takahashi’s
True, there is no denying that Yuko smells very good at all times, even when engaged in agrarian labour. But as one can discern from this photo, my fiancée is a woman. I still maintain that there is no deodorant on the Japanese market worthy of a male armpit. Having said that . . .

Yesterday I went as far as Mutsu City forty minutes drive away in search of deodorant without making a purchase. Today I surrendered my manhood and bought The New 8×4 Powder Spray at a local house-front store. It is “Heart Softening Essence of Green”—「心をなごむ緑の香り」(or so the little heart shaped sticker tells me). The man at the store says that the powder content lubricates the armpits and prevents rashes while the fluid ingredients are doing their job of keeping my perspiration and body odour at bay. He also swore a solemn oath to me that it is considered a uni-sex product.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Pan-Japan Deodorant Conspiracy

Japan . . . deodorant . . . . What the heck?!! What’s going on here?! I left Japan for good when I was seventeen years old, so I had forgotten that I used to wear girly, roll on deodorants such as Ban before I went to boarding school in the Philippines and discovered manly deodorants like Brut and Wintergreen. I live by a simple code of personal hygiene: if it’s not stick deodorant, it’s not real deodorant. And it’s official—real deodorant is not to be had in Japan. I would not call myself a procrastinator, but I do procrastinate habitually; that is to say, I put off doing things on a regular basis. So as the one stick of Old Spice I brought to Japan with me dangerously dwindled I just told myself: “it’s going to be okay—if you need it, it will come.”

But it didn’t come. No new deodorant came to me, and this morning I was reduced to desperate measures, and desperate measures drove me to venture forth on a great deodorant hunt.

At the Home Centre I found one type of ladies’ roll on, and three types of ladies’ spray.

I think that’s some more of the girly deodorant spray for ladies at Circle-K.

This is the best selection I found out there: roll-on Ban for men and some girly sprays disguised in man colours.

Same store, ladies’ section. One roll on option and many spray options. I didn’t bother to take photos in the toiletry sections in stores THAT HAD NO DEODORANT—not even of the fake and wimpy variety.

Good old Ban and the Eroica Skin Milk for Men

"Nudy" Dual Cologne and Gatsby's "Shower Fresh"
Taking all these photos made me feel a little self-conscious, especially in the cosmetics department where the superfluous clerks kept looking at me. Did they think I was hentai? That’s not fair. It was the “deodorant-less” reality being photographed that was warped, not me, the photographer. Nevertheless, I asked one of them whether there are any other kinds of deodorant in Japan, and she said that in the summer they have deodorant cream (??!!) but that for the rest of the year there is only roll on and spray. I confirmed this deodorant conspiracy on the internet once I got home. This is the only good news I found out there. Obviously I can’t go to Costco since I don’t live anywhere near Chiba, but Jacob and Autumn Witt did tell me the other day about The Flying Pig which is the web page of a couple of guys who moved next door to Costco and started buying stuff to resell to gaijin over the internet. Problem: the only stick deodorant they list is Mennen Speed. I never bought Speed when I was in North America because I thought it was effeminate, but it looks like I’m just going to have to adjust.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Let’s Culture to the JETs

When I began this blog I committed myself to providing information of the useful kind pertaining to the life of JET Programme participants in Aomori. Just as I covered in painful detail the Tokyo JET Orientation, and in less painful detail (because I was getting lazy) the Aomori JET Orientation, I will now share in extraneous (but abridged) detail some of the happenings at the Aomori JET Culture Day. First, you should know that cross-dressing is an integral part of Japanese educational culture

