Saturday, March 26, 2005

Finally, An Online Quiz That Told Me The Truth!

You're Canada!

People make fun of you a lot, but they're stupid because you've
got a much better life than they do.  In fact, they're probably just jealous.
 You believe in crazy things like human rights and health care and not
dying in the streets, and you end up securing these rights for yourself and
others.  If it weren't for your weird affection for ice hockey, you'd be
the perfect person.

the Country Quiz at the href="">Blue Pyramid


In Which I Assure the World That I Did Not Always Just Play Dress Up and Barbie Dolls with My Sisters

There has been some discussion in the comments section this past week as to whether my play habits while in Japanese elementary school were, well, of a sissy nature. In order to prove my childhood masculinity, complete with imperialist aspirations and a penchant for patriarchy, I am presenting here an unedited extract from my 小学生 (shougakusei) Diary.

Sunday, January 31 [1988]

When I went to feed my chickens I wandered if I’d find a dead chicken again. I was glad that they were all right.

I baby sited during church time. Baby siting is harder then I thought. Mommy told me to feed sarah (The baby of our family) Downuts but sarah fed me more downuts then I fed her. Church Is the room mommy and Daddy sleep in. It is big because it’s really 2 rooms divided by removeable doors. Daddy preaches every week.

After church Daddy and I started making my module airplane. We spent more time eating downuts than working on my plane and quite in the middle to make Birthday cards.

After that I added things to my map. I made my country 10 times biger by adding a 0 to the 50 miles diagram. So now 2 inches is 500 miles long. Daddy said that I should add another 0 the way I cramed things in. My map is a game I play with my sisters. We each have a country of our own. In the begining Anna was queen over all the land. But I over threw her the next day. Then I made a lot of laws that are still in my history box. Then Leta and Anna gained up on me. They tied me up with a skiping rope and put me in the qlay house and fed me my own pinuts. When I untied my self I ait the pinut and got out of the play house. Then I wrote The Goldian Bill of rights. Now my country is bigger than anybody elses. Leta didn’t bother to write a bill of rights, all she said was, I’m going to have my own country, and she got it. Now we ran out of things to do so I’m going to make a map of a new contunant and we’re going to have coloneys. We are pretending to be in the 1600s.

The Map of the New “Contunant” for Our “Coloneys”

This Christmas, Sarah Made Painstakingly Perfect Replicas of All “Unknown Kingdoms” Documents for Each of Her Four Older Siblings

Party On, Kazama!

The Face that Says: “I’m Not Very Bright, but I’m Pretty Sure that I Was Just at a Great Party”

In Japan, in the field of education at least, the parties just never end from late March through the beginning of April. I believe that what I just came home from, though, may have been the last of the farewell parties. We have been saying farewell to the same five staff members for well over a week now, and tonight it was the PTA’s turn to assemble itself in a room full of catered food and oceans of alcohol. Attendance was mandatory for junior high staff, but that was just as well since it proved to be my favourite enkai yet. There was no karaoke, the parents were boisterous without being too rowdy, and I was able to meet new people and have civil conversations all evening. I hope that some of these new acquaintances will in time become friends. It also crossed my mind . . . well, no, that’s not true. A pleasantly inebriated single mother with a respectable command of English phrases such as “shut up!” and “that’s great!” thrust it into my mind that an English club for adults would probably be very well received in Kazamaura. This seems like a reasonable assumption, since many parents in this village have shown a far greater interest in chatting with me in English than have their children in the junior high school. It’s hard to say if the board of education would ever buy into the idea, but I think I will try to plant a seed of a notion when I get back from Sapporo next week.

My Cell Phone Camera is not Equipped to Take Night Photos, so I Have Taken to Using Thumper’s Headlights for Lighting

After the PTA party I took the opportunity afforded by last night’s snowfall to finally go cross country skiing on the Ikokuma Forestry Road. Midnight under an almost full moon is a perfect time to ski through the snowy woods. Ever since I left the Yukon five years ago I have longed to recapture the magic of skiing cross country at night through the frozen forests of the deep North, and tonight I came closer than ever to doing so. Pale white, deep shadow, silver lined blue clouds and an unrelenting stillness . . . .

