Monday, August 31, 2009

A hundred hand slap in the face of one-party rule

You've probably heard by now that the long-reigning LDP has been completely pwned, to use a political science term. I thought I should give a closer insight into one small part of the enormous DPJ wave: Kanazawa City, a.k.a. Ishikawa Prefecture's 1st district.

Japanese politics is sort of like The Bachelor, in that media outlets give a rose to each winner. The runner-up, rather than walk away empty-handed, receives an orange rose(?), so I guess they're a little more generous here. In this result, the top guy is the DPJ challenger to the 2nd guy, the LDP incumbent. Kind of a close race; in fact, Ishikawa was one of the last holdout prefectures where they couldn't call any of its three races for several hours because the results were so close.

The DPJ candidate prevailed, ousting the incumbent LDP member whose prior occupation was listed as "pro wrestler." Not sumo, from what I gather, which is kind of disappointing. The LDP's political philosophy (such as it is) is pretty terrible in its emphasis on a kind of socially conservative, semi-corrupt stagnation, but how cool would it be to be represented in government by a sumo wrestler?

And not to be overlooked in third place was the Japan Communist Party candidate, who eked out a respectable 4 percent. As you might imagine, Kanazawa's kind of a hard place to peg politically.

Speaking of sumo, Andrea and I might have the opportunity to attend a sumo tournament up north in Hakui, which is also Japan's UFO capital. We'll keep you updated, since I'm sure you'll want to know if we see any large men in loincloths getting beamed up into a flying saucer.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Elections, please!

During US election season, anyone with a TV or radio will typically have to brace themselves for a deluge of negative political ads. "Senator Jones says he won't raise your taxes, but can you really believe him after he cheated on his own wife? Who will you cheat next, Senator?"

Well, folks, I'm here to tell you that the Japanese have a political messaging system in place that is somehow even more obnoxious and abhorrent-- and I should know, since the election is tomorrow and despite the result being something of a foregone conclusion, the media machine is still going full tilt.

If you've ever seen the Robert Altman movie Nashville, you're already familiar with this campaign style: a van or series of vans with loudspeakers that will drive around town all day, blaring political messages and propaganda to anyone within earshot. Unfortunately, their paths seems to often include the street we live on, and our windows don't really have much in the way of sound insulation. And these suckers are loud-- I assume the thinking is that the louder and more obnoxious they are, the more likely people will be to vote for them. Okay; maybe that works here, I'm not sure.

I'm sure the two main parties, the Democratic Party and Liberal Democratic Party (confusing, eh? Not to mention that the Liberal Democratic Party is the more conservative of the two...) have been using this tactic. Without an obvious sign, though, figuring out which van corresponds to which party can be tough. Squeaky-voiced women are the usual messengers, and their voices are heavily distorted due to the volume being cranked up so high. It doesn't help that my Japanese listening skills are weak, so I don't really pick up most of whatever messages each van might be blaring. I gather that the bulk of what they're saying is "Please vote for [Candidate X]! Please vote for [Candidate X]! Thank you very much!"

Occasionally, you'll see them as you're walking on the street, and the most noticeable ones are always the weird fringe parties. Two stand out in my mind: one is the Happiness Realization Party, whose two main platform planks are happiness realization and being excessively paranoid about North Korea. They're run by some kind of cult group that I don't really understand, but they're nice, they wave from their van, and they have a happy, colorful light-blue van with cartoon birds on it. So, given that they're not likely to pick up any seats in the Diet, I'm okay with them.

At the other end of the spectrum is a party whose name I don't know, but their platform is not that difficult to glean. They drive three huge, menacing black buses in tandem adorned with blood-red lettering and angry, hoarse men shouting through the loudspeakers. The best part is that each bus has its own distinct message going, so the effect is something like three loud, pissed-off men shouting completely different things at you through megaphones all at once, which I imagine produces a totally incoherent noise assault even if you can understand what they're saying. I was later told that they're the "We don't like foreigners" party. Somehow I got the message even when I didn't catch the words.

