December 18, 2005

As The Crow Flies

So the year is coming to a close. Bid farewell to the cock and make way for the dog. Wan! Wan! (sound a Japanese dog makes, for those who think I've gone mad) In two days I will be flying south, and a little west, to Viet Nam. There I will spend two weeks travelling around the south part of the country, giving school supplies, money, and time to children in poor, rural areas, visiting hospitals, elderly homes, orphanages, and also taking part in educational trips to study the country's history. Two weeks is a pretty short time, depending on how you look at it. I have a presentiment however that what will be fit into two weeks will seem, will end up being, a lot longer of an experience. In terms of quality, not quantity. So for now, I wish anyone reading this (or reporting it to others) to have a peaceful Christmas holiday, wherever you may be.

Until 2006,


December 16, 2005

View From the 7th Floor

Sunrise over the eastern hills of Wakayama...

...and the setting sun's rays illuminating this illustrious city... can even spot my school's dirt lot on the left (where virtually every "field" sport is played) as well as the classroom building to the right, where I "teach" every day...

...and the sun about to dip away from sight, shadows cast by the NTT building's antennae and other random apartment grandiose...

December 15, 2005

The worst movie

ever made throughout the fairly long history of film is "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." Having been dragged to the movie theater late on a Wednesday night against my will, I succumed to watching this entirely superfluous action movie, which cannot even bear that somewhat respectable title seeing as the aformentioned flick didn't even have the most rudimentary element of an action movie--a plot. Thus, I can only describe the experience as a keenly disturbing and gratuitous homage to the money that festers in the deep vaults of Hollywood. The final product of this experiment is a nearly two hour barrage of special effects, vapid dialogue, and jokes, scenes, and characters of such an unthinkable caricaturish hue that one cannot even laugh at how ridiculous it all is. If you are fed up with Hollywood's lack of decently interesting, slightly thought-provoking work, or it's lack of entertainment, than please do not watch this film. It would be similar to eating a double fudge sundae with extra cream and chocolate for a diabetic--just too much.

Just before watching this film, I was approaching the end of "The Brother's Karamazov." A very stark contrast indeed, an afternoon in which my mind underwent the chiaroscuro of the modern and transcendent. Please, anyone considering watching this movie, see something else. Please...

December 12, 2005

The Inexplicable Subtleties of the 忘年会 (Boukenkai)

One unique feature of Japanese culture that I have experienced quite a few times, now in various capacities of sobriety and drunkeness, is the drinking social, or 宴会 enkai. Throughout the year, there are various points in time at which all members of a company, school, or any community of workers (see a past entry on society, 社会 and companies 会社 for rambling, American-oriented reflections about Japanese socialization perspectives/routines) gather to offer libations to the deities of hard work and persevarance. Ok, it is possibly just an excuse to get really drunk among your co-workers and make a complete ass out of yourself, all with no conseqeunces whatsoever. The wildest of these parties is the 忘年会 bounenkai, or end of the year party (literally it means "forget the year party"). Last Friday, I attended Koyo High School's bounenkai at the lovely, but very tacky Hotel Granvia. Though I didn't manage to forget the entire year, I did forget a huge chunk of the evening, such as calling and emailing friends in the city late at night with strange messages, biking home, buying more liquor, looking at a friend's photo album while squinting and mumbling indecipherable drunken babble to the interlocutor in my head, and finally passing out on a couch upon which I asserted that I would not sleep. Maybe they should change the title of the party under discussion to 忘夜会 bouyakai or "forget the night party." Among the many neologisms I have coined in Japanese, this is yet another which the Japanese refuse to incorporate into their lexicon. Why they don't accept my linguistic innovations, I don't know. Maybe I am still babbling to that person within.