Friday, March 25, 2005

For Relaxation: Go Into the Snowy Mountains at Night and Get Naked

Actually, that advice is only good if there is one of these places waiting for you. When I am particularly bored or socially exhausted (“In Kazamaura?!!” you may ask) I like to go to the Kappa’s Hot Spring in the Yagen onsen district. It is open access (and totally free) all year round, and although the lights go out at some point in the evening one can still enjoy it in the moonlight. I took the above photo on a Sunday afternoon back in February (-6 degrees Celsius), and although I started off with the place to myself it soon got crowded with young families and middle-aged couples. Fortunately the busload of senior citizens that showed up turned around and went right back to the Yagen Onsen Inn when they saw the door-less undressing shed.

The Bridge Overlooking the Kappa’s Hotspring at Night

Last night I had yet another staff party in Mutsu, but I cut out early and made a detour to the Kappa’s Hotspring on the way home in order to enjoy the surprise snowfall we had this week. On particularly cold nights, when my towel freezes solid, I am often tempted to just grab my stuff and make a naked dash for the parking lot on the hill above. Then I think, “What if I get into a fender bender on the way home? What would the police say if one of the benders was driving naked?” So I usually compromise by putting my shoes and pants on before making a run for it. I definitely recommend the shoes. Once I visited Mrs. Murphy barefoot through the crusty snow and my feet were cut up for weeks.

Body Language that Explains “I’m Not Smart, but I Do Have a Lot of Fun"

The Stairs Leading Down from the Parking Lot

The (Un-)Dressing Shed; the Building in the Background Is a Long Since Abandoned Inn


On particularly cold days the steam and mist rising from the surface afford some “cover.” Otherwise the water is crystal clear and only one’s modesty towel can prevent total exposure. Here I am shrouded in mist and blending in with the rocks and the Kappa statue.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Congratulations Class of Heisei 16!

Heisei 16 refers to the sixteenth year of the Heisei (平成) reign, which is equivalent to the Year of Our Lord 2004. In Japan the graduating class is designated by the year in which they began their final year, rather than the year in which they completed it.

Where’s Gaijin? (Click on the Image to Find the Answer to That and Other Questions in the Giant Version)

It has now been over a week since the third year junior high students have graduated, but as today is the official last day of school it seems an appropriate time to point out some interesting facts pertaining to the event. Obviously, fewer than half the people in the photo are graduating students. They can be identified by their school uniforms—the famous “sailor suits,” in the case of the girls. The teachers and staff are the adults hovering on the periphery in kimono or black suits with white ties. Where’s Gaijin? The homeroom teachers of the graduating class are seated front and centre, together with the principal and vice principal (the latter being known in Japan as the kyoutou: “head of teaching”). The principal is wearing a swallow tailed suit similar to the one worn by the Monopoly man. The rest of the adults are parents, and Kazamaura is uniquely blessed in that often the fathers also take an active role in their families' special moments. Most graduations I have observed have for the most part been attended only by mothers.

For young Japanese people, compulsory education ends at the age of fifteen with the completion of junior high school (the North American equivalent of grades 7~9). These kids have reached the end of their free ride—the end of the illusion of equality. Come April, they will go their separate ways to various high schools near and far where they will settle into the academic strata allotted to them in the hierarchy of schools by a combination of their academic achievement and their socio-economic status. That is probably why they cry at graduation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Could This Contain the Source Code?!

Click on the Image for the Super Large Version

Those who have been following the thread of my adventures this week will be aware that I have been reflecting on the mystery of all the cross dressing, phallic animal head tutu wearing, bum poking, body grabbing lechery that sometimes goes on around here at a slightly higher frequency and intensity than in other municipalities—I hope. What is the underlying script guiding the execution of all these sexual innuendo programs? In the course of Saturday’s graduation party in the Ikokuma Community Centre I discovered the relic pictured above—a national award winning block print crafted by the Kazamaura Youth League in 1981. Twenty-four years ago. That would put its creators in the age group of my students’ parents. Could this relic be a cryptogram codifying the communal consciousness of a whole generation of Kazamaurites? I tried scanning the image with my cell-phone’s “Scan Code” function but without arriving at any conclusive results. I suspect, though, that if I did get a reading it would be something to the effect of “That’s just the way people are. Get back to work, and watch out for that kid trying to kancho you.”