America has plenty of its own xenophobic lunatics, but they generally have the decency not to rent enormous, intimidating black buses and shout things at you from the street. Instead, they show up at town halls, have their adorable "tea parties" and write anonymous Internet comments about Obama being a Kenyan-born Muslim Communist, and when you have the luxury of being 3000 miles away from all of that, it's all very amusing. But the difference is that in two days, the vans here in Kanazawa will be gone, while back home, the armed peanut gallery will be making noise for as long as I can foresee.

If you want to read more about tomorrow's election and the (major) Japanese political parties, be sure to check out the excellent English-language blog Observing Japan. You might think of it as

Freshness Burger: adventures in the "quality, noun" school of Japanese dining

Freshness Burger is a chain of slightly fancier than average fast food restaurants in Japan. They allegedly have a veggie burger. Allegedly, this is what it looks like. It consists of tofu, lettuce, tomato and AVOCADO. This is the closest I’ve gotten to an avocado in Japan: looking at the picture on the menu at Freshness Burger. I have come to the unfortunate belief that the vegetable burger does not actually exist. Every time I get up to the counter and ask for “bejitabaru bagaa wo hitotsu onegaishimasu” the girl does this adorable thing where she nervously smiles and makes an x with her pointer fingers and covers the vegetable burger on the menu before saying “sorry, sold out.” Every time this happens I sigh and order the fried potatoes. I have come to the following conclusion: the vegetable burger only exists on the menu to sell the fried potatoes. Freshness burger lures in the weary vegetarians with the promise of the cheap burger-like meal they’ve been missing so long and then forces them to buy either the fries or onion rings when they actually get to the counter. The avocado is probably the giveaway. Of course they don’t have avocado.

A trip to Freshness Burger is not a complete disappointment, however, because once you have procured your fries you can hit up the condiment bar.
As you can see, the condiment bar allows you to “taste original with the spice in the world!” They have some sort of intense garlic sauce that makes my mouth water and produce bad scents just thinking about it. I will use freely indeed.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Noto, please

When we heard we were being placed in Ishikawa-ken, they didn't didn't tell us where in the prefecture we'd actually be. We feared the Noto. The Noto Peninsula is not for the weak. It's rugged, an earthquake destroyed most of what little train infrastructure they had, it gets a hell of a lot more rain than places like Vancouver or Seattle, and the high schools there mostly focus on fishing. We were relieved when we got Kanazawa, but still knew we wanted to visit the Noto. Kris and Dean both live up north and were staying with us for the weekend so we decided to use up the rest of my cultural furlough heading back up with them.

First we took an accidental trip to Toyama. Did you know that the train to Wakura Onsen splits and half the cars go to a completely different prefecture? We sure didn't!

Eventually we got to Wakura Onsen.
We were going to take a bus to the Noto-jima Aquarium but a kind cab driver gave us an offer we couldn't pass up so we got in. He started pulling over and asking us if we wanted to take pictures of various things and my heart started to sink thinking he was trying to run up the fair. Once the meter reached the price we had discussed, though, he simply shut it off. He got us a discount at the aquarium and told us how to catch the bus back, too. Only in Japan.

The Noto reminds me a lot of the Olympic Peninsula. It's what western Washington would look like if it rained twice as much so that the greenery looked impenetrable and they didn't do so much logging and they put vending machines up every thirty feet.

From Wakura Onsen we took a train to Anamizu. We ate at CoCo's, a faux-American diner. Kris had the taco salad. It had hard boiled eggs in it.

We had to stand on a dark road and wait for a bus to the Noto airport, which was where Kris's car was parked. We've become so used to Japanese punctuality that we started to panic when the bus was four minutes late.

We got the car and made our way to Wajima for their big festival, the Wajima Taisai. The point of the festival seemed to be to give groups of people so heavily intoxicated they can barely stand twenty foot tall lanterns to carry around. Sometimes they would inexplicably spin them as fast as they could, inevitably injuring half the people trying to carry the heavy thing.

The other point of the festival is to try to get other people as drunk as possible. Poor, innocent Greg was handed a huge water bottle shaped jug and somehow assumed that it would actually contain water. In Japan if your blood alcohol is anything above zero you can't drive, so this gulp was the first time Greg has officially been drunk by the standards of the law. The guy who gave Greg the bottle told us he's been to America three times. Each time was to go to the Grand Canyon.