Speaking of babbling, a very interesting phenomenon, which has a legitimate nelogogism, i.e. "nomunication" (a pun on "nomu"--to drink, and therefore more "open" talks we have when under the influence), astonished me at the most recent enkai. Among others, I spoke to the principal of my school (we have never had a conversation before) about sake and about the Japanese word for motivation, 志 kokorozashi. The top half of the character (士) means "samurai," "fighting spirit," or is also a suffix for job titles (i.e. "A ----er") and the bottom half (心) means "mind." So it was interesting to talk about this, about how this character--志--does not have the same implications for the modern Japanese "character"--at least as it is seen in the youth. But this is all "characterizing" human beings, right? Even though Principal Taniguchi asserted that young Japanese people are not as cognizant of this older concept of unflinching drive for an ideal, a singular purpose--a concept closer in time and affinity with 武士道 bushido, the way of the samurai--it still seems to be a vast generalization to say that all is lost of 志.

As pertaining to that sense of things being lost, or irretrievable, my beef with a lot of travel writing on Japan stems from the same presumptions that people make in general. Though a writer begins with very specific and concerete things he or she has seen and done, the narrative concludes with or hints at a sweeping generlization, more often than not spurred on by marketing demands, about human beings in a particular society. Thus we see books titled "Lost Japan," "Dogs and Demons," "The Pink Samurai" (actually recommended) etc. It is all incredibly fascinating writing in which the authors care a lot about the country they feel might be "lost," but it seems strange to think of a place as lost when it is right here in front of our eyes. I am being very elliptical and vague about what I want to say, yes. Let me try to put it a simpler way. I feel that what is "lost" is not a culture, a civilization, a value system, etc. Instead it is the individual who hasn't found a fulfilling way to deal with change on this earth--living things and non living things; plants, animals, and people; languages, the many forms and contents which are expressed in and by them, and the space in which they occupy, are all passing over into something new.

Gosh, I sound a bit lost myself. Returning to this 忘年会 thread that I have unravelled, I had many conversations last Friday with people whom I have seen but never met. Though the theme of the night is forgetting, there is much to remember, such as what comes next...

I take off for Ho Chi Minh City and south Vietnam in a little over a week. There are many preparations to be done, such as packing, sending off Christmas gifts/cards to family, and making sure to turn my electric blanket off. So, after two hours of sleep right now, I must sign off. Until next time, stay posted for pictures and more tediously long ruminations on things that are not very tangible or important to the general population.

December 05, 2005

Test Taking Spills

Over the past month or so, my blog entries have been darkened by the looming shadow of the JLPT test. Well, now it is over, and I believe I have caught yet another cold this season. I have lost count by now. The wind has picked up, and over the course of one weekend, a blink of the world's eye, it has turned from autumn to winter here in Wakayama. Anyways, before the more objective results--i.e. my failing marks--are released sometime around February of next year (by which time I will probably deny ever having taken the test), I shall in this brief entry unpack my initial gut-reactions to the eviscerating and emasculating experience that I went through yesterday, also known as section 3 (Reading Comprehension and Grammar) of the level 2 Japanese Proficiency Test.

Up until lunchtime, things seemed to be going very well. After having flown like a phoenix through the first section (Kanji and Vocabulary), I had spare time in the 35 minute time period to space off, mostly letting my eyes wander towards the front of the room, where a very cute Korean girl was taking her test. Bad, Jeff. Then at breaktime, the aforementioned fellow test-taker started flirting with me outside of the building. It was a chilly morning, but I felt rosy. The listening section of the test, part 2, went by with little uncertainty. Perhaps three or four questions stymied my up to then nearly impeccable performance of Japanese linguistic mastery. Turning in my answer sheet and test booklet, it was down to the bakery for lunch. After a heavy dose of carbos and cheese, I was back in the test room, ready to face my arch-nemesis: "Reading and Grammar." 読解,文法ー Oh, how I loathe thee! Opening the booklet, I was face to face with a page and a half article on something I couldn't understand. I dug in. Taking the approach that I understood everything, I didn't realize how slow I was moving. Although I brought a watch, I never once looked at it. I was in the zone. A little mix up on the chart reading problem took me over ten minutes to resolve, so it seems. Finally finished with the reading problems with a relatively safe degree of correct answers, I was ready for the grammar problems, which I had studied vigillantly for last four months or so. Now on problem 40 out of 58, I was ready for these last 20 problems. Banzai!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Then an announcement was heard, the voice heard around the world, err...the classroom:

"後五分です." ("Five minutes left.")