Actually, after much soul searching (about thirty seconds of it, to be exact), I feel I have been unfair. Most of the people I worked with in road construction and in the army reserves while living in Canada were far more perverse.* They were just more verbal about it, and placed less emphasis on expressing it through amateur performing arts. I mean, I come from Toronto, the city with an annual Gay Pride Parade in comparison to which Kazamaura’s community events seem like PG Disney movies.
*If you were one of the people I worked with, and you are reading this post, then the statement does not apply to you. It applies to the other guys who aren't reading this post or, more specifically, to the other guys who don't even know about it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Another Graduation Party: The Mystery Deepens

Unlike the junior high graduation party, the Ikokuma Elementary graduation party was held in the afternoon and included the students as well as the parents and staff. This led to a diminished alcohol intake (except in the case of certain privileged village elders) but not to a drop on the bizarre-o-meter.

Here is the sixth grade teacher (that’s a “Mr.”) performing the obligatory Matsu-ken Samba. No party is complete without it in Japan this year. I believe that I have mentioned before that gratuitous cross-dressing is deeply ingrained here. In fact, there are photos buried in the Elliot albums that demonstrate my own early complicity in this national fetish. Perhaps my experience is limited, but during my ten years in North America it seemed to me that when people there cross dressed, they were fairly serious about it. Here, ordinary people do it just for kicks.

This is the graduating sixth grade class giving their parent-requested performance of the Yosakoi-soran, a combination of Shikoku's Yosakoi festival dance and Hokkaido fishermen's Soran music that is quite popular these days in elementary schools throughout Japan.

Who’s the Daddy? (Apart from the Teacher, That Is)

Apparently one drag outfit wasn’t enough for their teacher. He was as busy in the changing room as a bride at a Japanese wedding reception. His second performance was the alarming Japanese version of Toni Basil's "Mickey" which he gave in a costume that would have done nicely in a spoof on Turkish harems. His backup dancers (a.k.a. the students' mothers), of course, stuck with Lolita underwear worn Madonna style. Why I would feel obliged to insert the words "of course" into that last sentence is one of the seemingly impenetrable mysteries of this village I live in.

The party lasted an amazing four and a half hours, and at the end of it the young graduates bestowed gold medals upon the entire school staff, from the principal right down to the school housekeeper-one of the many touching moments in the course of the afternoon. This was a party I am glad I did not miss.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Meeting of East and West: The Takahashi and Elliot Clans Send Their Embassies to Hakodate

After being engaged for over a year, Yuko and I were finally able to arrange to have our parents meet one another. We chose for the occasion the little tea house called Victoria Rose which occupies the first floor of the old British consulate in Hakodate (please note the Union Jack fluttering proudly in the oriental breeze).

After tea . . .

. . . we tried on hats in the gift shop,

. . . posed for some commemorative photos by the entrance,

. . . and then made our way

. . . to a Japanese tea house for dessert. As expected, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the two clans hit it off wonderfully, and both sets of parents were relieved that the traditional Japanese formalities prescribed for such occasions (involving black suits and lots of bowing) were dispensed with by prior arrangement.

Hakodate is host to numerous alley cats as is, so it would seem, customary for historic port cities. If we were a superstitious family, these little beggars lounging around out front would no doubt have driven us batty.

Friday, March 18, 2005

A Dissertation on the Evils of Spring (and a Very Bad Party)

Spring is Here, and It’s Rot

. . . Just a Heap of Refuse

. . . Garbage! That’s All You Are, Spring—Garbage!