. . . and special pains were taken to incorporate it. As the nice lady in the middle said: “This yukata is young girl style.” Toby went to the same boarding school in the Philippines as I did, called Faith Academy. Cross dressing happens a lot in the Philippines, so I guess Toby had something to go on. These poor ladies were given the task of teaching Aomori and Japanese history to our largely non-Japanese speaking audience—in one hour. I imagine that to those who don’t understand Japanese the lecture sounded something like this: Blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah . . . high school students use this way. Blahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblah do you understand the way?” “The way” was the system of memorizing historical events using haiku incorporating the heavily stylized pronunciations of the dates. Here are the actual points of Aomori history covered in the syllabus:
1. 1875—Apples came to Aomori.
2. 1902—A big accident was happened in the snowy Hakkoda.
3. 1988—The Sei-Kan tunnel was completed.
4. 1993—The Shirakami Mountain range was recognized as the World Heritage site.
As Joelle from Oma said, these points would probably form a pretty good foundation for Aomori’s very own creation myth. I may not have learned much Aomori history, but overall I consider the session to have been a bonanza of a learning experience. Other elective sessions I participated in were

. . . sushi making

. . . and Jomon necklace making. Jomon was the period in Japanese history when the Aomori region was actually significant. Our necklaces were imitation bear claws carved from talc. As Elly said, “talc is the wussiest stone ever,” and shaping “claws” out of blocks only required two grades of sandpaper—something I doubt our Jomon predecessors had.

I strongly suspect that the whole talc sculpting ploy was really a cover up for select JETs preparing shipments of pure cocaine.

Behold, my talc bear claw! Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of the Jomon pottery making session. Over all, two thumbs up for Culture Day! It was a great opportunity for a JET reunion, it only cost 2,000 yen, I got 12,000 yen extra pay for it, I got to eat my sushi and keep my talc necklace, the folks organizing it did a really great job, and the Japanese volunteers were extremely generous in every sense.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Fierce Shoes for Most Fierce Humen

This weekend I made my monthly pilgrimage to Yuko’s in Hokkaido where

. . . but I am the most fierce humen! I had spent the past month since my last visit wishing I had bought the pair of hiking boots that Yuko and I had been looking at on the concourse level of Sapporo Station. So this time I did. 当別 (Toubetsu), the town just north of Sapporo where Yuko lives, is unfortunately devoid of mountains, hills, rocky terrain, or any other features worthy of hiking boots, so on Saturday morning we took a walk to the local 神社 (jinja: shinto shrine) to try them out on the trees.

The relationship between an avid hiker and his hiking boots must be one of absolute trust. The boots must be incredibly light, have excellent traction over their entire surface areas, and cling like Shakespearean lovers to their owner’s ankles.

Kanji Gold: The Yellow Brick Road to an Easy San-Kyu in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test

Those who know I lived in Japan for fifteen years of my salad days or who have heard me make small talk in Japanese often fall under the misimpression that I am “fluent” in Japanese. This could not be further from the truth. I am merely functional. This December I will be taking the 日本語能力試験 (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), and just like most of my fellow ALTs, I will be attempting a modest 三級 (Level Three). I have found that working hard and doing well in English language institutions of higher learning has not made me any more diligent in the study of 漢字 (kanji) than I was in elementary school. So naturally I have sought out the most painless way of building up my Japanese vocabulary and kanji base. The free software Kanji Gold, when used correctly, makes studying almost as effortless as watching television reruns. Choose your grade level (probably grade 1), set the delay constants (under “Options”) to a comfortable 5~8 seconds, and then click either “Pop Kanji” or “Vocab” → “PopCompound” depending on your mood, then vege-out. Failed to concentrate today? Don’t worry; you can always do the same thing again tomorrow. No need to focus or anything. Hey, you just finished university. You owe it to yourself to be lazy.

Friday, October 15, 2004

“Wide (waido) no ki”: Mr. Yotaro Muraguchi (村口) and Kazamaura’s Wooden Craft Club

Santa Land may be in Iwasaki Village, but J-Santa’s little workshop is right here in Kazamaura.

At first glance Muraguchi Industries may look like any other lumber mill,

. . . but another quick glance to the left reveals it’s true function as Santa’s secret lair in Japan. It turns out that during the year he shaves and disguises himself as an eighty-four-year-old Japanese man.