I could not believe my ears. Where had I gone? Was this some strange Matrix-like experiment? Where did thos 65 minutes go? How could I finish 15 problems in five minutes or less? I hurried frantically to answer questions, getting snubbed around number 46 or 47. The announcement for the test to finish rang clearly through the warm classroom. I put my pencil down, not able to look at the 10 blank questions I did not get to.

Later on, as all of us were walking towards the station, looking for a place to drink and eat our sorrows away, I made a comment on the numbing cold that has arrived, "I can't feel my face." Brad then made a brilliant comment , much more apropos: "I can't feel my failure." Now, I have nothing to be stressed about. The test is over, I am here in the teacher's room on test day (for the students, thankfully), and I am warm. Inflicted with a very sore throat, I am hoping to take it easy. Off to Vietnam in a little over two weeks. Wow.

I have been having strange dreams lately. Beautiful, endless images of people that I am around currently on a daily basis. Quite different from dreams I had when I was a child. Different and the same, yes.

Back to Dostoyevsky, manga, and hot coffee. Oh yeah, and maybe some short fiction to come.

December 03, 2005

A Long Day

I went to bed at 5:00am this morning. One cannot say this is an effective preparation technique for taking the level 2 Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Waking up at around 11:30 or so, I hungrily and hungoverdly scarfed down a tasty but bite-size burger at Il Fait Beaux, or something like that. I cannot remember how to spell anything in French. Then it was a failed attempt to study at Mr. Donuts. I merely stared at my textbook and coffee, and that was that. Tomorrow will most likely bring me failure on the test, but I feel some sense of merit in that I have at least progessed in my reading and speaking abilities of Japanese since August.

Today I also made a detour to the bookstore to look at a volume of Shuntaro Tanikawa's poems. The collection is called "夕方” or "twilight." There was a poem called "さようなら" or "Goodbye." In the course of the poem, the speaker bids ado to things both here and not here, to sundry elements of an individual's experiences and imagination. There was a line that read something like this:

"Goodbye to the mother who will always be upset with me."

I thought to myself, Tanikawa, now in his late 80s or so, probably still struggles with the thought that his mother is still angry at him for something. Only now I am sure he embraces it in a way I cannot imagine it as a young, slightly rebellious sapling of almost 24 years.

In the evening, I put on Peter Apfelbaum's cd, "It Is Written." The last song features a tenor saxophone solo by Jessica Jones, a famous Berkeley-bred saxophonist who used to teach my jazz ensemble workshops in high school at various locales--Ashkenaz Dance Cafe, The Alice Arts Center, and even the Church of Unitarian Universalists. Hearing her "voice" again after many years was an inexpressible rush of nostalgia, a profoundly painful recognition of my childhood being long gone--I cannot remember the last time I was enthusiastic about anything like I was about playing drums in her classes, tucked away in the rehearsal room at the back of Ashkenaz. I would always walk out of those classes wanting to stay and play more, listen more. Her and Khaleel Shaheed, the other teacher of those classes, were probably some of the first people who really got me to hear music on a deeper level than that of most background, or "mood" music. The capoeira classes would be in full swing when we got out, the sounds of the berimbau bidding me farewell as the setting sun glimmered outside the windows facing west to San Pablo Avenue and the San Francisco Bay.

I could get caught up in these recollections for an indefinite period of time, a lifetime in fact, and that realization scared me today. Something that is dangerous to look at now, so it seems. It is like the face of Eurydice, who sits peacefully and eternally in some other world, which I must leave, must have left, some time ago.

December 01, 2005

落柿舎, Rakushisha

Winter has arrived, and upon entering 師走 (shiwasu), or December, the month of "running teachers," I have had the chance to observe the last few leaves fall from the trees outside. Last Saturday, I made a trip to Kyoto's Arashiyama district, where I stopped by an old hut formerly inhabited by Mukai Kyorai, a student of Matsuo Basho. Here are just a few glimpses of "The Hut of Fallen Persimmons" (Rakushisha):

Hut with permissons "before the fall"...

Ahh...kirei da pretty...