Probably the only thing worse than spring is karaoke at a big party. Perhaps I am just being cranky because life seems to have taken a handful of sharp gravel and scrubbed my throat with it, right before lighting a coal fire in my nostrils. I have, in fact, a cold. I blame spring, and I blame 宴会 (enkai: parties; banquets). According to the Aomori Rough Guide for 2004, “The enkai is a wonderful way to lighten your wallet, eat bizarre food, make you wake up feeling like a flock of canaries used your mouth as a bird bath, and provide your colleagues with months of laughter, mainly revolving around the look on your face when you realised you were eating squid guts.” In my own experience, there is very little to laugh about after an enkai. Perhaps this is my own fault. I already know squid guts (not to mention squid testicles) when I see them, and my comedic value as a gaijin jester verges on nil. Having said that, I have for the most part enjoyed the staff parties I have thus far attended. They have all had two things going for them: they have been small, and they have not involved karaoke. Tuesday’s graduation party, on the other hand, was not small and it had a big karaoke machine which was cranked into service even before the opening kampai (toast) had a chance to properly die on our lips. Some people in this world cannot fly in airplanes. Others will under no circumstances pick up a snake. As for me, I cannot will not do not sing. This has been true ever since my first week of grade one when I discovered that I was already behind in music class. It is for this reason that I manifest extreme hostility towards the karaoke culture. I also extend this extreme hostility towards people who try to tell me that karaoke is Japanese culture. There is nothing uniquely Japanese about getting drunk and then singing and dancing in front of everyone. People have been doing that sort of thing all over the world for a very long time now. As far as I can see, the only uniquely Japanese part about karaoke is its hybrid Engrish name (kara meaning “empty” and oke, short for “orchestra”) and the high-tech gadgetry used to facilitate it. Oh, yes, and the assumption that if someone is obviously a foreigner then they should obviously be one of the people required to sing. Perhaps I should take a moment here to explain that there were no graduating students invited to the graduation party. It was strictly an affair for parents, teachers, and village dignitaries. It makes sense. Those spoiled kids have been fed, housed and clothed by their parents and educated by the state all these years; there’s no reason to go and blow an expensive party on them as well. Besides, they aren’t legally eligible to carry out the proper functions of a party anyway—important functions like alcohol consumption and sexual innuendo. So there I was in a big drafty room full of parents, wallowing in the sickening knowledge that at some point that wanker with the mike was going to ask me to sing a Beatles’ song or something. I said “no.” I shook my head vigorously and made a big “X” with my arms. I might have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for a friendly sushi chef who was drunk enough to think that his only chance for happiness that evening lay in doing a duet with me. I whimpered, I whined, I sagely explained to him about childhood complexes and the importance of not exacerbating them even in adulthood. He tugged, he cajoled, and he tried out various headlocks on my person. In the end, the science teacher lent his assistance to the sushi chef and I was propelled onto stage and into a (solo-) duet in which I pretended to move my lips to “Let It Be.” I wish they’d have let me be. Sushi Chef was a little deflated at the end of the song when he realized that simply standing in front of a crowd wasn’t going to shake me from my non-singer complex, but he was also drunk enough to spend the rest of the night trying to get me to do it again. I do not blame the sushi chef. I don’t even blame alcohol. I blame karaoke.

The evening did have its moments, though. My favourite was when five of the mothers put on a song and dance that they had obviously prepared for in advance. One of them was fully decked out in a Red Power Ranger outfit. Another was dressed as a white ninja. A third was dressed in green and wearing one of those perplexing animal tutus (usually a swan but in this case a turtle) with a conspicuously phallic head. I have no idea why these naughty tutus are so popular in my village, but I’ve seen them used at both elementary school and community events. I forget what the fourth mom was dressed as, but the fifth simply wore a tight sweater and jeans with a grotesque Akashiya Sanma mask (like the Nixon masks they have in the States).

Akashiya Sanma

This fifth mother, who seemed like a shy enough women earlier in the day, belly danced her way around the banquet hall, molesting random fathers along the way. I have to admit that that was the most—and possibly the only—interesting moment of the evening.