As children of the post-modern world I would expect the readers of this page to be aware that Santa’s elves, like everything else in this world, are really social constructs of our patriarchal legacy. They have been constructed from the women folk of Kazamaura fortunate enough to be indentured servants to Santa rather than to the squid racing or 温泉 (onsen) industries.

Santa’s manager, and the genius behind Muraguchi Industries, is Mr. Yotaro Muraguchi, creator of the “Yotaro in the Forest” collection. I consider this man and his outfit to be a Kazamaura village treasure transcending in value our famous Shimofuro (下風呂) onsens, our squid races, and even our abalone radar shield. Apart from Santa, all his employees (elves) are women because “men are generally clumsy and inattentive to detail.”

“Yotaro in the Forest’s” display room is impressive to say the least.

His toys, decorative figures and crafts,

. . . and his furniture are all marketed in expensive specialty stores in Tokyo and other large cities.

Fortunately, the powers that be at Kazamaura Junior High School have been wise enough to tap into all that Mr. Muraguchi has to offer, and so several times annually Mr. Muraguchi graciously hosts all the third year students in one of the many nooks in his mill.

After finding inspiration in the display room . . .

. . . they select whatever wood they need to make whatever they want to make. In deference to Mr. Muraguchi’s love of women, I will for the most part only show photos of girl students in this post . . .

. . . except for this one which I call “Boy with Saw.”

Here I am showing off my left handed wooden spoon (alas, I am right handed) which I made as a warm up for my real project—whatever that’s going to be. The girls are planning to make knives and forks, too, for complete sets. There is something tremendously satisfying about creating wooden artefacts with one’s own hands. I remember that I derived great pleasure while growing up from creating bows and arrows, wooden mounts shaped like rifles for my slingshots, and other semi-lethal weapons. As to Mr. Muraguchi, he is a very sociable craftsman, and when he isn’t surrounding himself with junior high girls (who tend to congregate around him) or working in his mill, he is hosting his Sunday Wooden Craft Club open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays (except on the third weekend of each month). It only costs 1,000 yen per year plus the cost of materials, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in wood working or hanging out evenings with a great local artist over a few beers. Check out his website here (I’ve also permanently added it to my sidebar). And yes, dad, I told him I’d bring you around next time you visit Kazamaura.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Gaijin Goes Forth: The Hakkoda Mountain Range and Photographic Evidence that It is the Backbone of Aomori’s Wickedawesomeness

As one of the more remote and feral JETs in Shimokita I have remained regrettably(?) aloof from the great social events that have circumscribed the weekends of so many of my Aomori colleagues. It was therefore a great privilege to share my tatami with Trish and Abby from Ajigasawa and with Sarah from Goshogawara, and to spend an evening in blessed English conversation. To make their pilgrimage to the wonders of Shimokita complete we decided to confirm the existence of and attempt contact with the mythical Oma JET—the northernmost gaijin in Honshu. Having established that she did in fact exist and that her name was Joelle, we invited her to join us in sampling Oma’s famous seafood . . . .

While thus engaged, Sarah (right) and Joelle (left) found time to put together a few M&M commercials as the beardless youth who was our waiter was too shy to come and take our orders.

Since Monday was a holiday, rather than return directly home after church in Itayanagi I crashed at Jacob and Autumn’s place and then joined Erica and them on an expedition to Hakkoda the following day.

The Hakkoda range has a number of peaks around the 1500m mark, and accommodates excellent snowboarding in the winter and enjoyable hiking the rest of the year.

We began our accent from the Sukayu hot spring complex which projected a Japanese aura on a landscape that otherwise emitted flavours of . . .

northern New England (featuring Jacob, Autumn, and Erica) . . .

the Adirondacks (except for all the bamboo grass) . . .

and even of Manitoba.

Near the summit one can enjoy the ethereal combination of the heavy oriental mists and bamboo grass

and witness the birthplaces of rivers, steeped in the stench of volcanic sulphur.

The resting platforms along the swampy high ground add an interesting touch as well.