I've been concerned at my job about trying to get kids to speak English because the majority of them seem to be painfully shy. At the festival, however, we were insanely popular. Apparently the best way to get kids to speak English is to get them incredibly drunk. I must have had about fifteen "America, high five!" conversations with intoxicated 15 year-olds.

Eventually we turned in for the night. If I am to continue with the Noto as Olympic Peninsula metaphor, Kris lives in Forks. Actually, Forks is more densely populated. He's the only Westerner within a 30 minute drive. The next day he took us to Yanagida's official restaurant/pirated movie rental house/library/internet cafe/used car lot where the owner kindly obliged all of our vegan/vegetarian requests. Our four course feast cost us all of six bucks. Kris is going to be ridiculously rich by the end of all this. He has a three bedroom house to himself and he only pays a hundred dollars a month for it.

The Noto is gorgeous, but it was nice to get back to Kanazawa where you can actually half understand the old men sometimes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How is bagel formed?

We were in Tokyo for 3 hot'n'muggy days before coming to Kanazawa, and in that time I've basically come to understand what it's like to be a glazed ham in an oven. This is my roundabout way of explaining why I haven't been posting, which has about 75% to do with constantly feeling like I'd been in a sauna for 3 weeks straight.

Anyway, when I was hanging around Tokyo, the OH WOW HOLY SHIT NEW AND EXCITING food was apparently thus:

Like most Japanese bread products, "BAGEL" is overpriced, poofy, greasy, and distinctly unsatisfying on multiple levels. Oh well. At least they have baguettes that are decent here! Not to mention my new favorite "can't believe it's vegan" item, which is a green tea-based bread roll with sweet red beans (aka azuki, Hokkaido's own highly addictive cash crop).

Oh, and to follow up on Andrea's last post, I thought I should give mention to something we found adjacent to the train station in Hakusan, which we dubbed the best/worst playground of all time:

When you're done watching the trains go by while sitting on a bell pepper (or, if you really want to go crazy, a lemon!) then you can drink out of the semi-decapitated penguin's skull. Then go ride a panda like a horse!

Japan has this weird dual thing going on when it comes to children's play structures. Either they're crazy-technically-advanced and elaborate and make me jealous of kids who grew up here, or they're these depressing, rusted, low-rent playgrounds that look like they came out of some demented Soviet politburo trying to crush children's will before they grow up to be counter-revolutionaries. Lesson learned: if you're going to be a hyperactive, hard-to-please Japanese child who's easily entranced by flashing lights, best to stick to a major city.

Haku-san adventures

On Sunday we attempted to play tourist with mixed results. First, we had lunch at Noppokun, a vegan cafe in the southern section of Kanazawa. They have a fun system where they have sample dishes next to little knitted balls. You fill your rice bowl with the knitted balls of the dishes you want. I had a salad that was quite good, tempura that was super good, and curry that was nice but Greg has made equally tasty Japanese style curry at home for cheaper. After eating we went to the organic grocery they have on the first floor and found VEGAN DOUGHNUTS. If there's one thing Greg never expected to find in Japan, it has to be vegan doughnuts. Surprisingly, they also had a few frozen veggie meat substitutes.

Our next stop was supposed to be Tedori Gorge. It looks very pretty, but it is hard to find precise instructions about how to get there. I thought I had read it was near Tsurugi station so we got out there and walked along the river for a while.

By the time we had reached the final station on the train line we could tell the gorge was a lot further than anticipated. We switched plans and visited Shirayama-hime shrine. Then we took a gondola up to Shishiku, a peak that has skiing in winter, but mostly acts as a launch point for paragliders during the summer. Even though they were inexplicably shaped like tater tots, Greg enjoyed his vegan doughnuts.

The top of Shishiku has many depressing activities for children. For example, they have depressing polar bear playgrounds.