A Parting Shot at Spring

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

An Anthropological Mystery in a Rural Japanese Junior High School

This is the second year class’s depiction of the graduating third year students walking out of Kazamaura Junior High School and into the brave new world that lies beyond the village borders. It strikes me as apocryphal. Boys and girls at my school do not hold hands. I have never even seen them walk together, and if there is ever any flirting it is carried out in some sort of transcendental way far too subtle for my gaijin senses to pick up on. Yet, I am constantly overhearing fragments of conversations recounting budding romances and messy break-ups. Where is all this taking place?! Sexual inhibition in village life cannot be a factor in the mysterious invisibility of hanky-panky at school. After all, I have seen the manga these kids draw in class, and just last night I was engaged in a very frank conversation by some of their intoxicated fathers about foreign men having “fast hands”. One of them illustrated this point by grabbing at my manhood. Who has fast hands? And I can only assume that he was about to be outdone by somebody’s mother who leaned across him to address me, but she was restrained before I could process what she was trying to say (more to come on that party in a future post). So what are these kids with the frisky parents really up to? The other day I walked by a casual conversation in which the head teacher of the third year class was relating the saga of “Little Bo Peep” and “Little Boy Blue” growing close, taking baths together at “Bo Peep’s” house—“and the parents knew all about it, too”—and then someone said or didn’t say something or nothing and they broke up and now “Little Boy Blue” has sunk into a pitiful state of dejection. It would appear, then, that most of the third year students are pairing off like hydrogen atoms, but without generating any visible chemical signatures at school.

This is my cell phone’s depiction of me reflecting on last night’s graduation party.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Bye Bye, Grade Six: The Great Junior High Personality Shredder Awaits You

It is widely thought among historians of the later proto-world order period that the universal implementation of compulsory education may have been a little rash. It is generally agreed that abandoning the one room school house was poor planning. It is undisputed that the invention of junior high school was a tragic mistake.
--Zatrepalek on The End of Earthfolk

Ikokuma Elementary School is still a pleasant place to be. The size of this graduating class is probably a large factor in that . . . fact. Every body counts, nobody’s left behind. Moreover, the kids are happy, the teachers are popular, and the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) is still appreciated for what he is—a fun and exciting anomaly in the local fabric of space and time.

Although the girls were a little reluctant to sport this t-shirt, there’s no doubt that they love their teacher. He was a great guy who had the pleasure of devoting his time and energy to the edification of nine great kids.

Many of the games played during the “Party for Sending off the Sixth Graders” demonstrated the degree of intimacy that is possible in a student body of sixty-one. For example, in this activity the sixth graders exposed different body parts from behind a screen and the rest of the school guessed which appendage belonged to which graduating student. All hands went up. There were no errors,

. . . and everyone knew which set of buttocks belonged to who.

To my delight, the absence of the grade three teacher opened up a spot for me in the teachers’ skit and I had the privilege of playing the time-honoured part of “Strange Uncle (man) #1” (へんなおじさん#1). This role gave me license to deliver verbal abuse in the local dialect and hurl the curriculum teacher off the stage (which is what he gets for playing the part of "Little Boy #1."

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Preface and Postscript to Foreign Competition Part the Second

Click for Enlargement

This is back in 1990 when I did have my own gaijin gimmick. I was the 青い目の新聞少年; the Blue-Eyed Paper Boy. At the time, this gimmick was enough to earn me a spot on the front page of 東奥日報 (tounippou—Aomori’s number one paper), the very paper I delivered. It made me so famous that when I walked into an out-of-the-way family store in Hirosaki a few year’s later, the shop keeper’s wife exclaimed: “You’re the Blue Eyed Paper Boy!” I replied: “Yes, yes I am; How much for this Ghana bar?” Now, that is all forgotten. I’m just one more of the 6,000 plus JETs sprinkled liberally over the Japanese countryside. When I was a little kid, I thought English was a private form of communication known only to my family and useful for talking about people in front of their faces. When my family got out of the car in rural towns, hundreds of kids would swamp us shouting “peace” like they were hippies at the Woodstock festival and we were The Who. Now I am lucky if kids notice me even enough to whisper insults about foreigners to each other behind my back. Gaijin inflation has taken a brutal toll on my life.

Foreign Competition Part the Second

It used to be that in Japan just being gaijin was enough. You could be loved or hated solely on the basis of your gaijinhood. Sadly, it would appear that gaijin inflation in this country has brought about a state of affairs in which an aspiring Charisma Man (don’t miss this link) must come up with some sort of gimmick as well. Like the gaijin professor above who can sing perfectly in the classical Japanese style

. . . or this bald gaijin dude instructing Japanese talk show girlie boys (yep, even the one in a skirt is a guy) in the intricacies of a martial art developed during a less effeminate period of their nation’s history. (Alas, girly-man has overcome samurai-man and hijacked Japanese fashion and pop culture).

I am admittedly a small calibre gaijin. I will never be competitive at the national level in the high stakes gaijin market. However, I have found a new niche to exploit. I have begun training hard for next year’s Hebiura Elementary School 歌カルタ (uta-karuta) Tournament. I promise you, I will never again be utterly defeated by local seven-year-olds. Defeated, maybe, but not utterly defeated. And yet, I have a miserable foreboding in my heart that there are already thousands of gaijin better versed in the hyakunin-isshu than I could ever hope to be.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Hakkoda in Winter: Snowboarding in Aomori

Although I grew up in Japan and lived in Aomori until I was seventeen, I was so busy with correspondence courses and newspaper routes that I never found my way to the “Number 1 mountain for hardcore snowboarders, telemarkers and skiers” before leaving for university. Many years later, when I initially applied for the JET Programme and put Aomori prefecture down as my desired assignment, I imagined myself snowboarding on the pristine powder of Hakkoda every weekend. As things turned out, I only made it out to Hakkoda once this season because my JET salary—originally earmarked for the common carnal pleasures of a JET—has been diverted to the much more exciting and fulfilling expense of marriage. Actually, snowboarding on Hakkoda is not that expensive. One can even get a one-month pass for a mere ¥12,000 (about $120, give, if you’re Canadian, or take if you’re American). Here I present to you the Hakkoda range through my usual medium of keitai (cell phone) journalism. The purpose of this article is to excite the envy of folks who do not live here. If you are a regular at Hakkoda, chances are that you have much better photos of your own, taken with real cameras on nicer days.

The road to Hakkoda . . .

. . . gets deeper with altitude. Reference: Bus. Actually, with this year’s snowfall some parts of Aomori City looked like this, too. While these walls of snow seem reasonable enough in the mountains, it is a strange feeling to drive through snow-mazes carved out of residential neighbourhoods—like the one where Jacob and Autumn Witt live.

Jacob and Autumn Take Time to Pay Their Respects to the Giant Icicles of Hakkoda (Icicles and Snowy Overhangs Like These Kill People in Aomori Every Year by Falling on Them)

Jacob Chilling on the Lift—We decided to Make a Few Runs Down the Smaller Slopes for Warm-up

Then, onto the Gondola!

On the Weekends, the Hakkoda Gondola is Like a Tokyo Train in Rush-hour

And It’s a Long Way to the Top! (About Ten Minutes)

Meeting the Other Gondola Halfway Up

The Trees Get Whiter as We Approach the Summit

The Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe

The View as You Exit the Gondola

Luke, in the Ice World of Hoth—Whatever that Ice Encrusted Radio Tower Does, It Doesn’t Transmit a Signal for My Vodaphone

No report on Hakkoda is complete without mention of the Hakkoda Snowmonsters. These snowy giants towering over snowboarders and skiers are actually trees completely encased in snow.

This plaque in the waiting area of the gondola commemorates the two companies of Japanese soldiers who froze to death in the Hakkoda mountains in 1902 during a military exercise gone wrong. The photo in the plaque was doubtless taken from the movie. Out of 210 soldiers lost in the mountain blizzard, only 17 survived. There is also a novel based on the event that has been translated into English.

The Elusive Smonkey in Its Snow Cave

Other JET Galleries of Hakkoda:
Francois (Sky is the Limit!)
Hugh (
Jacob (ZenZen Shiranai!)