They also have depressing astro turf sledding.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Kenroku-en and Modern Art

After far too many days without a break, I finally had two days off to check out my new home, Kanazawa. Since we’ve landed it’s been unbearably hot and humid. My San Francisco fog accustomed body does not approve of the sudden change in climate I’ve forced it through. I’ve never before been in a place where it can be in the upper 80s and suddenly start pouring rain extremely hard.
On my first day off, however, I quickly learned that the rain is something to be thankful for. It was the first day without overcast skies since I got here and it was absolutely unbearable.
So we went to Kenrokuen, Kanazawa’s main tourist attraction and rated as one of the top three gardens of Japan. As pretty as it might be I didn’t enjoy a minute of it because I spent the entire time running from shaded area to shaded area, keeping an eye out for benches should I need to pass out. I got a few pictures, but I think I’m going to wait until fall before I head back.

Lucky for me, the Museum of 21st Century Art is across the street from the garden. A significant portion of it is free, including the air conditioning! The building is a giant circle and they have art bikes you can take a lap on.

This an awesome if a little OCD ongoing exhibit in which the artist is creating a giant maze entirely out of salt.

A dip in the pool sounds good right about now…

Japanese internet, please

We finally have internet!!! Here’s a too long summary of events you probably shouldn’t bother reading to get you up to speed.

August 2: We land in Tokyo and have to split up at the airport. I take a bus with the other JETs to Keio Plaza Hotel, a pretty fancy place in Shinjuku. I immediately pass out because I’ve been awake for 22 hours.

August 3: I sit in a giant room with 600 people listening to long speeches. I finally meet half of the new JETs in my prefecture and we all go out for karaoke that night.

August 4: After another day of meetings and workshops Greg and I escape to have dinner at The Loving Hut, a vegan restaurant run by the all knowing Supreme Master, who apparently has restaurants scattered across half the planet. She is a creepy cult figurehead, but how I love her food. We then hit up Odaiba, a man made island that has a lot of arcade and amusement attractions. We see thousands of people looking at a giant robot as “Auld Lang Syne” plays over loud speakers.

August 5: We wake up super early and take a bus to Haneda airport where we catch a plane to Komatsu in Ishikawa. They had stressed how important it was to look our best so everyone is in suits. My supervisor shows up to pick me up in jeans and a t-shirt. In the car we listen to The Eagles and Christopher Cross as he seems to take the most ridiculous route to Kanazawa. I’m glad I don’t have to drive here, as we seemed to be spiraling our way up the coast by making a long series of right turns through residential neighborhoods. We grab coffee, go to my main school for all of three minutes, and spend an hour signing papers for the apartment. Eventually we make it to the apartment, and find that all of the furniture has been taken apart and stored in the bedroom. We have a long night putting it all together.

August 6: My supervisor picks us up and we have a hectic day getting our personal seals, gaijin cards, bank accounts, and cell phones. Paper work is extensive and everything seems to take an hour longer than you’d expect it to in America.

August 7: My first day at school. It’s summer vacation so I basically sit at my desk all day. I have to introduce myself to the principal in Japanese in a very formal manner which is a little scary and it’s very hard to get any questions answered but other than that it goes ok.

August 8-10: I still haven’t had a day off and I would kill for one but instead I have to head up the coast to Hakui to help run a summer seminar for English students. It’s a pretty relaxed atmosphere and we mostly just play games with the kids. I meet all the other Ishikawa high school JETs and immediately have to get naked with them because the facility’s baths are Japanese style. On an unrelated note, the Japanese sure do love their Michael Jackson.

August 11-12: I finally get two days off and Greg and I spend them exploring Kanazawa. More on this later.

August 13-17: Ishikawa JET prefectural orientation happens. There’s a bar crawl Friday night that Greg and I go to just to meet people, but being the nondrinkers at a bar crawl isn’t much fun so we head back to our place at midnight. Kris from Alabama and Dean from North Carolina both live in the Noto Peninsula which is hard to get to from Kanazawa, so they crash at our place for the weekend. We go on a walking tour and a special diets tour.

August 17-18: On Monday I go to a team teaching workshop. Tuesday I finally go back to school. I work on my self introduction lesson.

August 19: Ishikawa ALTs (assistant language teachers) have this wonderful thing known as cultural furlough that lets us have five days off work to travel within Japan whenever the students are on vacation. If I had more time to plan I probably would have taken a trip to Hokkaido to take a break from the humidity, but instead Greg and I take a slightly less epic trip to the Uniqlo near Kanazawa University. I buy a thin cotton skirt because it’s bloody hot.